Joy Harjo was appointed the new 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 several books of poetry, including 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, 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, 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 serving as U.S. Poet Laureate, Harjo directs 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 lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Poetry An American Sunrise (W. W. Norton, 2019) 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) The Last Song (Puerto del Sol Press, 1975)
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)
Drama Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light: A Play by Joy Harjo and a Circle of Responses (Wesleyan University Press, 2019)
This city is made of stone, of blood, and fish. There are Chugatch Mountains to the east and whale and seal to the west. It hasn't always been this way, because glaciers who are ice ghosts create oceans, carve earth and shape this city here, by the sound. They swim backwards in time.
Once a storm of boiling earth cracked open the streets, threw open the town. It's quiet now, but underneath the concrete is the cooking earth, and above that, air which is another ocean, where spirits we can't see are dancing joking getting full on roasted caribou, and the praying goes on, extends out.
Nora and I go walking down 4th Avenue and know it is all happening. On a park bench we see someone's Athabascan grandmother, folded up, smelling like 200 years of blood and piss, her eyes closed against some unimagined darkness, where she is buried in an ache in which nothing makes sense.
We keep on breathing, walking, but softer now, the clouds whirling in the air above us. What can we say that would make us understand better than we do already? Except to speak of her home and claim her as our own history, and know that our dreams don't end here, two blocks away from the ocean where our hearts still batter away at the muddy shore.
And I think of the 6th Avenue jail, of mostly Native and Black men, where Henry told about being shot at eight times outside a liquor store in L.A., but when the car sped away he was surprised he was alive, no bullet holes, man, and eight cartridges strewn on the sidewalk all around him.
Everyone laughed at the impossibility of it, but also the truth. Because who would believe the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival those who were never meant to survive?
Sun makes the day new. Tiny green plants emerge from earth. Birds are singing the sky into place. There is nowhere else I want to be but here. I lean into the rhythm of your heart to see where it will take us. We gallop into a warm, southern wind. I link my legs to yours and we ride together, Toward the ancient encampment of our relatives. Where have you been? they ask. And what has taken you so long? That night after eating, singing, and dancing We lay together under the stars. We know ourselves to be part of mystery. It is unspeakable. It is everlasting. It is for keeps.