Issue 95 |
Winter 2004-05

About Joy Harjo

To say this fine fall morning that Joy is in the air is true: courtesy of KSUT-FM, broadcasting from the Southern Ute Reservation, this startling cut from the CD Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, half-read, half-sung, is one of many by Joy Harjo and her band, Poetic Justice, regularly heard on FM stations serving audiences with large segments of Native Americans and Hispanics throughout the Southwest.

I"m not afraid of love
or its consequence of light.

It"s not easy to say this
or anything, when my entrails
dangle between paradise
and fear. . . .

                     —from "The Creation Story"

Who else could"ve written this passage, no less sung it, with that twisting manifestation of polarities Harjo has made one of her trademarks, the disquieting torque of "consequence," the difficulty of speech after evisceration, and the gut connection between paradise and fear? That last bit may be a gritty flip of the medieval concept of that golden chain connecting earth and Heaven, an example of what is implied in her evocative title-phrase Reinventing the Enemy"s Language.

To hear Harjo perform is to learn there will be no chitchat, no diversion whatsoever; rather, you find you are attending a spirit so sharply focused that it"s as if the words on her page, in her heart, must ignite as she reads them. And it is to recognize that the traditional stance she takes as a poet, that of the truth-teller, is assumed without a trace of false modesty. Nothing about her smacks of posturing. She is from that deep vein of upright sayer-singers for whom the stories told are matters of life and death—not for themselves only, but for their people as well. "My audience," Harjo says, "starts with my tribal nation, spreads out to include those who are also trying to find a way through this particularly rough layer of the world." And she adds, "I hear from them."

Over the past twenty-five years, Harjo has established herself as a courageous and powerful spokesperson for those who are often less heard, particularly America"s indigenous peoples. Incorporating Native American myths, spirituality, and imagery into her writing, she has published seven books of poetry, and her honors include the American Book Award, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, and the Lila Wallace–Reader"s Digest Fund Writer"s Award. With Gloria Bird, she co-edited the seminal anthology Reinventing the Enemy"s Language: Contemporary Native Women"s Writings of North America, and she has written a book of stories for children, The Good Luck Cat.

That Harjo the poet has also become Harjo the singer and Harjo the saxophonist is well-known among her fans, less so among newer readers. Few, however, know that she won prizes for her painting before she wrote or that she has been working in film almost as many years as she"s worked in words. Fewer still are aware that she is now training to become competitive at open-sea outrigger-canoeing among the deep blue waters between the islands of Hawaii, where she now lives, commuting to her current job at UCLA, frequently interrupting that schedule to travel around the country, indeed around the world, giving performances with her band as well as individual readings.

All this is a far cry from her childhood in rural Oklahoma after being born the oldest of four children in Tulsa, in 1951, into a family of Muskogee (Creek) and Scots-Irish blood. Song language was her first experience with poetry. "By four years old," she says, "I knew the lyrics to most songs I heard from my mother or the radio or school. The qualities that stood out, that entranced me, were rhythm married with sound sense and meaning. Poems connected with my soul, which was a place that made dense sense." When she was eight, her parents divorced. For a while, she was deeply involved with a local church, first lured there by "vacation Bible school announcements threaded with suckers," she recalls. "I knew there was more candy where that came from, and attended mostly for the coconut cookies and Kool-Aid." Nonetheless, she became devout. She read the Bible three times and organized performances in her neighborhood, giving impassioned sermons. She even thought of becoming a missionary, but left the church, forever, after she witnessed the minister embarrassing two Mexican girls who"d been noisy.

Eventually she left the state to go to boarding school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where her talents were appreciated for the first time in an academic setting. "I arrived there barely alive," she says. "I was suicidal. At IAIA I was given permission to be an Indian artist. I was given permission to be human. That was no small thing." Like her great-aunt and grandmother, both reputable artists, Harjo intended to become a painter. She began to change her mind as she read and heard such "poet warriors" as Audre Lorde and Gwendolyn Brooks, Galway Kinnell and Richard Hugo (in whom she was quick to appreciate "the shine of his compassion"). Also indelible were the examples of Neruda and Okot p"Bitek, the great Ugandan dramatic poet. All of those influences upon her were ultimately galvanized by connection with Native American writers like Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna) and Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) who read at the Institute. Other inspirations were N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), James Welch (Blackfeet), Roberta Hill (Oneida), and Vi Hilbert (Lushootseed), the storyteller/scholar from whom Harjo says she learned both dignity and "a truth with knowledge beyond small human understandings."

