Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She earned her BA from the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque and MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Strongly influenced by her Mvskoke (Creek) heritage, feminist and social concerns, and her background in the arts, Harjo frequently incorporates Mvskoke myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry inhabits the Southwest landscape and centers around the need for remembrance and transcendence. She once commented, “I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.” Her work is often autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and her preoccupation with survival and the limitations of language.
A critically-acclaimed poet, Harjo’s many honors include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award. She has received fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rasmuson Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. In addition to writing poetry, Harjo is a noted teacher, saxophonist, and vocalist. She performed for many years with her band, Poetic Justice, and currently tours with Arrow Dynamics. She has released four albums of original music, including Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears (2010), and won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2009. She has been performing her one-woman show, Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light, since 2009. She has taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico and is currently professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois-Champaign, Urbana. Harjo is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.
Harjo's first volume of poetry was published in 1975 as a nine-poem chapbook titled The Last Song. These early compositions, set in Oklahoma and New Mexico, reveal Harjo’s remarkable power and insight into the fragmented history of indigenous peoples. Commenting on the poem “3 AM” in World Literature Today, John Scarry wrote that it “is a work filled with ghosts from the Native American past, figures seen operating in an alien culture that is itself a victim of fragmentation…Here the Albuquerque airport is both modern America’s technology and moral nature—and both clearly have failed.” What Moon Drove Me to This? (1980), Harjo’s first full-length volume of poetry, appeared four years later and includes the entirety of The Last Song. The book continues to blend everyday experiences with deep spiritual truths. In an interview with Laura Coltelli in Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, Harjo shared the creative process behind her poetry: “I begin with the seed of an emotion, a place, and then move from there… I no longer see the poem as an ending point, perhaps more the end of a journey, an often long journey that can begin years earlier, say with the blur of the memory of the sun on someone’s cheek, a certain smell, an ache, and will culminate years later in a poem, sifted through a point, a lake in my heart through which language must come.”
Harjo’s collections of poetry and prose record that search for freedom and self-actualization. In books such as She Had Some Horses (1983; reissued 2008), Harjo incorporates prayer-chants and animal imagery, achieving spiritually resonant effects. One of Harjo’s most frequently anthologized poems, “She Had Some Horses,” describes the “horses” within a woman who struggles to reconcile contradictory personal feelings and experiences to achieve a sense of oneness. The poem concludes: “She had some horses she loved. / She had some horses she hated. / These were the same horse.” As Scarry noted, “Harjo is clearly a highly political and feminist Native American, but she is even more the poet of myth and the subconscious; her images and landscapes owe as much to the vast stretches of our hidden mind as they do to her native Southwest.” Indeed nature is central to Harjo’s work. The prose poetry collection Secrets from the Center of the World (1989) features color photographs of the Southwest landscape accompanying Harjo’s poems. Praising the volume in the Village Voice, Dan Bellm wrote, “As Harjo notes, the pictures ‘emphasize the “not-separate” that is within and that moves harmoniously upon the landscape.’“ Bellm added, “The book’s best poems enhance this play of scale and perspective, suggesting in very few words the relationship between a human life and millennial history.”
