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Get to Know Portland Arts & Lectures Author Joy Harjo

On April 20, Literary Arts will host Joy Harjo as a part of our 2020-21 season of Portland Arts & Lectures. Harjo is a renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and was named the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States in 2019, making her the first Native American to hold the position. She was appointed to a third term in 2021.

Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry—most recently An American Sunrise—several plays and children’s books, and a memoir, Crazy Brave. She has also edited the recent Native poetry anthologies When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through and Living Nations, Living Words.


Joy Harjo recognizes the power of poetry. In this interview with Olivia B. Waxman for Time, Harjo talks about An American Sunrise and how poetry can be used to counter hate.

“When there’s uncertainty, when you’re looking for meaning beyond this world–that takes people to poetry. We need something to counter the hate speech, the divisiveness, and it’s possible with poetry.”


WATCH: Harjo reads “Perhaps the World Ends Here”

How do we find the bravery to face fear in exceptional times? In this audio interview with Portland-based writer Cheryl Strayed, Harjo and Strayed discuss beauty, prophesies, and the importance of listening to your own spiritual council.

“We have guardians that look over us. We’re part of a whole system that doesn’t just end at birth or end at death.”


WATCH: Harjo interviewed by PBS NewsHour upon the occasion of her first reading as United States Poet Laureate.

Harjo believes writers are “essentially truth tellers”. In this interview with Natalie Diaz for PEN America, Harjo describes what she believes is the purpose and responsibility of a poet. She also gives a deeper insight into her writing practice, including her writing obsessions and her favorite places to put pen to paper.

“I am held to a path that is as solid as stone but is fluid as water. I was given a standard to keep. …I have to take care of what I was given. I am aware of carrying a gift that belongs to my people. It doesn’t belong to me. It’s ancient yet moves into the raw and unknown future.”


In addition to writing, Harjo is an accomplished musician. In March, she released her first album in a decade. On “I Pray for My Enemies,” Harjo sings and speaks her poetry, and also plays saxophone and flute.


JOY HARJO EVENT PROGRAM

Interested in more? Below is a bio of Joy Harjo’s life and writing career thus far.

Joy Harjo is the current United States Poet Laureate and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951, where she lives today. She grew up surrounded by artists and musicians, and Harjo explored painting, dancing, and medicine before focusing on poetry and writing. Of her childhood, she’s said, “I didn’t set out to be a writer. I was shy, quiet, and I loved art because I didn’t have to speak with anyone. At one point, my spirit said, ‘You have to learn how to speak.’”

Harjo attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, a performing arts high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then studied painting at the University of New Mexico. She came of age amid the backdrop of intense political rights movements, including those for Native rights, civil rights, and women’s rights. Poetry became a part of her artistic life amid this larger upheaval; she started writing in 1973, when she was a 23-year-old mother of two children and very active in the Native rights movement. “I started writing poetry out of a sense of needing to speak not only for me, but all Native American women,” she’s said. “I basically put a pen in my hand, and that’s how I came through it. It had a lot to do with investigating history and finding a voice when I felt that I had no voice.”

Harjo received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She has written nine volumes of poetry, plus short stories, several plays, a memoir, and two books for young audiences. Her latest poetry collection, An American Sunrise, was praised by the Washington Post: “Rich and deeply engaging, An American Sunrise creates bridges of understanding while reminding readers to face and remember the past.”

She is the editor of When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, the first historically comprehensive Native poetry anthology, published in 2020. The book features more than 160 poets, representing nearly 100 indigenous nations.

In 2019, Harjo was named the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, making her the first Native American to hold the position. She was appointed to a third term in 2021. Rob Casper, who heads the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, which houses the laureate, praised the “great humanity” of Harjo’s poetry. “She can have a kind of great sweeping vision and still speak so directly as one human being to another in a way that I can’t help but feel completely moved by and believe in,” Casper said. In May 2021, Harjo’s signature laureate project will be released: an anthology Harjo edited celebrating Native poets writing today, titled Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry.

In addition to writing, Harjo is a skilled musician who performs with her saxophone and flutes, solo and with her band, the Arrow Dynamics Band. She has released six award-winning music albums; her newest is I Pray for My Enemies. She sees an interconnectedness between poetry and music: “I always play or perform music with my poetry. When poetry came into the world, it did not arrive by itself, but it came with music and dance.”

Harjo has taught Eng­lish, Cre­ative Writ­ing, and Amer­i­can Indi­an Stud­ies at numerous universities. Her many honors include the Ruth Lilly Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, a PEN USA Literary Award, a Rasmuson US Artist Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Har­jo is a chan­cel­lor of the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets; holds a Tul­sa Artist Fel­low­ship; directs For Girls Becom­ing, an arts men­tor­ship pro­gram for young Mvskoke women; and is a found­ing board mem­ber and Chair of the Native Arts and Cul­tures Foun­da­tion.


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.”

from poets.org

Single Tickets for Joy Harjo’s event on April 20th are now available! Click Here for more information.

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