For the 44th yearbook Author week, University of California, Riverside Department of Creative Writing, in collaboration with the LA Review of Books, Awarded three US Poets Laureates with Lifetime Achievement Awards: Rita Dove (1993–95), Juan Felipe Herrera (2015–16) and Joy Harjo (2019– today). Crystal AC Salas, a third year MFA student at UCR, interviewed each award winner by phone and Zoom in commemoration of the occasion to honor these poetry greats – three visionaries who break barriers in their side, stage, and community work.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of National Poetry Month, in this last part of the series of talks with three American poet laureates, Joy Harjo discusses their digital map project of how indigenous people disappeared and answers the question: What can poetry do?
Crystal AC Salas: Who would you identify as your ancestors in your legacy of poet as an ambassador, community organizer, and activist? How are these ancestors present in your work with the public?
Joy Harjo: June Jordan is a poet whose scope and presence encompasses all of these terms. She is not an ancestor, but she is almost a generation ahead of me. I first met her through her volume of poetry Things I do in the dark. Her activism has always been the foundation of every utterance she makes, be it poetry or personal essay – her essays are wonderful. I remember when she started this poetry for the people Project– –A project that shifted poetry from behind the doors of the university to an open door policy so that poetry had its right place in the community. She was brave and brave and understood that poetry is essentially the elixir of life for people, cultures. She also worked with the Poetry for the People project to bring poetry back to people in a way that is present and living and moving in countries around the world. . .
Of course, there are many other ancestors with considerable range in terms of generation, culture, and country. In my elementary, middle, and high school classes we read mostly New England and England poets, mostly men from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Langston Hughes showed up now and then, but there were no local poets. There was no awareness of her at all. I grew up as a poet in the late 1970s and a student at the University of New Mexico in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to be caught in the wave of multicultural poetry awareness. One of the people who promoted this multicultural literary movement that was very important to many of us was the writer Ishmael Reed. I met him when Leslie Silko took him to university during the short time she was teaching there. It wasn’t long before he started the Before Columbus Foundation to promote a fairer range of American poetry.
Another ancestor or inspiration is Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee chief who returned to Oklahoma to work in her traditional base church. She had lived in the Bay Area for some time before moving home. Her family had left northeast Oklahoma and gone west as part of the US government’s relocation program. This program was launched to lure indigenous people from their reservations with the intention of destroying indigenous families by acculturating them into full-fledged Americans and loosening their influence on culture and the land. She inspired me to return to my root community here. There is often such a deep cultural divide between those who are far away in the urban and academic community and those who hold down the culture and the land in their home communities. Mankiller’s work bridged many communities.
When I started writing poetry, I looked at other indigenous tribes to see how you wrote because I was looking for that kind of orality more and was inspired by many African poets and writers. Especially Okot p’Bitek – I will write a short homage to him in my next essay, which will be published in September Poet warrior (W. W. Norton). His volume of poetry Lawino song was also an affirmation, a door and an inspiration. One of the highlights of my life is meeting him at a conference in Amsterdam in the late 1970s. I have to thank him and shake hands with him.
One of my highlights last year was speaking to Wayne Shorter on the phone. Because his work has accompanied me all the way, his brilliance extends in concentric circles.
I think of Cesar Chavez, Bob Marley, Lila Downs, and John Coltrane. I do not equate with them, but these are people I admire for their courage and gifts, people who inspired me and from whom I gained strength as they rose and rose and were pioneers in their respective fields . Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. as a humanitarian worker, as a bearer of justice. We are all here as one – essentially the earth is one person. We’re all here together, but diversity gives us the taste, the energy, the beauty of Earth.
We’re all here together, but diversity gives us the taste, the energy, the beauty of Earth.
Salas: How did you understand the position of the US Poet Laureate prior to your appointment and how did it develop during your tenure? Also, could you talk to your process of approaching your award winner’s key project? What surprised you to learn about the accessibility of poetry programming resources?
