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Joy Harjo was appointed the United States poet laureate in June 2019, and is the first Native American poet laureate in the history of the position. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 9, 1951, Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv. 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 numerous books of poetry, including Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: 50 Poems for 50 Years (W. W. Norton, 2022); An American Sunrise (W. W. Norton, 2019); 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 award for creative nonfiction. Harjo has also published collections of interviews and conversations, children’s books, and collaborative art texts.
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 plays saxophone and flutes with the Arrow Dynamics Band and solo, and previously with the band Poetic Justice. She has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in venues across the U.S. and internationally and has released four award-winning albums. In 2009, she won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year.
In 2015, Harjo gave The Blaney Lecture on contemporary poetry and poetics, which is offered annually in New York City by a prominent poet, called “Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets.” Her 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, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, and the 2022 Academy of American Poets Leadership Award in poetry. In 2023, Harjo was announced as the fifty-third winner of Yale’s Bollingen Prize for Poetry for Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years and for her lifetime achievement in and contributions to American poetry. She has also received fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, The Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 2019, Harjo was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. On this occasion, Academy Chancellor Marilyn Chin said:
[Joy] 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.
In addition to having served as U.S. poet laureate, Harjo has directed For Girls Becoming, an arts mentorship program for young Mvskoke women, and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. She was the Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day in April 2020 and was appointed Bob Dylan Center Artist-in-Residence in 2022. Harjo lives in Tulsa.
Incredible Bridges: Poetry Creating Community, 2016
Poet Joy Harjo reads her poem “Remember” as part of “Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community.”
The Blaney Lecture, 2015: Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets
Interview and Reading with U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo reads her poem “An American Sunrise” and answers a few questions about her laureateship during her visit to the Academy offices on June 17, 2019.