Tulsan Joy Harjo appointed U.S. poet laureate

The Los Angeles Times - June 19, 2019 10:42 am

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, the award-winning poet and musician, has been appointed the 23rd U.S. poet laureate, and will become the first Native American writer to hold the position.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced the appointment Wednesday morning. Harjo will begin her term as poet laureate this fall, taking over from Tracy K. Smith, who has served in the role since 2017.

“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry ⁠— ‘soul talk’ as she calls it ⁠— for over four decades,” Hayden said in a statement. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them 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.”

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Harjo said she had received an unexpected voicemail message from Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress.

“I thought it was probably about the National Book Festival,” Harjo said. “I called back and Carla Hayden asked me if I’d be the 23rd U.S. poet laureate. It was like a lightning bolt going through me, a lightning bolt made of hopes, wishes, dreams, fears, terror, beauty, everything.”

Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was born in Tulsa in 1951. Her books include the 2012 memoir “Crazy Brave,” and the poetry collections “She Had Some Horses,” “A Map to the Next World” and “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.” Her next collection,”An American Sunrise,” is slated for publication by W.W. Norton on Aug. 13.

She is also a singer-songwriter and saxophonist who has released four albums, most recently “Red Dreams: A Trail Beyond Tears.”

“I came to poetry through music first,” Harjo told The Times. “My mother wrote songs, and we had country swing musicians at our house. That was my first entrance to poetry, and then I found that I loved poetry on the page.”

The U.S. poet laureate has few official duties and is traditionally given wide latitude to work on different projects related to poetry. Former laureate Billy Collins started a poem-a-day project focusing on young readers, for example, and Juan Felipe Herrera, the Redlands poet who served in the post from 2015 to 2017, started an online poetry project called La Casa de Colores.

Harjo told The Times that she has “all kinds of ideas” for projects when her term begins, including one focused on increasing “the visibility of Native peoples in this country and the inclusion of Native peoples in the story of America, in the poetry story of America.”

“There is an incredible diversity of Native peoples, and we write poetry too, and we’re your neighbors, and we walk with you every day,” Harjo added.

The appointment comes during a busy week for Harjo, who on Monday attended a reception in New York where she was honored for winning the annual Jackson Poetry Prize. Previous winners of that award, presented by the literary organization Poets & Writers, have included Claudia Rankine, Henri Cole and Linda Gregg.

Harjo said winning the Jackson Poetry Prize and being appointed as U.S. poet laureate demonstrate the need for poets to persevere.

“As a human being and a poet going though life, there are ups and downs, there are years where no one will respond to you or you get turned down all the time, and there are years where maybe something cool happens,” she said. “You just have to keep a belly full of fortitude and love and hope and the ability to keep moving when it goes south.”


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