Joy Harjo, the First Native Poet Laureate of the U.S., Never Imagined It Was Something She Could Do

From a Wall Street Journal story by Emily Bobrow headlined “Joy Harjo Found a ‘Portal to Grace’ in Poetry”:

Joy Harjo, the first Native Poet Laureate of the U.S., didn’t plan to become a poet. As a Muscogee Creek girl in Tulsa, Okla., she didn’t know anyone who wrote poetry and never imagined it was something she could do. Many of her early teachers pushed her to learn secretarial skills and set her sights on marriage. “A lot of girls I knew had bride dolls, which even in the ‘50s horrified me,” she says over the phone from her home in Tulsa, where she lives with her husband, Owen Chopoksa Sapulpa, not far from where she grew up. “Poetry wasn’t offered as a vocation.”

When Ms. Harjo, 71, began to write poetry, the timing was inconvenient. She was a young single parent with two kids, a part-time job and a full course-load of college classes when she first started urgently scribbling on napkins. “Poetry found a most unlikely companion in me,” she writes in her new book “Catching the Light,” a reflection on her 50 years as a poet. “Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light,” a new selection of 50 poems written over the course of her career, is also out this month.

Looking back, Ms. Harjo says she can’t quite explain why poetry seized her. “It made no sense to anyone,” she recalls. “How was I going to make a living as a poet? How does anybody?” Yet she remembers how startling it was as a student at the University of New Mexico to meet “real Native poets” who wrote about “our lives, our struggles.” She sensed there was something political in the stories poets chose to tell and something profound in how poems use the darkness of experience to “catch the light.”

“For me, writing has always been about transformation,” Ms. Harjo says. She marvels at how poems, paradoxically, ”express what words cannot express.” As she observed in her bestselling 2019 memoir “Poet Warrior,” “Writing was my portal to grace.”

Ms. Harjo’s first experience of poetry came through the songs her mother wrote and sang “in the everyday of our living,” she writes. Although her mother felt insecure about her eighth-grade education, she was self-assured around song lyrics, and she introduced her young daughter to the poetry of William Blake, which sounded like music.

A tussle with a younger brother cost Ms. Harjo a front tooth when she was seven, and she lived with the gap for over a decade. She was already a quiet, bookish child—“I liked the company on the inside,” she says—but the lost tooth forced her further inward by making her ashamed to open her mouth. When a dentist at an Indian clinic in Santa Fe, N.M., offered to fix it, she says she started crying. “We all have challenges,” she says. “They either break you, or you use it as building material.”

For Ms. Harjo’s eighth birthday, she received a copy of Louis Untermeyer’s “Golden Treasury of Poetry,” where she first read Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/Are you—Nobody—too?/Then there’s a pair of us!” The poem felt like a revelation, as if the poet “had reached out from the pages and made friends with me,” Ms. Harjo observes. At a time when her home life felt unstable, given her father’s philandering and her mother’s resentments, she says that poetry became a refuge. “As a child, I always liked my space,” she recalls. “Poetry lived with me in that space.”

As Ms. Harjo shed her childhood body “like a snake shedding its skin,” she felt uncomfortable, even suicidal. “The world just felt treacherous,” she explains. After her divorced mother remarried a man who made her feel unwelcome at home, she turned to beer and cheap vodka. When she learned about the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she felt a pang of hope. In 1967 her portfolio of drawings and paintings got her into the school, which she says saved her life. “I was in a community of other Natives who were all artists,” she recalls. “So many of us felt lost, but in this school we fit.”

A relationship with a fellow student left Ms. Harjo with a son at 17. A few years later, she had a daughter with Simon Ortiz, a renowned Acoma poet. She raised them both on her own while studying visual art and advocating for Native rights at UNM. She saw her paintings and poems as an extension of her activism. “Writing itself is an act of affirmation, even of sovereignty,” she says. With early poems like “I Give You Back,” in which she declares “I release you, fear,” she learned that she could “lift myself up with words, with songs.”

As a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the mid-1970s, however, Ms. Harjo felt shunned and alone. As a professor in various writing programs across the country, she often heard that she was a diversity hire and that her poetry was “primitive.” For years it felt like a problem that her writing “never fit squarely within any popular tradition,” she says. It took time for her to see that this was part of its strength.

Ms. Harjo is now the author of ten books of poetry, as well as memoirs, plays and children’s books. She has also produced a number of acclaimed music albums, having taught herself to play saxophone in her late 30s. “I love the sax, and the voice. It feels like a singing voice,” she says. When she reads aloud her 2017 poem “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” she says, she enjoys the way its rhythmic quips evoke her improvisational music: “We tried to pretend war wasn’t going to happen./Though they began building their houses all around us/and demanding more./They started teaching our children their god’s story,/a story in which we’d always be slaves.”

Ms. Harjo says she has long felt a responsibility to tell the story of indigenous Americans, who otherwise exist “predominantly in the form of stereotypes, as sports mascots” and in the mythology of Thanksgiving, which promotes an image of harmony between settlers and Natives that is far from the historical reality. Rather, Natives’ “heads were on stakes giving warning around the newly constructed towns by the settlers, built on Native lands,” she writes. As Poet Laureate, Ms. Harjo published a map of contemporary Native poets and edited two anthologies of Native poetry. She sensed it was her job to hold “the door open so more people could come through.”

At a time when many Americans are talking past each other, Ms. Harjo argues that poetry has become only more relevant. She notes that traffic to poetry websites surged during the pandemic as people sought connection in a time of social, cultural and political disarray. “We have to find new ways to speak with each other, and I think that’s where poetry comes in,” she says. “Poetry can show us our humanity. It can even help us understand what’s at the root of our collective soul.”

Emily Bobrow is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Review section, where she writes the weekly profile column Weekend Confidential. Previously, she worked as a staff editor and writer at The Economist, covering culture, politics and policy in New York, London and Washington, D.C. She has contributed features and reviews to the New York Times Magazine, NewYorker.com, The Economist’s 1843 and The Atlantic, among other publications.

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