Harjo: I knew it was an honorary position and that some poets were very active in that position. The post was previously a Poet Consultant in the Library of Congress until the title was changed to US Poet Laureate in the late 1960s. The position is a position of the Library of Congress and the Chief Librarian of Congress appoints the Poet Prize Winner. I am proud to say that Dr. Carla Hayden, an Obama Appointed Person. I like to think of Gwendolyn Brooks, who had a desk there in the Library of Congress. I think Natasha Trethewey also spent a few hours at the desk there. There is a desk and an office. Before the Covid pandemic, I visited the office and set up the desk. However, I live too far to spend hours but thought about trying this virtually.
The appointment of Rita Dove marked a postponement of the post’s activism. She used the position to actively involve the American public in poetry. Since then, many of the appointed people have been very active and creating projects, including Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Natascha Trethewey, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Tracy K. Smith. I see myself as a poetry ambassador. Each award winner made the position unique.
I am the first native poet, which was a landmark appointment. Many Americans believe, according to studies commissioned by Illuminative, that there are no more indigenous people in this land, or if we exist we are invisible because we don’t look like the stereotypes. My grandmother played the saxophone in Indian Territory prior to Oklahoma statehood. She was also a painter with a BFA in studio art. I always say add this to your collection of native images. It is quite amazing to have a local woman in one of the most famous positions a poet can occupy in this country. All of a sudden we exist and there are over 570 indigenous people and some of us are poets. There are many local poets. We are people.
Everyone made the position their own, and since I am the first indigenous poet, I opened the doors of recognition to the indigenous people. When it became known that I was the new Poet Prize Winner, the Aborigines were so proud. The position was about her. It raised our communities. It was similar to Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids becoming two of the first native congressional women. And now Deb has been appointed Home Secretary. We don’t usually see Native people at the national table. We essentially disappeared even though the entire western hemisphere is an Indian country.
We essentially disappeared even though the entire western hemisphere is an Indian country.
In this country, however, we are rarely seen in contemporary cultural events. We are almost never represented in literary circles. Shortlisted for the National Book Awards, Layli Long Soldier and Natalie Diaz marked the first time any local poet hit the top book price lists in a long time. (I think only Linda Hogan was so recognized over twenty years ago.) We’re still lost in culture. To see, to be recognized means to us that there is buried, denied history, and to realize that the entire history of America needs to be reconstructed.
I consider the laureateship to be a position of service. I consider the president, the vice-president, every position in our life, whatever we do, to be positions of service.
I work with an excellent team at the Library of Congress led by Rob Casper. Even before the laureateship was announced, we immediately got down to work on my project. I wanted to highlight contemporary native poets and how we still literally and metaphorically occupy our place in America and the Western Hemisphere. And I wanted to work with the many departments of the Library of Congress. When orienting myself for the position, I asked to tour and visit the various departments and programs of the Library of Congress. I’ve always loved geography and maps so this was one of the first stops and also the Folklife Center where I heard some Mvskoke songs that were recorded at the beginning of the last century. They are now an important part of my Living Nations, Living Words: First Peoples Poetry project.
We created a digital map highlighting contemporary native poets. Because it is digital, it is readily available to anyone with internet access. A Norton anthology of the Digital Mapping Project will be published this May. I choose a map with no political demarcation. We see blue and green: land and water. The perspective changes dramatically. And we hear the voices of local poets reading their original poems and talking about the place. I want to expand the map to the entire globe and include every living poet on this digital map, but there is the capacity issue. How much staff would that cost? How much time? How much money?
We are currently working on a guide for teachers for the project. I imagine a digital map with generational contributions to poetry that would orbit the globe. And then we would portray generations of poets. A generation is a unit, an energetic equation, similar to a horizontal type of person moving around the world. Every generation has a certain energy. I also thought about how the ancestral map of poetry would be more vertical.
That question also makes me think of the pandemic and the response of organizations to artists and poets at a time when suddenly, when the country was closed and we were isolated, everyone didn’t know what was going to happen. We had never seen anything like it. Certainly other generations had seen pandemics, like the Spanish flu epidemic, and epidemics wiped out nearly half of America’s indigenous population. With the Covid pandemic, people came to poetry to find refuge, a place for the unanswerable, for grief and inspiration. Poetry is spiritual nourishment. In the sense that we are all spiritual beings. . . Just as we need food for our body and mind, we need food to nourish our minds.
With the Covid pandemic, people came to poetry to find refuge, a place for the unanswerable, for grief and inspiration.
