Before the pandemic, poet Joy Harjo was “running towards exhaustion.”
At the time, Harjo, then on her second term as U.S. poet laureate, was bouncing between speaking engagements, as well as embarking on her laureate project — a sprawling, interactive anthology of Native American poets.
But the pandemic’s closures stilled everything, drawing Harjo back to her home, back to her family, back to music, back to the elders, mentors and poets who have inspired her.
The result is a shockingly prolific year. There are the two anthologies focused on Native poets: “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through,” published in August, and the forthcoming “Living Nations, Living Words,” which adds a digital map and recorded audio of its contributing poets. There is her second memoir, “Poet Warrior,” to be released in September, and a 16-song album, “I Pray For My Enemies.”
Poetry remains a lodestar for the 69-year-old writer and musician as she enters her third term as poet laureate (she is only the second poet to do so since the position was created in 1985).
“Poetry has been, I think, one of the tools in the tool kit for how to get through these times,” Harjo said.
Harjo always reads poetry, but lately, she said, she has been returning to the poems that would be in “her survival book” — such as Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival,” in which the speaker advises the reader, “It is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.”
We asked Harjo to reflect on the lessons of the pandemic year, and how poetry can help us chart a way to a kinder, more harmonious world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Anne Branigin: What has the last year been like for you?
Joy Harjo: I think I’m still figuring out this last year. My experience of it has been like many other people’s. Collectively and worldwide, I don’t think we’ve ever had anything like that in our generation. One side of it is that we needed to stop collectively and to think about who we are, where we were, our relationship to the planet and to each other. And so I think that part of it was useful.
The other part of it was for me, it gave me a gift. This time to stop and to think and dream, and it gave me time to work. I would have been traveling every week between now and then, nearly every week, sometimes two or three places a week. Instead, I got to be home with my family. I got to work creating. I got out three projects during this time.
Anne Branigin: You finished your memoir during this time. From what I understand, part of it addresses the grief of losing your mom. What has this past year taught you about grief?
Joy Harjo: I think grief is a lifelong lesson, and certainly we’ve had to deal with immense collective grief over losing so many all at once. It’s more difficult, you become more wary when the deaths appear to be random. And the grief in our tribal nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, we lost so many of our culture bearers. Those are the people that know not just everyday Muscogee (Creek) language, but they know the lyrical, poetic Muscogee (Creek) language.
It’s been that way for many Native Nations peoples. There is a collective, immense loss. And that’s something I don’t know that we ever get over grieving.
That’s one part of it. And the next part of it is, okay, I can stay in here [in this grief] so long now, I have to keep moving, we have to keep moving. So what do we do with it? That’s where poetry and the arts come in. And that’s why poetry has had such a place during this time of social outrage for so many.
Poetry can hold contradictions, can hold grief that’s too heavy to bear, can hold questions, usually by asking more questions. I don’t know that poetry answers anything, but it certainly makes a place for the unanswerable to live in a way that can be even beautiful and satisfactory.
Anne Branigin: When I feel lost or overwhelmed, I’ve often turned to poems myself. And I’m sure you’ve gotten this before, but “Perhaps the world ends here” is one of those poems for me, and I found it particularly meaningful in a year where our lives feel like they’ve constricted. Whose work have you sought out?
Joy Harjo: There’s one poet, I included a little section of his poem, “The Song of Lawino” in my memoir — Okot p’Bitek. He’s a Ugandan poet. [The poem] holds a space for this time. The poem is about colonization taking over his village. It shifted the whole state of mind of the culture. It’s like we need a long form like that, an epic poem to show us how to turn back toward a collective way of being that and thinking that is helpful to the world as a whole. That isn’t destructive and divisive.
Anne Branigin: That reminds me of a connection you’ve made before, which is that poems to you are very much like maps. It was striking to me because in your upcoming anthology, “Living Nations, Living Word,” there is an interactive map element to it, as well as an audio collection. Why did you choose to include those elements?
Joy Harjo: I had all kinds of ideas for projects, but really settled on something that would be available to everyone who had Internet, a digital map.
So we constructed a digital map that would show this country, and pretty much the Western Hemisphere, with no dividing lines, no border between Mexico and the U.S., no border between Canada and the U.S., no political divisions. No names for rivers and mountains and other topographical features, just beautiful earth, water and sky.
I think any poet emerges from a place. Our voices are so tied to the land. We learned that as we put the anthology together, about how much a geography, how much a climate really determines what’s in a poem, the shape of a poem, the images and metaphors.
Two, what was important is that America sees that there are Native people, that we are alive. We’re still here. We live among you and with you. And we still have our cultures. There’s over 574 federally recognized tribal nations and even more than that, unrecognized [tribes] that are legitimate. And we have living cultures and living languages, and our poetry is alive. We have many poets.
Anne Branigin: You’ve also mentioned the importance of ritual. Which rituals have felt most precious to you?
Joy Harjo: It’s important to get up in the morning and acknowledge the sun, the rain. Acknowledge the door. Dawn is a doorway to a new possibility.
Writing during that time is an important ritual that I try to keep up and right now I’ve lost that part of the ritual because I have so many things these days requested of me. I don’t have the space right now to do as much creative work as I would like now that everything’s kicked back in.
Then for me, the ritual of music, you know, playing music in part of the afternoon. It’s important to include rituals of listening. Many writers have talked about how, you know, how the act of writing is just being there, just doing. You may not put a word on paper, but just being.
Anne Branigin: What sounds have really stuck out to you?
Joy Harjo: I start to think about how even silence is a sound. And there are different kinds of silence. Some of them can, for instance, outline a tree. And then there’s certain kinds of silences that are around death. And other kinds of silences around suffering. Or repression.
And I hear a lot of trains.
Anne Branigin: When you mentioned the silence of suffering, it was hard not to think about the racial justice movements of the last year. Does poetry have an obligation to speak to that silence?
Joy Harjo: I’ve always seen poets as truth tellers. We have an obligation to speak of what we see. Even if the truth is difficult to bear for others or for us, it’s important. That’s why you always see poets at the forefront or somewhere near any social rights, social justice movement. You’ll find the poet speaking out because that’s what that’s part of the charge of being a poet.
I’ve certainly been watching, participating in all of this. We’ve watched how Native communities are pretty much invisible. We are not included, except as usually sports mascots or in other perverted images that have nothing to do with real, fully developed human beings or even cultures.
Where do I start with any of this? Sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Because these stories have such deep roots. They connect all of us.
What I’ve often said is that people relegate Native history. “Well, that has to do with Natives, that has nothing to do with me.” Or Black Lives Matter has something to do with Black people and not with me or Asian lives. But actually, they’re our stories. Everyone’s story. What kind of society are we living in when not everyone is sitting at the kitchen table? What kind of life is that? There’s something deeply destructive and awry in that story.
There will be a cultural shift when we understand that Native rights, Black Lives Matter, trans rights, all pertain to each individual story, and consequently to the collective story. That equal regard for all races, cultures and all beings is essential to quality of life. We are each a part of everyone’s story.
Always, the nature of the collective story is toward harmony, toward righting itself.
And that’s what all of this is about — the #MeToo movement, all of it — is the story trying to right itself.