Poets

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Joy Harjo

1951–

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 9, 1951, and is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. She received a BA from the University of New Mexico before earning an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1978.

Harjo is a poet, musician, and playwright. She is the author of several books of poetry, including Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015); The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (W. W. Norton, 1994), which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; and In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990), which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. Her memoir Crazy Brave (W. W. Norton, 2012) won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction. Harjo has also published collections of interviews and conversations, children's books, and collaborative art texts. Her next collection, An American Sunrise, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in September 2019. 

In 2015 she received the Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry from the Academy of American Poets. About Harjo, Chancellor Alicia Ostiker said, “Throughout her extraordinary career as poet, storyteller, musician, memoirist, playwright and activist, Joy Harjo has worked to expand our American language, culture, and soul.  A Creek Indian and student of First Nation history, Harjo is rooted simultaneously in the natural world, in earth—especially the landscape of the American southwest—and in the spirit world. Aided by these redemptive forces of nature and spirit, incorporating native traditions of  prayer and myth into a powerfully contemporary idiom, her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”

Also a performer, Harjo has appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam in venues across the U.S. and internationally. She plays saxophone with her band Poetic Justice, and has released four award-winning albums. In 2009, she won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year.

Harjo’s other honors include the 2019 Jackson Poetry Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas. She has also received fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2019. On this occasion, Academy Chancellor Marilyn Chin said "[Harjo] is an iconic and beloved multi-genre artist. Her poetry, prose, and music have delighted, informed, and tantalized an international audience for over four decades. Her poetry displays a strong commitment to her social and political ideals as she fights tirelessly for Native American justice, ending violence against women, and a variety of important issues. Her masterful spiritual grace always shines through with compassion and forgiveness. Her poetry is a timeless gift to the world.”

Harjo is Professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Bibliography

Poetry
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015)
How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton, 2002)
A Map to the Next World: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2000)
The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (W. W. Norton, 1994)
In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)
Secrets from the Center of the World (University of Arizona Press, 1989)
She Had Some Horses (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1983; W. W. Norton, 2008)
What Moon Drove Me to This? (Reed Books, 1979)

Prose
Crazy Brave (W. W. Norton, 2012)
Soul Talk, Soul Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)
For a Girl Becoming (Sun Tracks, 2009)
The Spiral of Memory: Interviews (Poets on Poetry) (University of Michigan Press, 1995)
 

Joy Harjo
Photo credit: Karen Kuehn
The Blaney Lecture, 2015

By This Poet

12

Remember

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star's stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun's birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother's, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.

Deer Dancer

Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the
hardcore.  It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but
not us.  Of course we noticed when she came in.  We were Indian ruins.  She
was the end of beauty.  No one knew her, the stranger whose tribe we
recognized, her family related to deer, if that's who she was, a people
accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts.

The woman inside the woman who was to dance naked in the bar of misfits
blew deer magic.  Henry jack, who could not survive a sober day, thought she
was Buffalo Calf Woman come back, passed out, his head by the toilet.  All
night he dreamed a dream he could not say.  The next day he borrowed
money, went home, and sent back the money I lent.  Now that's a miracle.
Some people see vision in a burned tortilla, some in the face of a woman.

This is the bar of broken survivors, the club of the shotgun, knife wound, of
poison by culture.  We who were taught not to stare drank our beer.  The
players gossiped down their cues.  Someone put a quarter in the jukebox to
relive despair.  Richard's wife dove to kill her.  We had to keep her
till, while Richard secretly bought the beauty a drink.

How do I say it?  In this language there are no words for how the real world
collapses.  I could say it in my own and the sacred mounds would come into
focus, but I couldn't take it in this dingy envelope.  So I look at the stars in
this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky, the only promises that ever
make sense.

My brother-in-law hung out with white people, went to law school with a
perfect record, quit.  Says you can keep your laws, your words.  And
practiced law on the street with his hands.  He jimmied to the proverbial
dream girl, the face of the moon, while the players racked a new game.
He bragged to us, he told her magic words and that when she broke, became human.
But we all heard his voice crack:

What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?

That's what I'd like to know, what are we all doing in a place like this?

You would know she could hear only what she wanted to; don't we all?  Left
the drink of betrayal Richard bought her, at the bar.  What was she on?  We all
wanted some.  Put a quarter in the juke.  We all take risks stepping into thin
air.  Our ceremonies didn't predict this.  or we expected more.

I had to tell you this, for the baby inside the girl sealed up with a lick of
hope and swimming into the praise of nations.  This is not a rooming house, but
a dream of winter falls and the deer who portrayed the relatives of 
strangers.  The way back is deer breath on icy windows.

The next dance none of us predicted.  She borrowed a chair for the stairway
to heaven and stood on a table of names.  And danced in the room of children
without shoes.

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille With four hungry children and a
crop in the field.

And then she took off her clothes.  She shook loose memory, waltzed with the
empty lover we'd all become.

She was the myth slipped down through dreamtime.  The promise of feast we
all knew was coming.  The deer who crossed through knots of a curse to find
us.  She was no slouch, and neither were we, watching.

The music ended.  And so does the story.  I wasn't there.  But I imagined her
like this, not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the deer who
entered our dream in white dawn, breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a
blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left.

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.