Joy Harjo has been named the 23rd poet laureate of the United States. She’s the first Native American, and probably the best saxophonist, to ever hold the honor.
Harjo’s footprints are all over New Mexico. A native of Oklahoma, she was just 16 when she came to Santa Fe to study at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She told NPR that when she arrived in the late ’60s, the IAIA was a Bureau of Indian Affairs school.
“And in one of my classrooms, we still had the stoves that were used the generation before to teach female students apartment living so they could clean for people in town,” she told NPR recently.
“But when I went there, there was a kind of a renaissance of contemporary Native art,” she said. “That generation I was in shifted the whole narrative of Native art in this country, so it was a very exciting time to be there.”
She later returned to New Mexico to attend the University of New Mexico, where she was introduced to Native poets. And the rest is history.
Harjo, now living back in Tulsa, became a teacher at UNM, and she has made regular visits to IAIA. New Mexicans also have had plenty of chances to see her play with her band – identified in the poet laureate announcement as the Arrow Dynamics, but at least at one point known as the Poetic Justice Revival – at various venues, including the Santa Fe Plaza Bandstand.
“New Mexico’s been so much a part of what I do,” Harjo told the Journal on the day she was announced as poet laureate. “My children live there. I’m out there pretty frequently.”
Harjo, who is Muscogee Creek, has penned eight books of poetry, won numerous prior awards and recorded award-winning music CDs. A new book of her poems, “An American Sunrise,” comes out in August.
There’s a lot more to celebrate than just Harjo’s New Mexico connections, of course.
Announcing the poet laureate appointment, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden summed up Harjo’s work:
“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.”
And, of course, Harjo brings a new diversity, voice and cultural history to her appointed role.
“I began writing poetry because I didn’t hear Native women’s voices in the discussions of policy, of how we were going to move forward in a way that is respectful and honors those basic human laws that are common to all people, like treating all life respectfully, honoring your ancestors, this Earth,” she told the Associated Press.
Her poetry often uses Native themes, images and traditions, but speaks to everyone.
A tough poem called “She Had Some Horses” reads like a novel of humanity’s angels and demons, and ends: “She had some horses. She had some horses she loved. She had some horses she hated. These were the same horses.”
Harjo’s deep connections to New Mexico make her appointment as poet laureate something to be celebrated in our state. But the best part is that Harjo’s new, national stage means more people will be exposed to her enriching, accessible and important art.