As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Joy Harjo in response to a video of her reading her poem “Speaking Tree” aloud. Joy Harjo wrote letters back to three of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Joy Harjo also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear "Speaking Tree" Listeners,
I appreciated that you took time from wherever you live, from however you are living to reach out in a letter, to be part of a larger, even timeless discussion on a poem.
Some of you were in elementary school, some middle school and others high school and even college age. Yet we all came together for a moment to unfold a poem, to find meaning in shape, sound, architecture and content. We make a community.
As I write this, I wonder how many of you are homeschooling, and how many are back in classrooms. It has been difficult for all of us as we wonder together when this pandemic will lift. We want to know when we can once again greet our friends and relatives, go to live performances and eat out together without worry of illness.
I am concerned that every one of you has a home, some place to be in which they are safe. When I was young and first writing poetry, I constructed each poem as a safe place in which I could hide. These poetry houses were made of words, music, images, and spirals of memory.
It is these times, times in which our communities are "broken and bereft," we turn to poetry. Poetry can hold nearly anything. Gwendolyn Brooks' poems held a neighborhood in their lines. Bob Dylan's song lyrics hold the vision of wanderers who carry the light of poetry in their eyes. Poets of every culture in the world turn to the natural world to discover the shape and size of what it means to be human.
We are the trees. They are us.
A few letter writers expressed that they were depressed. They found a way in the poem to move despite the heaviness. There is a poem for everything, every predicament, every unanswerable question. Just dig a little. Ask around.
A few expressed their resistance to reading poetry, then were surprised. Then they wrote poetic letters.
Thank you for your letters. I have read all of them and will keep them close. Take the kind of time you took to write me a letter to have some time with your spirit, your soul, or with the tree who everyday tries to get your attention. You might be surprised.
And be safe.
23rd U.S. Poet Laureate