At the University of New Mexico as an undergraduate, Harjo devoted herself to becoming a poet; she has tirelessly worked ever since to augment Muscogean traditions with European and African lyric and narrative forms. And yet in certain poems, as Leslie Ullman shrewdly noted in The Kenyon Review, Harjo"s stance has not been so much "representative of a culture as it is the more generative one of a storyteller whose stories resurrect memory, myth, and private struggles that have been overlooked, and who thus restores vitality to the culture at large." Harjo herself adds another layer of involvement, the dead themselves, in her poem "Resurrection," about the massacre at Esteli, near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border:

We all watch for fire
      for all the fallen dead to return
and teach us a language so terrible
            it could resurrect us all.

Harjo has consistently identified poetry as a literal method of survival. "I don"t believe I would be alive today," she has explained, "if it hadn"t been for writing. There were times when I was conscious of holding on to a pen and letting the words flow, painful and from the gut, to keep from letting go of it all." Again and again she credits imagination (access to spiritual perspectives) and art (the craft that enables one to recreate that access) as tools that enable her continuously to resurrect herself from her own ashes.

She has had her share of challenges. In high school, she became pregnant with her son, Phil. In 1968, she moved from Santa Fe back to Oklahoma, scraping together a living from various jobs, including a stint as a nurse"s assistant at a hospital. In 1973, her daughter, Rainy Dawn, was born, and Harjo—practically destitute, trying to get through college, work, take care of her kids, and contend with their alcoholic, abusive father—"shivered to a breakdown, an earthquake of the heart," a state of terror so paralyzing it was "difficult even to swallow, and each step had to be calculated" to move at all. She managed, nonetheless, to earn her undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1976 and then her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1978. A series of visiting lectureships led in 1985 to an assistant professorship at the University of Colorado. She then taught for two years at the University of Arizona, where she pulled triple-duty in the Women"s Studies, Creative Writing, and Native American Studies departments. Next came six years as full professor at her alma mater, the University of New Mexico. Most recently, of course, she has moved to Honolulu. Throughout, her reputation as a poet has steadily spread and strengthened. She published her first book, What Moon Drove Me to This, in 1980, and three years later she broke through with her second volume, She Had Some Horses. Still in print like most of her subsequent work, it is widely used in literature courses.

During her career, she has steadily intensified her efforts to contain language in ever more musical forms, to make it go, like music alone, straight to the heart with as little mediation as possible. Her reading voice more and more resembles a singing voice, with musical phrasing; her 2004 CD, Native Joy for Real, is a vigorous exploration of a far wider variety of alternating, cross-cutting styles than any of her earlier recordings. In some cuts, like "Fear Song," Harjo and her musicians have come up with a combination of instruments and styles so harrowingly effective as to be quite unlike anything else. Other cuts have hints of hip-hop as well as jazz or blues or reggae. One piece, "The Had-It-Up-to-Here Round Dance," is a dialogue between a man and woman, both Native American, struggling with their reactions as each sees the other in the arms of a sequence of partners, including whites. It could easily derail, but, dead-on and deadly as it is, it"s also amusing, funny because we see ourselves being ridiculous in the figures of others.

When Harjo says, "I was born with eyes that never close," she describes an unwavering condition of witness—a curse or a blessing, depending upon how one regards it and what one does with it. In Native American belief, the regard given to vision is similar: it is one"s sacred task, having seen, to share. Harjo proclaims, "I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. . . . [Writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to."

In 1989, at the conclusion of Bill Moyers"s interview with Harjo for his The Power of the Word PBS series, he seemed mesmerized by her image of herself as "memory alive." On his face appeared that slightly goofy, beatific grin perfected earlier during his classic interviews with Joseph Campbell, and Moyers declared, "That"s what you really are, you know, memory alive." And he beamed at her. She ducked her head ever so slightly, as she tends to do when given a direct compliment, before she replied, also smiling, "That"s what we all are."