Poet’s Pen: Joy Harjo


Image courtesy of Karen Kuehn of Blue Flower Arts.

Poet Joy Harjo writes for voices that aren’t often heard.

Elizabeth Weir, Co-Editor

With an ever-growing number of cities and school districts making the switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, including our own Baltimore City, it is only appropriate that this month we feature a prominent Native American poet — and who better to highlight than Joy Harjo?

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 9, 1951, Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke (Muscogee)/Creek Nation. Her resumé in literature and the arts is no joke: she’s earned bounteous poetry awards, prizes, and fellowships, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, and she is the first Native American to be appointed United States Poet Laureate. She has published works of other genres as well, such as children’s books and collaborative art texts. She is also a musician, playing the saxophone and flute with the Arrow Dynamics Band and riding solo; she has released four award-winning albums and won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2009. On top of all this, Harjo directs For Girls Becoming, a mentorship program for young Mvskoke women pursuing the arts.

Harjo belongs to Oce Vpofv, also known as Hickory Ground, the last capital of the National Council of the Muscogee Nation before President Andrew Jackson drove its inhabitants off to Oklahoman Indian Territory in the 1830s. Native Americans have endured countless injuries since the Europeans first arrived in 1492. Mass decimation from smallpox was only the beginning: the Sand Creek Massacre, the Battle at Wounded Knee, and the Bear River Massacre are only a few examples of European-American brutality against indigenes. Once numbering 60 million, today the Native American population stands at 6.8 million — 2 percent of the total U.S. population.

Harjo uses her poetry to reflect the weight of this centuries-old struggle. She illustrates how her culture, beautiful and ancient, has become diluted like icebergs in the new “American” sea, and how many like her have been blinded by city lights and crippled by poverty. Growing up at the endpoint of the Trail of Tears, it seems only fitting that Harjo should use her talents to share with the world her personal experience. Some of her works include collections of poetry such as “An American Sunrise,” “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” and “In Mad Love and War,” as well as her highly appraised memoir, “Crazy Brave.”

Joy Harjo is a master of the English language, manipulating words and using mythical imagery to create a narrative that simply enraptures the reader. Below is one of her best-known works, titled “Grace.” Though it is not structured like the conventional poem, it is too lyrical to be considered prose, and it is on poets.org, which should be qualifying enough.

Read it below, or listen to Joy read it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dualpWSuT3I


“I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn’t stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.

“Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow a season with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey. And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.

“I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.

“I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn’t’ the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.”


Poetic excerpts and biography taken from Poets.org.