Harjo’s work is also deeply concerned with politics, tradition, remembrance, and the transformational aspects of poetry. In Mad Love and War (1990)relates various acts of violence, including the murder of an Indian leader and attempts to deny Harjo her heritage, explores the difficulties indigenous peoples face in modern American society. The second half of the book frequently emphasizes personal relationships and change. Leslie Ullman noted in the Kenyon Review, that “like a magician, Harjo draws power from overwhelming circumstance and emotion by submitting to them, celebrating them, letting her voice and vision move in harmony with the ultimate laws of paradox and continual change.” Highly praised, the book won an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. In her next books such as The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994), based on an Iroquois myth about the descent of a female creator, A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales (2000), and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (2002), Harjo continues to draw on mythology and folklore to reclaim the experiences of native peoples as various, multi-phonic, and distinct. Using myth, old tales and autobiography, Harjo both explores and creates cultural memory through her illuminating looks into different worlds. As poet Adrienne Rich said, “I turn and return to Harjo’s poetry for her breathtaking complex witness and for her world-remaking language: precise, unsentimental, miraculous.” In recent collections of poetry and prose Harjo has continued to “expand our American language, culture, and soul,” in the words of Academy of American Poets Chancellor Alicia Ostriker; in her judge’s citation fro the Wallace Stevens Award, which Harjo won in 2015, Ostriker went on to note that Harjo’s “visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”
Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave (2012) won the American Book Award and the 2013 PEN Center USA prize for creative nonfiction. In an interview with Jane Ciabattari, Harjo discussed the meaning of her last name (“so brave you’re crazy”) and her work’s attempt to confront colonization. “Who are we before and after the encounter” of colonization, Harjo asked. “And how do we imagine ourselves with an integrity and freshness outside the sludge and despair of destruction? I am seven generations from Monahwee, who, with the rest of the Red Stick contingent, fought Andrew Jackson at The Battle of Horseshoe Bend in what is now known as Alabama. Our tribe was removed unlawfully from our homelands. Seven generations can live under one roof. That sense of time brings history close, within breathing distance. I call it ancestor time. Everything is a living being, even time, even words.” Harjo’s other recent books include the children and young adult’s book, For a Girl Becoming (2009), the prose and essay collection Soul Talk, Song Language (2011), and the poetry collection Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015).
Consistently praised for the depth and thematic concerns in her writings, Harjo has emerged as a major figure in contemporary American poetry. While Harjo’s work is often set in the Southwest, emphasizes the plight of the individual, and reflects Creek values, myths, and beliefs, her oeuvre has universal relevance. Bellm asserted: “Harjo’s work draws from the river of Native tradition, but it also swims freely in the currents of Anglo-American verse—feminist poetry of personal/political resistance, deep-image poetry of the unconscious, ‘new-narrative’ explorations of story and rhythm in prose-poem form.” According to Field, “To read the poetry of Joy Harjo is to hear the voice of the earth, to see the landscape of time and timelessness, and, most important, to get a glimpse of people who struggle to understand, to know themselves, and to survive.”
Harjo told Contemporary Authors: “I agree with Gide that most of what is created is beyond us, is from that source of utter creation, the Creator, or God. We are technicians here on Earth, but also co-creators. I’m still amazed. And I still say, after writing poetry for all this time, and now music, that ultimately humans have a small hand in it. We serve it. We have to put ourselves in the way of it, and get out of the way of ourselves. And we have to hone our craft so that the form in which we hold our poems, our songs in attracts the best.”
Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, NM, instructor, 1978-79, 1983-84; Arizona State University, Tempe, lecturer in creative writing and poetry, 1980-81; University of Colorado, Boulder, assistant professor, 1985-88; University of Arizona, Tucson, associate professor, 1988-90; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, professor, 1991-97. Visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Montana, 1985, at University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2003. Professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois, 2013-present. Writer and consultant for Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, National Indian Youth Council, and National Endowment for the Arts, all 1980-83. Member of steering committee of En'owkin Centre International School of Writing. Writer-in-residence at schools, including Navajo Community College, 1978; University of Alaska Prison Project, 1981; and Institute of Alaska Native Arts, 1984.
- The Last Song (chapbook; also see below), Puerto Del Sol Press (Las Cruces, NM), 1975.
- What Moon Drove Me to This? (contains The Last Song), I. Reed Books (New York, NY), 1980.
- She Had Some Horses, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1983; reissued Norton, 2008.
- Secrets from the Center of the World, photographs by Steven Strom, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1989.
- In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1990.
- Fishing (chapbook), Oxhead Press, 1991.
- The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.
- A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales, Norton, 2000.