Salas: After Amanda Gorman’s captivating performance at the President’s inauguration, many people seemed shocked that such a young person could write and perform with such powerful articulation. Personally, as someone who works with teenagers while in awe of their performance, I was not at all surprised by the sharpness of vision that has arrived at their young age. What were some of your favorite learnings about the potential of poetry emerging from working with children and younger poets?
Harjo: I’ve taught over and over again over the years – when I started teaching it was full time, then I went to half time to have time for my art, every now and then I needed a total break from it. I have found that teaching itself is an art that involves accumulated knowledge in the field, continuous training, performance and leadership. It is demanding and enriching on all levels.
When I was a student at the University of New Mexico, my poetry professor Gene Frumkin took some of his students to local elementary, middle, and high schools to teach poetry in the New Mexico Poetry in the Schools Program. I remember looking so young that I was asked for my hall pass! The first time I stood in front of a class I was scared – I was quite shy at the time – but it taught me to focus on what I was doing. Seeing how poetry inspired students and gave them tools to use in their lives kept me updated. After graduating from high school, I put poetry in the schools together to make a living.
I learned a lot in these classrooms. I learned about leadership. Some were so happy to be there and learn about poetry. Her students were good and open. Other teachers said, “Oh thank god you’re here, now I can go!” These classes started out loud because I wasn’t introduced and were essentially a substitute. However, I was able to catch them with poetry. The classes in which I was warned by the teacher, “This is my worst class,” were usually the best classes. Poetry gave them a way to speak that they may never have found in a classroom before. Poetry created a door in the realm of creativity where they were allowed to be who they were without criticism or expectation. I was reminded of my own childhood and how much I loved art classes because I could let my imagination run wild. That was my first teaching venture. Bullshit doesn’t work. You have to be real And it’s about respect.
My last position as Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee was the best teaching experience of my teaching career. I was hugged by the department and the students. I was empowered and supported in my teaching and ministry and gave back in return. In some of my positions this was mostly the case, but in the latter positions the conditions and atmosphere in which I was hired were unstable or did not support creative writing or native attitudes. One of the hardest lessons from my own failure came while teaching in the English department at UCLA. My appointment was split between English and Indian studies. The line for my rental was in English. During the hiring process, the Native American Literature Department gave a different position, a Medieval Literature position, AIS was caught paying for the rent, and they basically had to rent me out to English. At the same time, I was in the middle of a political war in AIS that wasn’t mine. And in English, I had a setback because I was a local poet, not a white academic. There was an anti-multicultural backlash that lashed the underground. I would have to go through protest notes that people like me were teaching to get into my classroom. My teaching has changed. I became tense and distrusted my own cultural structure for my courses.
Once during office hours, a creative writing student brought a visiting friend because her friend loved my poetry and wanted to meet me. After the introductions, my student turned to her friend and said, “I wish she had taught the same way she wrote poetry.” Although it was painful to hear, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I had gotten off track and had begun to lose myself in the politics of settler correctness. My poems come from a wild, honest, and compassionate realm of the imagination. It is my teacher.
However, this may not have answered your questions. Poetry gives each student a tool or tools to navigate the mazes of human experience. These tools last a lifetime.
My poems come from a wild, honest, and compassionate realm of the imagination. It is my teacher.
Salas: We are at a time of renewed investment in activism when we will hopefully also ask about the ethics of these gestures and our position to provide services in a way that is sensitive and even desirable to the communities we seek to nurture. As a literary activist and ambassador, how do you stay in touch with this cause? What questions do you ask yourself?
Harjo: I think it’s the advice I give to people who want to come to a local community: you come in as a person, you treat people like people; Just be yourself and don’t take away what is not yours. Many come to the churches to alleviate guilt, to lose themselves, or even to take on a different identity. Maybe friendship is the best mode. And when a friend needs help, they ask each other for it. It is not forced or unsolicited.
There was a time after my performances at their universities I met many young white students who showed up and excitedly told me about going to Pine Ridge to help during the spring break or summer. I would speak to them with concern and compassion because I knew the trouble they might get into and the trouble they might cause. None of them listened. They were embroiled in a Wild West story where they met colorful warriors, managed to eradicate poverty, and saved a people as they tried to save themselves. Most of the time their intentions were well placed, just poorly conceived.
