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Art as service: U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s work has its mystical qualities and yet belongs to everyone

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the correct web address for Bookworks, bkwrks.com.

Joy Harjo will read from her new collection “An American Sunrise – Poems” and answer audience questions at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the KiMo Theatre, 423 Central NW. Harjo said she may have her daughter, Rainy Dawn Ortiz, and a few other poets open the event with readings. And Harjo said she will play her saxophone; she’s the longtime leader of the band Poetic Justice. The event is sold out and Bookworks, a sponsor of the event, reports that no seats are or will be available. However, anyone may reserve an autographed copy of “An American Sunrise” at bkwrks.com. Copies can be picked up at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, after the event.

Joy Harjo, the U.S. poet laureate, was born and raised in Oklahoma, but New Mexico has been her second home. She thinks of herself as a “dual citizen” of the two states.

 

“I have lived most of my life in Albuquerque,” Harjo said in a phone interview from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, she is the first Native American ever appointed U.S. poet laureate.

She has always loved poetry, but it was never an option “as a way to make a life. When I was growing up, the only poets I knew about were mostly dead white people in England or in the East.”

Harjo attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe then began to formally study poetry as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. At UNM, she met Native writers/poets Simon Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko and took poetry classes from Gene Frumkin and David Johnson.

“From professor Johnson I took an introduction to poetry workshop. He was an incredible teacher. He knows poetry and knows how to inspire students to write. He supported us in our writing and in performing. He had us read our poems aloud,” Harjo said. “I’m happy to count him as a friend.”

At Harjo’s invitation, Johnson and his wife attended Harjo’s inauguration ceremony as poet laureate at the Library of Congress.

Johnson later reflected on Harjo’s poems. “Not only (do they) draw upon the joys and sorrows of daily life – the domain of numerous poets – but reach into the spirit worlds of Native peoples, as well as the dreams and mythic history of settlers in America. Her imagination and vision include all of us.”

While at UNM in the early ’70s, Harjo was active in the Native students’ Kiva Club. Club members, she recalled, were socially conscious. “My poetry was born out of that time and that place, and out of New Mexico,” she said. Harjo said she had no idea how the position of U.S. poet laureate would impact her life and potentially the lives of Native people. However, she views it as “a service position … as I have been in the service of poetry.”

One goal she has set for herself in the new post is to talk about how poetry belongs to everyone and how all of us can participate in it.

“Poetry can hold history, heartache, time, stories, and can be adaptable and usable,” Harjo said.

She referred to the inclusivity and pervasiveness of poetry. It is “always there – in marriage, death, birth, falling in love, out of love, at sunrise. Those sacred moments when we have no words, we have poetry,” she said. “Poetry is a big teacher.”

Among the many honors Harjo has received are the William Carlos Williams Award, the Mvskoke Women’s Leadership Initiative Award for Artist of the Year, a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, and a five-time winner of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers in poetry, children’s books or music.

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