- How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2001, Norton, 2002.
- Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Norton, 2015.
- The Spiral of Memory (interviews), co-edited with Laura Coltelli, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1996.
- (Editor with Gloria Bird) Reinventing the Enemy's Language: North American Native Women's Writing, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
- The Good Luck Cat (children's fiction), illustrated by Paul Lee, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2000.
- For a Girl Becoming (children’s fiction), illustrated by Mercedes McDonald, University of Arizona Press, 2009.
- Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo, Wesleyan University Press, 2011.
- Crazy Brave (memoir), Norton, 2012.
MUSIC & SPOKEN WORD
- Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, Mekko Productions, 2002.
- Native Joy for Real, Mekko Productions, 2004.
- She Had Some Horses, Mekko Productions, 2006.
- Winding Through the Milky Way, 2009.
- Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears, Mekko Productions, 2010.
Also author of the film script Origin of Apache Crown Dance, Silver Cloud Video, 1985; coauthor of the film script The Beginning, Native American Broadcasting Consortium; author of television plays, including We Are One, Uhonho, 1984, Maiden of Deception Pass, 1985, I Am Different from My Brother, 1986, and The Runaway, 1986. Contributor to numerous anthologies and to several literary journals, including Conditions, Beloit Poetry Journal, River Styx, Tyuoyi, and Y'Bird.
- Balassi, William, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, editors, This Is about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1990.
- Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught, and Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, editors, Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN), 1999.
- Bruchac, Joseph, editor, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1987.
- Bryan, Sharon, ed., Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
- Buelens, Gert, and Ernst Rudin, editors, Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-Versions of the American Columbiad, Birkhauser (Boston, MA), 1994.
- Coltelli, Laura, editor, Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1990.
- Coltelli, Laura, editor, Native American Literatures. SEU (Pisa, Italy), 1994.
- Coltelli, Laura, editor, The Spiral of Memory: Interviews: Joy Harjo, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1996.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 83, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
- Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, 1992, Volume 175: Native American Writers of the United States, 1997.
- Gunn Allen, Paula, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1986.
- Harjo, Joy, She Had Some Horses, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1983.
- Harjo, Joy, In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press, 1990.
- Hinton, Laura, and Cynthia Hogue, editors, We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2002.
- Hobson, Geary, editor, The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, Red Earth, 1979.
- Keller, Lynn, and Cristanne Miller, editors, Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1994.
- Norwood, Vera, and Janice Monk, editors, The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1987.
- Pettit, Rhonda, Joy Harjo, Boise State University (Boise, ID), 1998.
- Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, editors, I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1987.
- Albuquerque Journal, February 7, 1997 p. E13; May 11, 1997, p. C9; September 15, 2002, p. F8.
- Albuquerque Tribune, February 7, 1997, p. B4; January 21, 1998, p. C6.
- American Book Review, April-May, 1991, pp. 10-11.
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- Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1989, section 5, pp. 1, 14-16.
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- Ms., July-August, 1991; September-October, 1991, p. 73.
- Native American Literatures: Forum, 1989, p. 185.
- North Dakota Quarterly, spring, 1985, pp. 220-234.
- Oregonian (Portland, OR), October 19, 1998.
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- Western American Literature, summer, 2000, p. 131.
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- wicazo sa review: A Journal of Native American Studies, 2000 p. 27.
- Women's Review of Books, July, 1990, pp. 17-18.
- World Literature Today, winter, 1991, pp. 167-168; spring, 1992, pp. 286-291.
- PAL: Perspectives in American Literature—A Research and Reference Guide, http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap10/harjo.html/ (March 10, 2004).
- Poetry Magazine, http://www.poetrymagazine.com/ (March 3, 2003).
- Southern Scribe, http://www.southernscribe.com/ (March 3, 2003), interview with Harjo.
- The Power of the Word (video), with Bill Moyers, PBS Video (Alexandria, VA), 1989.