In her new memoir, Poet Warrior (Norton, Sept. 7), Joy Harjo describes crouching under her family’s kitchen table as a child to eavesdrop on her mother and her mother’s girlfriends. Beneath the furniture, Harjo was privy not only to her community’s juiciest gossip, but also to its most talented storytellers. Harjo describes these secret moments as the start of her lifelong obsession with stories and the words they contained.
Now, Harjo is one of the most celebrated wordsmiths of our time. The first ever Native American U.S. poet laureate, Harjo has produced nine books of poetry, seven musical albums, two picture books, one play, and a memoir entitled Crazy Brave that introduced readers to many of the characters featured in Poet Warrior. In addition to her own work, Harjo has edited several anthologies of Native American poetry. Her compassion, generosity, and outspokenness have inspired multiple generations of creators and fostered the careers of Native writers who, unfortunately, still rarely receive the recognition that they deserve. Poet Warrior offers a gorgeously raw account of the personal and ancestral histories that shaped Harjo’s trajectory as an artist, mother, activist, and teacher. The book “blaze[s] with honesty and lyricism,” according to our starred review.
Harjo answered our questions over email.
In a recent interview with poets.org, you talk about the concept of “poetry ancestors.” What would you consider the “memoir ancestors” of Poet Warrior and Crazy Brave?
I consider N. Scott Momaday’s book, The Way to Rainy Mountain, to be a memoir ancestor. It was marketed as “Indian myth, history, and personal reminiscences” when it was published in 1969. I was struck by how his mythical, historical, and personal lyrical narratives alongside Momaday’s father’s images (Al Momaday) intertwined to make an oratorical whole. Next would be Leslie [Marmon] Silko’s Storyteller. It was categorized as poetry and fiction. I think of it as a kind of unique memoir, consisting of poetry, short stories, mythic tales, historic notes, autobiography, gossip, and photographs. Though it’s not memoir, Jean Toomer’s Cane also had great bearing on how I consider the making of a memoir. It is a kind of earthy, mythic singing.
Your work spans so many genres: poetry, plays, picture books, and memoir. You are also a musician and a former visual artist. How do these multiple forms influence your work?
Each genre and practice is very specific in what it demands. Yet each is linked by voice and theme. My first creative endeavors were in drawing and painting. I was in shows when I was 12. I intended to be an artist like my grandmother and great-aunt. As much as I loved poetry and most forms of literature, I did not have a desire to become a poet. I didn’t really consider it as an option, and it wasn’t in my realm of experience, though at Indian School many of the students wrote poetry and some were exceptional poets. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico in the early ’70s that I began writing poetry. It took hold in a way that I never foresaw. Poetry captivated my deep love of language, song, and music, and I was intrigued at how poetry could hold history, shift time, and sing all at once. I walked away from music at 14. I took it up again and started my first musical performances with Keith Stoutenburg, an alternative music songwriter and performer, when I was in Tucson, then started Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice in Albuquerque, a band of all Native musicians, half of them attorneys practicing Indian law.
Are there any new genres or forms you’re eager to try?
I want to return to visual art. I have kept up photography, to a degree. I have a studio ready to go once my last term as U.S. poet laureate has concluded.
Across genres, your work is suffused with compassion; your newest musical album is titled I Pray for My Enemies. I find this particularly remarkable given the brutalities inflicted on your Muskogee-Creek ancestors and the abuse you faced early in life. How has your capacity for compassion influenced your writing, and how has your writing influenced your capacity for compassion?
I have come to realize that writing for me is about making a road of words, images, notions, thoughts that I follow. I do not always know what I will see or hear, or how or what will appear to me. I just listen and allow play in expression and rhythm. That’s part of it. I am often amazed as I participate in the process of creation and what I am taught of craft and wisdom. Other times I am dismayed, as nothing seems to happen, but I keep moving, or stop for a while, go outside, read a book, listen to music, take a deeper look at what artists are doing in the world, then I find a way. That’s the first part of the process. The second part is all the shaping and detail work, what I call the hammer-and-nails part. Again, you’re listening even harder. I love the surprises, the gifts of creation. One of my favorite lines in Poet Warrior, an insight that surprised me and I kept, was “Even the monster has a story.” The scene needed to land, and it did. That line taught me compassion.
The Covid-19 pandemic has tested us all, but studies indicate that it has been especially hard for mothers. As a former young, single mother who successfully balanced family and art, what advice do you have for parents—and especially mothers—weathering the current storm?
I can only imagine how difficult it is for mothers. Mothering is one of the most difficult roles, the most demanding. It never ends, and it calls on our deepest reserves, even in so-called normal times. With the pandemic, mothers have also had to become responsible for supervising their children as they are taught online. And many of these mothers work alongside them, either going to classes themselves and/or maintaining their professions remotely. It seems impossible to me. I don’t know if I would have made it through the university if I would have had to supervise my children’s education. I would gather like-minded parents together and supervise in pods. Take turns so each parent gets a break. Or collectively hire someone out of work from the pandemic to oversee the pods. And take time for yourself, daily, even if you can only squeeze out 10 or 15 minutes some days.
Despite the often difficult nature of the material, your writing carries an undercurrent of delight. What brings you delight? What role does delight play in your life?
I’ve never been asked this question and that…delights me! Delight is really opening your eyes, ears, perception to the music of the impossible and how it finds its way into the ordinary. Children are often the bearers of delight, as are artists. I love dancing, as any of my friends and family will tell you. Dancing has been my primary workout through the pandemic, and before and after the pandemic. Delight is watching young poets, writers, and artists discover delight and grow in their discovery, craft, and insight as they make their road of living. I had never thought much of delight until this question. De-light is an eruption of light, for a spark of a moment. Thank you.
Dr. Mathangi Subramanian’s latest novel, A People’s History of Heaven, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award.