Q&A with internationally renowned performer and writer Joy Harjo, the first Native American named Poet Laureate of the US

"Know yourself. Yes. It's the same thing. Be yourself, knowing yourself, ultimately. And then what is that? What does that mean? You know that, and you think it is simple. Well, it is not that simple, but it's the most powerful and potent, that's what we're here to do, to be absolutely ourselves. And by being ourselves, we come to know the world."

Joy Harjo: Muscogee - Sophía (Greek word of "wisdom")

Joy Harjo is an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She is serving her second term as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. The author of nine books of poetry, including the highly acclaimed An American Sunrise, several plays and children's books, and two memoirs, Crazy Brave and Poet Warrior: A Call for Love and Justice, her many honors include the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. As a musician and performer, Harjo has produced six award-winning music albums including her newest, I Pray for My Enemies (Sunyata Records). She is Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy When the Light of the World was Sub­dued, Our Songs Came Through — A Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Native Nations Poet­ry and the editor of Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry, the companion anthology to her signature Poet Laureate project. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Board of Directors Chair of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and holds a Tulsa Artist Fellowship. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.                                                      (Joy Harjo / Photo © by Paul Abdoo)

In her first new recording in a decade, Joy Harjo – the first Native American named Poet Laureate of the United States – digs deep into the indigenous red earth and the shared languages of music to sing, speak and play a stunningly original musical meditation that seeks healing for a troubled world – I Pray for My Enemies, to be released from Sunyata Records/Sony Orchard Distribution on March 5, 2021. Collaborating with producer/engineer Barrett Martin on this unique new album, Harjo brings a fresh identity to the poetry and songs that have made her a renowned poet of the Muscogee Creek Nation and one of the most authentic and compelling voices of these times. “The concept for I Pray for My Enemies began” says Harjo, “with an urgent need to deal with discord, opposition. It could have been on a tribal, national or a personal level. I no longer remember. The urgency had a heartbeat and in any gathering of two or more, perhaps the whole planet, our hearts lean to entrainment – that is, to beat together.” Harjo defines songs and poems as distinctly different expressions, and both are featured in the 16 tracks that make up I Pray for My Enemies. Her words and music, older and newer, get a fresh new identity here. The album opens, however, with a traditional Muscogee song “Allay Na Lee No.” “Music travels,” she says, adding, “It travels through history, ancestors and especially loves ports and waterways.” Some of Harjo’s defining poems appear here – “An American Sunrise,” “Fear,” “Running” and “Remember” – refracting her own experience as a Native American woman of her culturally defining generation.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription by Christos Aggelakopoulos

Special Thanks: Joy Harjo and Jennifer Foerster

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Well, that's a pretty general question and that's a big question. I think I'm like every human being, no matter culture or country or any other way that we identify as well is that we have a healthy planet and respect for our being, because we are the earth and our children and grandchildren, great grandchildren, I'll have a home to go to without war.

How do you want your poetry to affect people?

Well, I don't have much say in that. I just follow what's given to me and I am always compelled by transformation, by beauty, by fresh perception. No, I can't really dictate what anyone responses.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I came to poetry through music. My mother was a singer, songwriter, and we had musicians in the house, playing. And so I came to music as a way of… you know, it’s a lot like poetry. It's how you can kind of dream and dream on sound or dream on paper. But I came up to her writing, and she was inspired by people like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles and… Oh, what was her name? Nina Simone... You know, she was inspired by all those kinds of singers. And so I came up with that and with Motown and I especially love jazz. I have a great love for jazz, Middle Eastern music and so on, but it started in my home as a child.

What are the lines that connect poetry and music?

Well, at the root of poetry is music. Music, poetry and dance came into the world together. And I think it was only with a ‘civilization’, which fostered a society of art specialists and audience rather than participation. That kind of shifted with the written language and books. It separated the two, there was even more separation, but if you follow the roots of probably any poetic, almost any poetic tradition, whether it's a European poetic tradition or an indigenous North American, South American or from the Western hemisphere, I should say that tradition, it always goes back one to the power of language and it always goes back to music…and dance.

"That answers it right there. Just say, what is happiness to Joy? I wonder what if my name was something else, what if my name was sadness? Well, that's funny. I think it's just the appreciation of the diversity of life here and of all the forms, the natural forms. So you think about a creator. The creator is… that's where happiness is." (Joy Harjo / Photo © by Matika Wilbur)

You started as a visual artist and then you came up as a musician, poet… where does your creative drive come from?

Well, I certainly inherited it from my family members on my father's side. I have descended from painters, artists, speakers, speakers orders, and on my mother's side from musicians and people who loved music, but there's the larger question. I mean, where does any of it come from? Everyone tries to answer it in their own way.

What is the impact of poetry, music and art on the human rights, the civil rights, and its socio-cultural implications?

Well, I've been all over the world with my poetry, and I've noticed that in most cultures in the world, there is a great respect and love for poetry because of the preciseness of listening and the preciseness of language. And I've noticed that people from all ages tend to… It is a part of culture. It's a part of coming up as a human being, whereas in the US it launched that. And I'm not exactly sure why it seems to lose that presence or stature. I think it could be coming back. It's so absolutely at the root of human expression, poetry is. I've been to one of the largest poetry festivals in the country, in the world, twice in Metagene Columbia. And it's very much the power and love of poetry. So present there, we, the poets, perform at an amphitheater that is the same size that would be for a sports game. And people love it, you know, they listen to their children of all ages, people listen, and we would go out, they take us out to different communities all around. And I remember even being taken to an amusement park.

The poets and the children… everyone came running and some of the poets who were very difficult language poets and so on, not so musical, but there was just a great love for that and admiration for the ability to sit and listen and translate what is unspeakable into words and on music.

