Joy Harjo becomes first Native American US poet laureate

Author of poetry collections The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and In Mad Love and War wins prestigious position.

Writer Joy Harjo of the film "A Thousand Roads" poses for portraits during the 2005 Sundance Film Festival January 24, 2005 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
The position is officially called Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry and comes with a $35,000 stipend [File: Carlo Allegri/Getty Images]

Joy Harjo has been named US poet laureate, the first Native American to hold the position.

Harjo is the author of poetry collections including, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and In Mad Love and War.

Her appointment was announced on Wednesday by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who said in a statement that Harjo helped tell an “American story” of traditions both lost and maintained, of “reckoning and myth-making”.

“I’ve been an unofficial poetry ambassador – on the road for poetry for years,” 68-year-old Harjo wrote in a recent email to the Associated Press.

“I’ve often been the only poet or Native poet-person that many have seen/met/heard. I’ve introduced many poetry audiences to Native poetry and audiences not expecting poetry to be poetry,” she said.

Harjo’s term is for one year and she succeeds Tracy K Smith, who served two terms.

The position is officially called Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, and comes with a $35,000 stipend.

Harjo will have few specific responsibilities, but other laureates have launched initiatives, most recently Smith’s tour of rural communities around the country.

“I don’t have a defined project right now, but I want to bring the contribution of poetry of the tribal nations to the forefront and include it in the discussion of poetry,” says Harjo, an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“This country is in need of deep healing. We’re in a transformational moment in national history and earth history, so whichever way we move is going to absolutely define us,” she said.

Previous honours

Harjo is known for a forceful, intimate style that draws upon the natural and spiritual world.

Her previous honours include the PEN Open Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement.

Earlier this year, she was awarded the Jackson Prize, given by the nonprofit literary organisation Poets & Writers, for a poet of merit who deserves more attention.

Harjo is currently editing an anthology of Native poets, and a new book of her own poems, An American Sunrise, comes out in August.

She also has a background in painting and dance, and is an impassioned saxophone player who has recorded several albums.

In a 2017 blog post that is also part of her poem Rabbit Invents the Saxophone, she called the instrument “so human”, writing that “Its tendency is to be rowdy, edgy, talk too loud, bump into people, say the wrong words at the wrong time.

“But then, you take a breath, all the way from the centre of the earth and blow. All that heartache is forgiven,” she said.

Donald Trump

The poet laureate itself is not a political position.

But Harjo has made clear her disdain for many office seekers in her poem, For Those Who Would Govern.

She also has expressed her views on US President Donald Trump.

In 2016, she linked to a Newsweek article about then-candidate Trump’s overseas business connections and tweeted, “Donald Trump’s foreign ties may conflict with US national security interests.”

The head of the Library of Congress’ poetry and literature centre, Robert Casper, told the Associated Press that laureates are encouraged to focus on “poems and the way they work”, including politically.

During her interview, Harjo declined to talk about Trump directly, and said instead that “everything is political”.

“I began writing poetry because I didn’t hear Native women’s voices in the discussions of policy, of how we were going to move forward in a way that is respectful and honours those basic human laws that are common to all people, like treating all life respectfully, honouring your ancestors, this earth,” she said.

She cites her poem Rabbit is Up To Tricks as an expression of political thought, but in a timeless way.

Her poem tells of a trickster rabbit who has become lonely, and so forms a man out of clay and teaches him to steal.

The clay man learns too well, stealing animals, food and another man’s wife. He will move on to gold and land and control of the world.

Source: AP