Joy Harjo was born in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to Native American and Canadian ancestry. Strongly influenced by her Muskogee Creek heritage, feminist and social concerns, and her background in the arts, Harjo frequently incorporates Native American myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry tends to emphasize the Southwest landscape and 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.” Harjo’s work is largely autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and her preoccupation with survival and the limitations of language. A critically-acclaimed poet, her many honors include the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, 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 and the Witter Bynner Foundation. In addition to writing poetry, Harjo is a noted teacher and saxophonist, performing for many years with her band, Poetic Justice.
Her 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 and world view of native 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.”
That search for freedom and self-actualization is particularly noticeable in Harjo’s third book of poetry, She Had Some Horses (1983). The book frequently 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. In her prose poetry collection Secrets from the Center of the World (1989), each poem is accompanied by a color photograph of the Southwest landscape. Praising the volume in the Village Voice, Dan Bellm wrote, “Secrets is a rather unlikely experiment that turned into a satisfying and beautiful book…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 best-known volume, the multiaward-winning In Mad Love and War (1990), is more overtly concerned with politics, tradition, remembrance, and the transformational aspects of poetry. The first section, which relates various acts of violence, including the murder of an Indian leader as well as attempts to deny Harjo her heritage, explores the difficulties many Native Americans 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.” Praising the volume in the Prairie Schooner, Kathleen West wrote, “In Mad Love and War has the power of beauty and prophecy and all the hope of love poised at its passionate beginning. It allows us to enter the place ‘we haven’t imagined’ and allows us to imagine what we will do when we are there.” The book won an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award
Harjo followed In Mad Love and War with The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994), another book of prose poetry. The title is based on an Iroquois myth about the descent of a female creator. As Frank Allen noted in Library Journal, Harjo is concerned with the vying forces of creation and destruction in contemporary society, embodied in such symbolism as wolves and northern lights contrasted with alcoholism and the Vietnam War. Booklist reviewer Pat Monaghan praised the poems as “stunning, mature, wholehearted, musical,” and the collection together as a “brilliant, unforgettable book.” Harjo’s next collection, A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales (2000), includes a long introduction and much commentary with the poems. The collection continues Harjo’s project of reclaiming Native American experience 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,” praise that seemed particularly apt after the publication of How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2001 (2002). A Publishers Weekly reviewer declared that the poems “show the remarkable progression of a writer determined to reconnect with her past and make sense of her present, drawing together the brutalities of contemporary reservation life with the beauty and sensibility of Native American culture and mythology.” Including previous work, How We Became Human, according to Pam Kingsbury of the Library Journal, “explores the role of the artist in society, the quest for love, the links among the arts, what constitutes family, and what it means to be human. Using the chant/myth/storytelling forms of her ancestors, she draws the reader into the awareness that ‘one people is related to another.’“ Harjo is currently writing a book of stories that is half-memoir, half-fiction and working on a book project with Laguna Pueblo photographer Lee Marmon.
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. 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. Recordings with band, Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, include Furious Light, 1986, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1994, and Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, 1997.
- 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.
- Secrets from the Center of the World, illustrated by Steven Strom, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1989.
- In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1990.
- The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.
- A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.
- How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2001, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
- (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.
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.
- American Indian Quarterly, spring, 1983, p. 27; spring, 1991, p. 273; fall, 1992, p. 533; winter, 1995, p. 1; spring, 2000, p. 200.
- American Studies International, June, 1997, p. 88.
- Belles Lettres, summer, 1991, pp. 7-8; summer, 1994, p. 46.
- Bloomsbury Review, March-April, 1996; November-December, 1997, p. 18.
- Booklist, November 15, 1994, p. 573; June 1, 1997, p. 1649; February 1, 2000, p. 1005.
- Boston Herald, April 10, 2003, p. 067.
- Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), October 4, 1998, p. G6.
- Current Biography, August, 2001, p. 50.
- ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum, fall, 1995, p. 44.
- Guardian (London, England), October 18, 2003, p. 7.
- Kenyon Review, spring, 1991, pp. 179-83; summer, 1993, pp. 57-66.
- Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 2002, p. 106.
- Library Journal, October 15, 1994, p. 72; November 15, 1994, p. 70; June 1, 1997, p. 100; June 15, 2002, p. 70.
- Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1989, section 5, pp. 1, 14-16.
- MELUS, spring, 1989-90; fall, 1993, p. 41; summer, 1994, p. 35.
- 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.
- Poetry, August, 1996, pp. 281-302.
- Poets and Writers Magazine, 1993, p. 23.
- Prairie Schooner, summer, 1992, pp. 128-132.
- Progressive, December, 1997, p. 42.
- PSA News: Newsletter of the Poetry Society of America, winter, 1993, p. 17.
- Publishers Weekly, November 28, 1994, p. 54; April 21, 1997, p. 57; January 10, 2000, p. 58; May 22, 2000, p. 92; June 17, 2002, p. 58.
- Religion and Literature, spring, 1994, p. 57; summer, 2001, p. 59.
- Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), March 29, 2000, p. 1c.
- San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 1997, p. 2.
- School Library Journal, April, 2000, p. 106.
- Small Press Review, March, 1983, p. 8.
- Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures, spring, 1994, p. 24; spring, 1995, p. 45.
- Village Voice, April 2, 1991, p. 78.
- Washington Post, August 20, 2000, p. X12.
- Western American Literature, summer, 2000, p. 131.
- Whole Earth Review, summer, 1995, p. 43; summer, 1998, p. 99.
- 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.
Poems By JOY HARJO
LIFE SPAN 1951–