An Interview with Joy Harjo

An interview with Joy Harjo (b. 1951) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2009.

Joy Harjo is living up to her last name’s translation. In her tribal language, Mvskoke, Harjo means “so brave, you’re crazy.”

In her lifetime, she’s been a saxophonist, poet, dancer, canoe paddler, mother, singer and professor.

She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, listening to her mother sing in a country swing band, and drawing and painting the world around her. She attended an arts boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and danced across the country with a troupe of traditional dancers.

After she finished college at the University of New Mexico, she drove north with her two kids in a pickup truck to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she’d been accepted. Since then, she’s published seven books of acclaimed poetry, sang and played saxophone with her band around the world, taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico, and learned to paddle ocean canoes competitively.

In 2008, Harjo premiered her one-woman show with music, “Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light” in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times called Harjo’s performance, “a pastiche of allegory, myth, music and spiritual musing, [which] has the momentous quality of religious ceremony right up until the final gift-giving ritual.”

In 1998, she received a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest award to bring literature to Native Americans. She wrote an award-winning children’s book, The Good Luck Cat, and won the William Carlos Williams award. She’s released four albums of original songs, speaking and singing poetry with genre-bending music.

There’s much in this world that hardens our hearts -- politics, the economy, television. Joy Harjo’s brave, crazy poetry pries up the armor on our spirits, opening them to the world. She writes of kitchen tables where babies teeth on the wooden corners, of mountains keeping watch, of long nights in crowded bars, of dark horses bearing spirits, of wolves who speak warnings.

Poet Adrienne Rich wrote of Harjo’s work: “I turn and return to Harjo’s poetry for her heartbreaking, complex witness and for her world-remaking language: precise, unsentimental, miraculous.”


Susan Thornton Hobby: You once said that the first piece of poetry you recognized as poetry was a jazz riff on the radio. Could you talk about that recognition, and about poetry’s relation to music for you?

Joy Harjo: A jazz riff became a ladder into the middle of the heart of sound. I traveled from room to room in the heart of the horn player. This was while I was acquiring language. I was aware that most of my comprehension of adult conversation was basic. I was communing and understanding at a level that was quite complex, a level beyond words, beyond current time or three-dimensional vision. The music gave me the means. It was poetry. I believe most children have an awareness they bring with them to this realm. Words were more daunting. I was insecure with words. I began speaking late, and maybe because of this I was very aware of the power of words.

Around the time I was transformed by listening deep to the jazz riff, my father threw me across the room. I had repeated an expletive my father often used, in front of his friends. That was visceral power. I took note. Still, I came to love words, especially as they were sung. I leaned toward repeated phrases and the sing-song rhyming of nursery rhymes, and the heightened language of lyrics, and in the poetry of Emily Dickinson whose poems always struck me because they made their own, distinct sound sense.

STH: You were a painter, a dancer in your youth, how did you start to write poetry?

JH: The first poem I remember writing was unmemorable. In eighth grade Mrs. Costello told us to pull out our paper and pens and write a poem. We were baffled. What? Poems? She gave no other instructions. She wanted to have material to submit for a statewide anthology of student writing. She submitted my poem, and a story I wrote earlier in the class. The story got honorable mention. The poem disappeared. At Indian school I wrote songs for an all-Indian acid rock band. They also disappeared, as they rightly deserved. And I also wrote some poetry, mostly as notes passed between us in classes taught by Bureau of Indian Affairs employees who had given up teaching long ago. (Some of the teachers were inspired and their efforts were life-changing for us.) Mostly the poems rhymed and some were limericks commenting on our various dramas.

On the side I was reading Thomas Hardy poems and novels. It wasn’t until I was a pre-med student at the University of New Mexico and met Simon Ortiz that I began trying poetry again. Or rather, I found myself in love with poetry again, after listening to Simon, Leslie Silko, and Leo Romero. The revolutionary times in Indian country demanded that my spirit learn to sing with words.

STH: When asked about the Iowa Writer’s Workshop experience at a reading, you laughed and said, “I survived.” Could you explain?

JH: I honor my Iowa Writer’s Workshop experience, however, it was challenging. My poetry mind had come up through a non-academic focus, even though my final undergraduate major was in creative writing at the University of New Mexico.

Poetry for me was soul talk, crafted soul talk. Words literally had power to change the weather, to make things happen. Poetry was a way to document the spirit of people. I didn’t quite fit in and found myself lost in the workshops. Craft is essential to all art, even soul talk.

The teaching emphasis on craft and critique appeared to intellectually gut the process of poetry. Yet even as I floundered and failed in that system, I found my own direction. I was close to Sandra Cisneros, Dennis Mathis and Jayne Anne Phillips, who all studied with me there. And I befriended a guest teacher, Rosalyn Drexler. All have remained important to me.

STH: Your book She Had Some Horses, written in 1984, was reissued more than a decade later. What do you think it is about this group of poems that speaks so powerfully to people?

JH: I often ask myself that, because I see all the flaws. I asked the Pomo/Miwok novelist, tribal chairman Greg Sarris about this during a frustrating time. My best poems aren’t in that collection. He said it was because the book made a cohesive story, of sorts, and it was teachable. And I have to acknowledge that the book came into being because some ancient horses approached me. They are in the book. They had momentum and taught me. That’s part of the book’s power, I think.

STH: Could you speak about your ancestor, Monahwee, and specifically, about his relation to animals?

JH: Monahwee knew how to bend time. He could speak with horses and was known as a fine hunter. He also knew medicine. His mind and knowing were in an age of a different construction of consciousness. When you invest your mind or knowing energy in science you give yourself over to experts. When you understand the world as a world of consciousnesses, including animal consciousnesses, then you are a participant.

STH: Animals are throughout your poems – wolves, eagles, panthers, crows, not to mention horses – what do they help you say?

JH: Maybe it’s the opposite!

STH: You write about reciprocity – of giving back to the earth, of balance. Sounds like something that is missing from our world.

JH: My focus lately has been the study of energy. Everything is energy. A poem is an energetic matrix given shape and meaning by words, phrases, silences, voice … . It is a giving back, to dreams, to relationships, to the spirit of an age.

If we understand that there is a kind of consciousness in all creations, both natural and human-made, then we are constantly in a state of reciprocity, though often it’s unconscious. Gratitude ups the spin of consciousness. It gives consciousness. Ignore and it will fall away unacknowledged.

STH: You’ve talked about a silence that was killing you, and that writing helped ease that pain. Does writing give something back to you?

JH: Always.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2009. All rights reserved.