You had too many experiences in your life. What are some of the most important lessons you have learnt from your experience?

Well, that's a huge, huge, that would require a response. And that response, basically, could be found in my next book memoir, which will be out in September from Norton, called “Poet Warrior”. That's what that memoir is. So, I don't know if I could answer that in a few words because there have been many, many at this point in my life. I'm looking back and looking at what I need to pass on before I go out the door of this realm, or this particular matrix or realm. And so that's what I do with that book, I take a look at those lessons. And one of the main lessons has been to trust myself, to trust what I hear, to trust what I perceive and then to honor life, to honor the gift of life, to listen. I mean, it's listening. The art of listening is in the root of any scientific discovery, because you're listening beyond what is known and the same with the creation of new music or painting or anything. You're coming up with something in the beyond.

What is happiness for Joy?

That answers it right there. Just say, what is happiness to Joy?

I wonder what if my name was something else, what if my name was sadness? Well, that's funny. I think it's just the appreciation of the diversity of life here and of all the forms, the natural forms. So you think about a creator. The creator is… that's where happiness is.

"I think that you should always live in a way that you have no regrets and take chances." (Joy Harjo / Photo © by Matika Wilbur)

What is the status of women in art nowadays?

I would think that at my age, after having seen and been through, what my generation has helped, tried to help open up the role, open up the possibilities in the world and so on. And yet I still see it, I'm not going to get involved in a struggle right now, but I still find myself having to fight these battles. Just because I am female and not male does not mean that I need you as a male term. I've been using the term ‘mansplaining’ a lot lately. I don't know if you have that term in there, but it's a term in which a man tries to override or explain something to a woman that's very obvious, that she obviously already knows, but because he's a man, he thinks he needs to explain it to her because she's a woman. Being a horn player and female, I remember going into music and I didn't start playing until I was almost 40. I would go into music stores to buy one thing or the other, and get ignored. Or, I would take a band on the road. I even had a band, my first band, “Joy Harjo”, on 40. We went to Germany and played. And I drove a van on the Audubon and we had a good time. We had a really good time, but what I often find is that my band would be mostly men. And so, when the staff would come in or the sound crew or whatever, they would immediately bypass me and walk over to one of the male members of the band. So I would have to go and correct nicely. Otherwise, you know, a sound person, kid… they're really good at getting back at us. They don't like you. Yeah.

Why do you think that the Native American culture continues to generate such a developed following?

Well, first of all, there's no such thing as a Native American culture. We are many, many different tribal nations. And so there's not just one, there are almost 600 that are still living in cultures today with different languages and so on. So we're very different. I tried to still get Creek nation. Our music is very different than, say, the customs that everyone knows, we're not power of people. We are music that… it's part of the origin story of blues and jazz. But we're like, you know, why do we stay alive? Because we're human beings and we continue to grow our culture just like anybody else. I could ask the same question of you and your people.

I'm a Greek. You know Sappho’s poetry?

Yeah. I'm familiar with it. Everybody's familiar with that.

Do you think that poetry comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

We're in a human experience. So it comes from all of those places.

Let's take a trip with a time machine. So, where and why would you like to go with a time machine?

It is hard to choose. I would go back to my childhood, maybe. It would be interesting to go back into memories, but I would also like to go back into the time of my sixth great-grandfather’s monopoly. But I do that in dreams. I think that in dreams, we kind of, we enter into a time machine.            (Joy Harjo, 2nd Grade / c.80's, Photo © by Robyn Stoutenburg)

"I came to poetry through music. My mother was a singer, songwriter, and we had musicians in the house, playing. And so I came to music as a way of… you know, it’s a lot like poetry. It's how you can kind of dream and dream on sound or dream on paper. But I came up to her writing, and she was inspired by people like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles and… Oh, what was her name? You know, she was inspired by all those kinds of singers. And so I came up with that and with Motown and I especially love jazz. I have a great love for jazz, Middle Eastern music and so on, but it started in my home as a child."

What was the best advice anyone ever gave to you and you kept it like a motto of your life? What advice would you give to the new generation?

Well, it sounds simple. And when I first heard this advice, when I was a young woman, I thought, after what? Yes. Simple. But it is not. And it's “be yourself”, which is another famous Greek quote, I guess.

Yeah, It’s a Socrates quote...

Know yourself. Yes. It's the same thing. Be yourself, knowing yourself, ultimately. And then what is that? What does that mean? You know that, and you think it is simple. Well, it is not that simple, but it's the most powerful and potent, that's what we're here to do, to be absolutely ourselves. And by being ourselves, we come to know the world.

Now comes in my mind, your poem “Healing animal”. How could we eventually "forgive the pained animal kneading our throat?" Is there any chance for us to "sing forever" as the things have turned out to be?

Yeah. I don't know. You think that you're done with something and you put it away or transform it and then we find other ways, we're all still here on earth. I don't know if that's the best answer.

If you could change one thing in the world, if you could change one thing in people, what would that be?

That would be, well, ‘No judgment’.

And what do you think is the key to a life well lived?

I think that you should always live in a way that you have no regrets and take chances.

My last question is... what would your first decisions as a minister of education and culture be?

I would certainly take apart the system… that would make you very popular, but I guess what I would do, is work with the community to make cultural centers in schools that fit the cultures in those communities and give back. So there's a system of a teaching assistant, a system of integrating teaching and a system of giving back and education would, of course, include the arts as well as other activities. Some people are in other kind of physical conditioning and then they would all be involved, certainly the arts, and there would be gardening or growing, such as Rudolph Steiner. And they would help other community services in some way or the other.

Joy Harjo Official Site

Joy Harjo / Photo © by Shawn Miller

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