Joy Harjo | Poet, Musician & Author

Joy Harjo has published seven books of poetry, which includes such well-known titles as How We Became Human, New and Selected Poems, W.W. Norton 2004. Her writing awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Rasmuson United States Artist Fellowship, and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her most recent publication is a memoir Crazy Brave, WW Norton 2012, which has won several awards, including the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the American Book Award. She performs with her saxophone nationally and internationally, solo and with her band, the Arrow Dynamics, and tours her one-woman show.  She has five CDʻs of music and poetry including her most recent award-winning album Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears. Her newest collection of poetry, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings will be published by Norton in Fall 2015, and she is working on her next memoir. She has a commission from the Public Theater of NY to write her musical play, We Were There When Jazz Was Invented, a musical that will restore southeastern natives to the American story of blues and jazz. She is a member of the Mvskoke Creek Nation and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Joy-Harjo_P1My Definition Of Success | Success is about fostering the development and inspiration of an art form, a people, a place… We exist in the path of the ancestors. From us are the descendants. Anything we speak, think, or do is dynamic and either assists or detracts from the story. Each of us bears gifts to share and must take care of them. My practice as a writer, poet, musician, and performer is teaching me to listen. I learn from the teachers who exist in both the physical and non-physical worlds.

I Am Driven By | As a young child I knew that I was carrying something quite profound and beyond my understanding. I knew it was what I was put here to do in this world. I didn’t always know exactly or have the words or even courage to express it. I always said, “I want to be an artist” though at five-years-old I saw my mother’s struggle to be a singer and songwriter in a man’s world. When I was in high school I fled my home on tribal lands in Oklahoma to go to Indian boarding school. It was not the kind of Indian boarding school that attempted to steal souls and destroy native peoples. This Bureau of Indian Affairs School in Santa Fe, New Mexico had an emphasis on the arts. Most faculty were native artists. Still the old government system was in place. To be around young native artists from tribes all over the country saved my life. My spirit took me there to save my life, and to put me in a direction that I am still learning and understanding. Those of us from those years have been the innovators of indigenous art in many forms.

My Highlights | I recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative NonFiction to complete my next memoir, which will be investigating indigenous rights movements of my generation, and the generation seven generations ahead of us. My grandfather Monahwee was one of the leaders of the Red Stick War, which was essentially part of a national movement that emphasized tribal sovereignty, human rights, and cultural renewal. I am also the niece of the Seminole warrior Osceola. There are also many, many of our people whose acts were crucial to our survival, whose names are not known by us, or remembered in history.

The Difference Between Good And Great | The people who are great go beyond what they know. They are willing to risk everything to follow what has been given them to do. They are willing to fail greatly and to not let the defeat destroy or deter them. And they have a good sense of humor!

Joy-Harjo_P2A Key Talent | At the root of all that I do as a poet, musician, performer, professor, is the healer. (That surprises me as that is not what I was going to say. I was going to say, “the poet”.) Behind the poet is the healer, the one who listens and allows the words to come through, the sounds the come through that will best lift the people up and move us collectively beyond despair and grief. The U.S. is unlike South Africa. Within a few hundred years indigenous people, tribal people who were nearly 100% of the population, were reduced by disease, massacre, and wars to less than one-half of one percent of the population. We are still moving through this trauma. Many of our cultures are flourishing. The arts are how any of us humans carry forth the spirit of our people. Within me, the healer emerges to listen and respond—to bring forth–

The Characteristics Of Success | First, I had to deal with my fears, weaknesses, and failures and decide whether or not I was going to allow them to destroy me, or to heal me. Everything can be a medicine. Some do not taste good or bring pain to open the wound. I had to practice my art, which means to write, to read and listen, to give in to long periods of silence. Then I had to believe in myself and my people, despite a society that wanted us to believe that we were less than them because we were culturally, philosophically, or racially different. I had to keep moving.

Principles I Live By | They are what we learn in the circle: to be humble, to be helpful, to listen, to honor all elements of this life, to take care of your gifts, to be compassionate. There are so many—and the learning never ends.

Critical Skills I Develop | Always the craft of my art of writing, of playing saxophone, always trying to do my best in any situation, with any interaction.

How I Use My Mind | It’s important to realize that your heart must govern your mind. If it runs far afield, we have massacres. A mind by itself can make reason of anything. It must be disciplined, brought into the circle of your body and spirit and taught how to work together.

Joy-Harjo_P3Dealing With Doubt |  I have learned to step back, take the time, if possible, to process what is coming at me. I don’t want to be a person who reacts, rather someone who acts gracefully and calmly from within, no matter what comes at me. It was important to me to take part in this project, when asked, because on of the times I had a great fear, and maybe disappointment was when I appeared at a poetry festival in South Africa, in Durban over ten years ago. It was at a time when the so-called leaders of my country were acting in a questionable manner. I did not agree with their actions, but I’ve learned that when I go abroad that I am an American and it is assumed that I am aligned with leadership, even if it appears corrupt.
I was given no proper introduction, as were others at the festival. I was introduced during the introductory open night reading only as “an American”. I have never faced the kind of hatred and derision that I faced because of this introduction. I became a non person.  I talked and sang about my people. I could not break through—no matter what I did. I have never had this happen before, or since.
I learned via Internet after I left that It was said that I was not a Mvskoke Creek tribal member, how could I be, because at that time I was living in Hawai’i? (Many of my tribe lived there then, and still do. I am living back in our tribal territory.) I did not look like a movie Indian. I did not wear traditional native dress.
I came to South Africa with a great love in my heart, excited about what I could learn from the poets there, about our common struggles. I learned that most people in the world don’t understand how there can be many nations inside a nation, and that most people expect indigenous people to mirror American movies. The only image of an American Indian I saw in South Africa was a stereotypical image of a Plains Indian man in a headdress, the logo of a popular restaurant. I saw and heard many wonderful poets at the festival, many of them young and dynamic.
I left heartbroken, but realized there was some lesson in this. I realized that after that difficult introduction I had let it affect my confidence, my performance. South African peoples have been through very similar colonization as those of us in the western hemisphere. They were at another place in it. I remember one wonderful, dynamic young poet who was the first one in her community who was mixed race. It was an unusual thing. She suffered for it, but with her suffering she made wonderful, deep, and funny poetry. Her existence was a challenge, but she brought a light to the community.