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First Native American poet laureate unravels why genre is necessary

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo speaks at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki-Museum’s lecture series Nov. 22, 2019, in Big Cypress. (Beverly Bidney photo)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are spending more time reading books to take a break from the seemingly constant drumbeat of bad news.

For those who enjoy poetry, they might consider reading one of Joy Harjo’s books.

Harjo is the 23rd poet laureate of the U.S. and the first Native American to hold the position.

She is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Harjo visited the Big Cypress Reservation in November 2019, after her official inauguration, as part of a traveling tour she took to perform both solo and with musicians.

She’s an accomplished musician herself, as well as an author with many awards and accolades to her name.

“I wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t have poetry and music,” Harjo said during her BC visit. “I’m always happy when I come to this part of the world. My grandfather loved the Seminole people and that’s continued through me. This place holds such incredible beauty and a storied history.”

One of Harjo’s many poems is “Don’t Look Back,” a nod to her ancestors’ forced removal to Oklahoma.

Read Beverly Bidney’s full story on Harjo’s BC visit in The Seminole Tribune here.

More recently, Harjo did an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, where she explored the question of why poems are necessary in the first place.

“Poetry tries to hold all aspects of human memory – grief, failure, love, joy – and moves toward a liminal space in the borderlands between here and there, in between yes and no, what was and what is to come,” Harjo said. “The great paradox is that poetry uses language to create a place you can go when human words fail.”

She said that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, poetry book sales had increased.

“The audiences for poetry have grown dramatically since the last national elections four years ago,” Harjo said.

In the interview, she talks about how poetry is “soul talk;” why listening is important; how she came to love poetry; and how she sees her place among other Native writers.

“I am only one of many gifted poets, one of many Native poets, one of many voices who have something to offer in these times and in timelessness,” she said.

Read the full interview by Elizabeth Lund for the Christian Science Monitor here.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly had 2020 as the year in the photo caption. The error has been corrected.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at