Joy Harjo named U.S. poet laureate

Joy Harjo was named Poet Laureate of the United States on Wednesday. (Courtesy of Shawn Miller)

Former New Mexico resident Joy Harjo is the nation’s first Native American poet laureate.

The Library of Congress announced the decision Wednesday. Harjo taught at the University of New Mexico and toggled between Albuquerque and Santa Fe before moving back to her native Tulsa, Okla.

Harjo (Muscogee Creek) received a phone call about the honor several weeks ago.

“I just kind of sat there, stunned,” she said in a telephone interview. “I’m still taking it all in. It’s quite an honor and it’s a responsibility.”

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said, “Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry —— ‘soul talk’ as she calls it —— for over four decades. To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through that she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us re-imagine who we are.”

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, who studied poetry under Harjo at UNM, said she gave voice to important stories that needed to be told.

“Joy is a talented poet and has worked tirelessly, leaving a ladder down for the next generation of creative writers,” Haaland stated. “She is a distinguished professor, and she has had an extraordinary impact on my education while at the University of New Mexico.”

Now retired from teaching, Harjo will remain in Tulsa but will have an office at the Library of Congress.

Joy Harjo takes part in a panel discussion on creative writing in 2012 on the campus of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

She says it all started when she began writing poetry for UNM’s literary magazine. She graduated with the school’s first creative writing degree class.

“I was very involved in the Native students club,” she said. “We were writing on Native rights, equality for Native people. My poetry started with that.

“New Mexico’s been so much a part of what I do,” she said. “My children live there. I’m out there pretty frequently.”

Harjo has penned eight books of poetry, including “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” (W.W. Norton, 2015). She also plays the saxophone with her group, the Arrow Dynamics Band, and appeared in HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and in venues across the country. She has released four award-winning CDs.

Her many literary awards include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award and the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Her fellowships range from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Witter Bynner Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Harjo’s term will last for one year. She’ll open the library’s annual literary season with a reading of her work in the Coolidge Auditorium on Sept. 19.

She isn’t sure yet what to do in her new appointment.

“Of course, it will have something to do with Native Americans and poetry and about making poetry available to different cultures and people,” she said. “And something about the land. We’re in a time of multiple crises in this country.”

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