The end result is respect between all of us. And it’s important to listen. When you listen, you hear what is being said, but when you listen Really You will hear exactly what is not being said. Be respectful – this is the advice I give to people who come into a local community. I like the way an academic community handled it and the problem of universities pumping out degrees in native fields, graduating students who never met and most likely would never meet the communities they studied or used for their degrees . I was Artist in Residence in British Columbia for a couple of weeks in the First Nations Longhouse at the University of British Columbia – they have a Native Studies Group. They actively involve the aboriginal community who preserve the lands on which the university is located. Students in the Native Studies programs bring their academic work to the reservation and present it in the community. It makes people responsible. It is a return model for study and work. I remember teaching students whether they were in an indigenous or indigenous study class when I asked them, “Okay, how will this research affect the community? Will it make a difference? “
Salas: The concept of a public mandate for a county, state, and / or national art ambassador has always intrigued me in our nation – it’s a remarkable contrast in a culture where being an American artist means, always social To have legitimacy of the siege. Being a BIPOC artist often means enduring the added complexity of the rejection of personality and lived experience of the dominant culture alongside their art. The national and institutional recognition of a poet as a necessary ambassador to the republic has always made me curious about the joys and precariousness of the post. How did you reconcile the promise of this post with the devaluation of the arts and humanities in our racist and capitalist culture?
Harjo: Your very big question involves a paradox that cannot be easily answered in a short answer. Artists of all kinds live off the center, but we are the keepers of the imagination that keep the spirit of this land alive. To this, add the “BIPOC” (I don’t really agree with that term yet as it feels made up), presence / offers / displacement and you have an outside-outside. However, it is in particular the external cultural influencing factors that change and enliven the cultural flow. Each of us non-mainstream artists and color poets who emerges in an American literary community through various writing programs or just through writing has many stories of our struggles that can be turned into empowerment narratives. The fights are a constant. And if you are native or indigenous, you usually don’t exist in the narrative at all. There is even a caste system here in the literary world.
I spoke to a young local poet who was working on a treatise last night and as I answer that question I think of her. “What would I tell her?” Ultimately, what matters is that you have to deal with it in the outermost, intimate center of yourself first. And grow that courage and strength and belief in who your people are, who you are, and to honor what you were brought here to do and what gifts you were given to develop and share. It starts there. We don’t see each other in the American mirror. We are usually not represented. We have to honor our own classical traditions that are not Greek and Roman, even if we have to familiarize ourselves with superculture.
It’s like learning different languages. We need to know our worth and know that we are adding value to this story that we are all making together. The mainstream isn’t always happy to be postponed. It is like a huge ocean with rivers, many rivers feed it, distribute it and nourish it. We all add to the story. And as in every story, at some point every lie, every deception, every falsehood will be exposed. This country is young, essentially a youth: “It’s all about me and the time is now.” The arts, the essence of the arts, are eternal. There is no past, present or future. While I / we move. . . I / we just have to listen deeply and respect and just keep moving.
We don’t see each other in the American mirror. We are usually not represented.
Salas: What did you observe about the role of poetry and its role in community awareness when the nature of public space changed so drastically? What do you hope for the role of poetic engagement in the community if the nation does not return to “normal” but resumes at a time of reckoning with the grief and post-trauma of its recent events?
Harjo: It’s interesting that you say “post-trauma” because as excited as I was to see a change in leadership, I almost felt depressed, as if I was in an abusive situation that had no way out, then saved and purely the consequences of the PTSD response. I try to feel compassion. . . . There is a belief that contains a destructive and racist history. Someone gains power from it, money. It all comes down to common sense. And then the massive pandemic brings so much separation, illness and death. Here in our community we have lost important cultural carriers to Covid. We natives have not done very well historically in pandemics. And it decimates our population again. And then I ask: What can poetry do? Poetry tells me that it goes to those places that nothing else can reach. You can take it with you anywhere. During this time, we were unable to attend live readings, live music, or any other place where we meet to experience artistic expression. A concert, even an art exhibition, is almost ritual. We experience together. The poetry is more alive there. We also.