BIG CYPRESS — As the nation’s official poet, the U.S. poet laureate aims to promote and raise the national consciousness of reading and writing poetry.
As the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo takes it a step further. The most important aspect of her duties as Poet Laureate is clear to her.
“It’s sharing the power of poetry and all the great Tribal traditions of poetry,” Harjo said during a visit to the Big Cypress Reservation. “I wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t have poetry and music.”
Harjo, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was named Poet Laureate in June for a renewable one year term. She spoke as part of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s lecture series at the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center on Nov. 22. About 40 attendees came from around the state to listen to Harjo read her poems and give some backstory to them.
“I’m always happy when I come to this part of the world,” Harjo said. “My grandfather loved the Seminole people and that’s continued through me. This place holds such incredible beauty and a storied history.”
Harjo read from a few poems including “Once the World Was Perfect” which begins with these lines:
“Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.”
“The earth is a living being,” Harjo said. “Science is coming to that, but it is our Indigenous basis. We are at a tipping point. Right now we are in danger and a lot of world leaders aren’t acting out of concern for their constituencies, but for who can get the most money.”
Harjo’s poem “Don’t Look Back” is a nod to her ancestors’ forced removal to Oklahoma. The poem refers to the love of the trees, waters and creatures left behind. They were the companions of relatives forced into exile.
“Some people say don’t look back, some of those lands in Georgia and Alabama are too big to think about,” she said. “We have to acknowledge it and we have to remember who we are.”
Other poems she read included “The Fight,” “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” and “Redbird Love.”
“I cook with a lot of Bird Clan women so I have a lot of bird poems,” Harjo said.
She told about living in Knoxville, Tennessee, and watching a family of robins who watched her playing the flute every morning. She observed a few generations of the birds and wrote “Redbird Love.”
“One female was so beautiful, every bird noticed her,” Harjo recalled. “It’s always about the same thing.”
In 2012 Harjo wrote “Crazy Brave,” a memoir of poems and stories in which she explored her childhood and other aspects of her life.
“You always learn things from projects,” she said. “From this I learned about childhood and that we carry it with us.”
One story described an early childhood memory of hearing jazz trumpet for the first time while in the back seat of her father’s car.
It was the start of her journey into jazz and music. In addition to flute, Harjo plays saxophone.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she began to write poetry.
She lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, as a young mother and drew inspiration from the beautiful environment, lush with trees and rivers.
“I could hear things there,” she said.
Harjo finds inspiration in a host of places, including her husband Owen Sapulpa. She read from “My Man’s Feet:”
“They are heroic roots
You cannot mistake them
For any other six-foot walker
I could find them in a sea of feet
A planet or universe of feet.”
The event ended with a question and answer period. Some fans told Harjo how much her work means to them.
“Joy’s stories and poems have gotten a lot of us through tough times,” said Cherrah Giles, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki development associate. “Her words stayed with me. To some of us it means everything that she is elevating our voices and the things we’ve been dealing with for centuries. It is very important to us.”
An attendee asked how she decides what is appropriate to share in her poems.
“There’s a lot I don’t share and there are things that aren’t meant to be in writing,” Harjo said. “Some things you write to keep inside, some things you write for yourself and use it to works things out.”
One attendee told Harjo that her poems introduced her to poetry and considers her poems a gift.
“What I like about poetry is you can put anything into a poem,” Harjo said.
“Poetry is metaphor; it grounds you in the possibility of dreams, the possibility of connections.”
After the event, attendees lined up to greet Harjo, shake her hand and pose for photos.
Harjo keeps a busy schedule. She spoke at the Miami Book Fair the following day and has events scheduled around the country through April.
Joy Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry, several plays and children’s books and a memoir. Some of her honors include the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, a PEN USA Literary Award, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writers’ Award, a Rasmuson US Artist Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Harjo is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.