Joy Harjo was appointed the new United States poet laureate on June 19, 2019. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951, Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. She is the author of several books of poetry, including An American Sunrise (W. W. Norton, 2019), and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015). She is a current Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Poets.org: What are you looking forward to or hoping to accomplish as the new U.S. Poet Laureate?
Joy Harjo: It’s quite an honor, and I’m just at the very beginning. I’m assessing how I can be most useful in this position and, of course, it’s going to have a lot to do with Native Nations poets. With a huge team, we just finished editing a Norton Anthology of Native Poetry called When the Light of the World Was Dimmed Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, but it’s also about of course American poetry and American voices, which is really how we sing the American story, which involves all of the voices.
I keep thinking of a Poetry Ancestor Tree... How would you construct that? I always tell my students about poetry ancestors. Every poem has so many poetry ancestors. How can we construct a poetry ancestor map of America that would include and start off with poetry of indigenous nations? Those strands would continue into the present with the wonderful young Native poets we have right now. I guess what strikes me is the diversity—the diversity of Native poetry, which was here and is here and is still growing, and the diversity of American poetry, which has roots all over the world—and I’ve always wanted to show that, ultimately, there’s a root system that’s connected all over the Americas, which is one body and all over the world. A healthy ecosystem is a system of diversity. That’s the same thing in poetry, different poetry streams. It’s the same thing with peoples in a country. Somehow I would like to pull all that. We have a lot of work to do—all of us.
Poets.org: How would you describe the state of American poetry today?
JH: I see and hear the presence of generations making poetry through the many cultures that express America. They range from ceremonial orality which might occur from spoken word to European fixed forms; to the many classic traditions that occur in all cultures, including theoretical abstract forms that find resonance on the page or in image. Poetry always directly or inadvertently mirrors the state of the state either directly or sideways. Terrance Hayes’s American sonnets make a stand as post-election love poems. Layli Long Soldier’s poems emerge from fields of Lakota history where centuries stack and bleed through making new songs. The sacred and profane tangle and are threaded into the lands guarded by the four sacred mountains in the poetry of Sherwin Bitsui. America has always been multicultural, before the term became ubiquitous, before colonization, and it will be after.
Poets.org: What poem do you continually turn to and why?
JH: Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” I read the poem as an ars poetica. We must know the mythic structures that define us. The structures are not static. They will never fit into a book of myths, for a book of myths is like Luis Borges’ The Book of Sand—only the pages are water—history becomes an anchor. And yes, a weapon for defense: knife, gun, or words. There’s the armor, and yes, the mask that pumps “blood with power” which connects the umbilical cord to the mother of knowledge. And then you go down, down the ladder into the sea of unknowing. “I came to explore the wreck. / The words are purposes. / The words are maps. / I came to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail.” And always (she is singing now): “the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth / …the evidence of damage / worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty / the ribs of disaster / curving their assertion…” And this is how I find my way into a poem, into “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” There were no Native names in the American book of poetry when I began writing poetry, though there are many.
Poets.org: If you were to identify a poetic lineage for your work, what would it be?
JH: Each of us is descended from poetry ancestors. It’s the same for any art, any occupation. There is a lineage of style, knowledge and culture passed from generation to generation, one artist to another. Ultimately all poetry is related in the family tree of poetry. My closest relative is my mother and the poems she taught me by William Blake, the lyrics of Hank Williams, the songs sung by Nat King Cole. From these came her own song lyrics. From William Blake it’s not a far leap to Walt Whitman, to Allen Ginsberg, to June Jordan. That is one line of relativity. Another would come from a line of orators and speakers on my father’s side. There is a definite art and art form in Mvskoke-language speech and song making. My cousins George Coser Jr. and Joe Sulphur carry that forward and are an influence. And when I first began writing poetry as an art studio student at the University of New Mexico, I looked for indigenous poetry traditions that were bridging colonization from tribal languages into English. I went to Africa and found Amos Tutuola and Okot B’Pitek, among others. And of course, the pueblo Native poets Simon Ortiz and Leslie Silko.
Poets.org: Why does poetry matter?
JH: Poetry is the art that is closest to music, standing between music and narrative orality (which can be speechmaking, sermon or theater). Poetry is the voice of what can’t be spoken, the mode of truth-telling when meaning needs to rise above or skim below everyday language in shapes not discernible by the ordinary mind. It trumps the rhetoric of politicians. Poetry is prophetic by nature and not bound by time. Because of these qualities poetry carries grief, heartache, ecstasy, celebration, despair, or searing truth more directly than any other literary art form. It is ceremonial in nature. Poetry is a tool for disruption and creation and is necessary for generations of humans to know who they are and who they are becoming in the wave map of history. Without poetry, we lose our way.
Watch an extended interview with Joy Harjo on what she hopes to accomplish during her laureateship.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2019 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.