Joy Harjo 101
Few poets, living or dead, have blazed as many literary trails as Joy Harjo. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, she grew up in near poverty in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a background that deeply informs her work. In addition to numerous collections of poems, she has written an acclaimed memoir, a play, essay collections, and two children’s books. She has edited several anthologies and has recorded several music albums. Inspired by poets ranging from Richard Hugo to Pablo Neruda to June Jordan, Harjo, in her generous work, remakes the world from a Native American perspective. Her passionate lyrics place her own struggles—especially as a woman and a mother—alongside those of her community, representing both with clarity, sympathy, and fire. Moving freely between the everyday and the eternal, her poems defy centuries of colonial deprivation, often excavating and incorporating Muscogee history, culture, and identity. Her surname, taken from her grandmother, means “so brave it’s crazy.” It is a fitting description for her body of work, which was recognized with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2017. The following small sampling serves as a brief introduction to her wide range of poetry.
“She Had Some Horses”
Harjo may still be best known for her landmark book She Had Some Horses (1983), whose powerful explorations of Native American womanhood have been widely praised and anthologized. The collection’s incantatory title poem is a feminist masterpiece, pairing surrealist imagery and searing autobiographical snapshots. Read aloud, the poem is at once testimony and prayer, its chant-like repetition allowing the multiple (and sometimes contradictory) selves Harjo describes to exist simultaneously.
“My House is the Red Earth”
As a multi-genre, multimedia artist, Harjo has often crossed aesthetic boundaries and defied easy classification. “My House” comes from the exemplary Secrets from the Center of the World (1989), which pairs her writing with Stephen Strom’s photographs of the Four Corners area. Drawing on Strom’s visuals, Native American folklore, and geologic history, this sly prose poem nudges us to question if there’s anything really central about our human existence on Earth.
Harjo combines the mundane with the mythic—truck stops with “imaginary buffalo”—in the opening poem from In Mad Love and War (1990). Addressed to Darlene Wind, a fellow graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the poem looks back on their wild days in the Midwest, casting them as trickster figures who “clowned” their way through the “terror” of being some of the first Native writers admitted to the famed MFA program. The poem can be read as a sort of ars poetica: much of Harjo’s work seeks that same grace she and Wind sought then, that balance between a colonized past and an unimagined future, the “stubborn memory” of genocide and “hope of children and corn.”
“Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace”
Like “Grace,” this piece from The Woman Who Fell to Earth (1996) connects the lyric to the historic or cosmic, this time imagining the poem’s domestic scene as part of a vast, living tapestry. Here “stars gossip” and the night sky, “the panther of the heavens,” ruminates just like the poem’s other insomniacs. But Harjo’s poem also displays a gritty realism, a keen poetic eye, and an encompassing sympathy for all her characters, from the “escapees from the night shift” to the mother contemplating suicide in her car.
“A Map to the Next World”
Many of Harjo’s poems take the creation story as their basic frame. In a previous Harjo poem, the world begins and ends at the kitchen table (“Perhaps the World Ends Here”) and in another, September 11th ends one world and creates a new existence (“When the World as We Knew It Ended”). Then, “A Map to the Next World,” from her award-winning collection of the same name, Harjo gives instructions to her granddaughter for finding her way in the coming world. Harjo urges her to look inside herself for guidance, to imagine something beyond the “killing fields” and “nuclear anger” of the 20th century and the Western ideas of time and knowledge that lead to them. “The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine,” she writes, “a spiral on the road of knowledge.”
For Harjo, a saxophonist and vocalist, music provides not only a means of structuring poems but also a way to access something beyond words, to connect with the “worlds below us and above us.” This poem from 2002 uses sound to make space for the body. Recounting her experiences rowing dugout canoes in Hawaii, Harjo imitates the rhythmic pull of the oars with an onomatopoetic refrain, a sigh that suggests both exertion and relief.
“Everybody Has a Heartache (a blues)”
Harjo channels Walt Whitman in this poem from Poetry magazine and included in her recent book, Conflict Resolution for Human Beings (2015), forging a collective “we” through a distinctly American musical structure. But like Langston Hughes, another influence here, she also insists on our differences and on singing from the “blues shack of disappeared history.” For Harjo, poetry offers one way to fight the erasure of Native Americans and the stereotypes and simplifications of their culture. “Unless the indigenous are dancing powwow all decked out in flash and beauty / We just don’t exist,” she writes. But in this poem, she also exists on her own terms, present, embodied, contemporary—and stranded in “the terminal of stopped time” alongside everyone else.
“An American Sunrise”
First published in Poetry magazine in 2017, “Sunrise” is a model of the new Golden Shovel form: each of its long lines ends with a word taken from “We Real Cool,” the same Gwendolyn Brooks poem that inspired Terrance Hayes to invent the form. But Harjo also pays tribute to Brooks, another poet of social observation and political activism, through the poem’s setting, capturing the bluesy mood of a juke joint with just a few quick images. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the revelry the poem describes is pointedly political, at once a defiant and (unfortunately) unsurprised lament. “We are still America,” Harjo writes, “and we still want justice.”
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.