Beyond Language

Joy Harjo on writing her life in poetry.
Joy Harjo

I first met Joy Harjo more than a decade ago, during my undergraduate studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts where she was a visiting poet. I remember an intimate gathering in the campus hogan with Joy and my fellow creative writing students. I remember a lit fire in the wood stove. And more than anything, I remember Joy talking about her writing process: “I don’t do linguistic gymnastics,” she said confidently, so matter-of-factly. It's important to write poems with a sense of purpose, she explained to us. Those words made a lasting impression. I took her words to mean, Don’t waste your time or mess around. Make it count! But Joy’s work as a poet not only counts, it is necessary and vital. She gives voice to those who are often unheard, through poems that are personal and revealing; loadstones to pull us close. All the while, there's an openness, a radiation, a reaching out to future generations. In her own words, "I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it."

Joy is the author of numerous books, including eight collections of poetry, and the recipient of many awards, including this year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. We spoke by phone from Harjo’s current home in Tennessee, where she holds the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence in creative writing at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The following interview was edited and condensed. 

In the introduction to your 2002 collection, How We Became Human, you wrote about how poetry showed up in your life during an intensely difficult time. “Poetry approached me in that chaos of raw inverted power and leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder, said, ‘You need to learn how to listen, you need grace, you need to learn how to speak.’ … The journey toward poetry worked exactly as the process of writing a poem. It started from the inside out, then turned back in to complete a movement.”

I am most curious about your line regarding the process of writing a poem and the journey toward poetry, which is a journey that I think poets are always on. It’s not a done deal. Right?

[Laughing] Right. No, it’s never a done deal.

I think I was aware of that journey in poetry as a child, even before I had the words to speak. My grandmother was a painter, and she also collected Native art and ancient Chinese art. So my father had some of her pieces. Contemplation, I believe, is the word I’m looking for. I believe children can be extremely contemplative because as a child you feel things so deeply, so strongly; there’s a presence, an alertness of the senses. And I remember it felt like I was learning contemplation there. I would look at her paintings for a long time. Then I would follow the images—the line, the color, the subject. We had some Chinese engraved pots—there were these people [on the pots] doing things—and I would sit there, be there in their presence. It would feel like as if I was in the presence of poets. They were thinking and talking philosophically, and, you know, there I was—a little Indian kid in Oklahoma sitting in this house, in these rows of houses put together for post-war veterans. I would say words I’d heard these imaginary figures say, phrases like poetry. I would repeat them aloud, playing with sound. I also found peace outside. There was the poetry and contemplation of the sun coming up, the different trees, all the animals, insects, and birds in the yard. 

I think children naturally turn toward that, toward the making. I wasn’t writing, but there was an awareness. And I think because we’re human beings, there’s always a sense of language. Even looking at the philosophers on these Chinese bowls or two horse figures in a painting, there’s still language there. Poetry is the closest step to beyond language, beyond the words. You absolutely need the words, but you employ language in poetry in a way that’s kinetic, spiritual, and sensual. At least for me, that’s my approach to writing. I feel it.

I still feel new to writing, in many ways, and what comes with it. One thing I’m realizing is that making art and poetry is not just about me and the page. Sometimes I wish it were. But there’s so much more with regard to people, community, and relationships. Could you share anything with younger writers about all that comes with making art and writing?

I remember going to my first writing workshop at the University of New Mexico (UNM). I had inspirational teachers there. And they gave me permission. I remember, early on, thinking that there was such a responsibility with language. I would almost envy my non-Native classmates because they wrote about anything they wanted. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have the ability to write about anything I wanted, but I feel—and I think a lot of Native writers feel this and know this—the word is so loaded. We come from cultures that still understand that to speak something is a powerful and dangerous thing, but it can bring incredible beauty. It shifts. You know that you can shift things. Whether we’re aware of it consciously when we’re writing, [this awareness] has been so built in, from day one. And when you’re dealing with poetry, that’s language at its most fundamental power. So I’ve always felt quite a responsibility. 

Yet, at the other side of it, there’s this immense sense of play that is so compelling. It’s unlike anything else. Even if it’s English—which is the language that colonized my people—there’s always this incredible sense of responsibility that’s right up against this incredible sense of play and possibility. And even magic. It’s all there, together. 
But I think as Natives, given our history here and our relationship with the English language, we realize we are taking people with us. Our whole history is linked with language. I mean, we’re in the predicament we’re in now because of language, all our treaties and signing this and that. It’s all because of language and the way it’s been used.

Can you think of any pieces or even books you’ve written in which you felt that sense of play? Or are there certain time periods that you look back on as important turning points? 

When I was an art major at UNM, it was at the height of the Native rights movement. I remember being pregnant with Rainy during [the takeover of] Wounded Knee. I wanted to go up there, but I couldn’t because I was pregnant. I wanted to surround my forming daughter with a peace that had been hard to find in our families. I began to veer from painting to writing poetry because I realized that the voices speaking Native poetry and experience were, for the most part, male, and our experience during those times was similar—we were fighting for our rights but so different. There were the everyday struggles. I remember going to the Save the Children Foundation once because I was desperate for help. I got some money from the tribe, and I did work study at Native studies, but it wasn’t enough. I always paid the rent up. I’d buy everybody a new set of clothes and get my books. And then the struggle was on to try to keep enough food. That has everything to do with writing poetry. As Audre Lorde said, there is no separation. 
Yes, I’ve been there.

Poetry was one of my first loves as a child. I read Dickinson, Whitman, the usual canon. But I also came to poetry through song lyrics, especially my mother’s songwriting. There was also poetry in oratory. I heard Martin Luther King, I was around people like Vine Deloria. Later, I got to spend time with him. I’d go sit with him in Li’l Abner’s in Tucson. He and I had a lot of similar metaphysical interests. He was our James Baldwin. When I started writing, I was around people like him. I was around Leslie Silko, who at that time had started teaching at UNM. I remember going to her office and hanging out. Rudy Anaya. And then, Ishmael Reed would come to town. And Jim Welch; I remember meeting him. I was the quiet person in the room, watching, listening, not saying anything. I often could not speak from a deeply ingrained fear of speaking. Maybe that’s why I admired poetry and oratory so much. 

So I think when that poetry spirit came, it was like, “OK, enough of this! We’re going to teach you how to stand with us, to sing with us.” Not as a solo poet, but … you realize, you have all these people with you. Maya Angelou said, very eloquently, “You bring your people with you.” I love that. So I got the opportunity through watching and being in the times I came of age in to see our people stand up and say, “This is wrong! You can’t do this to us anymore.” It was very empowering because I remember what my father went through—and even my mother—being Indian in Oklahoma. It was quite an amazing moment of galvanization, hearing the people speaking and the poets coming out of that. 

So I came into my work as a poet with a sense of responsibility. Knowing we could all die. Our words mattered. I came into poetry feeling as though, on some level, these words were not just mine but my grandparents’, their parents’. And I was helping others speak, especially Native women. Because, you know, the men were always talking. My spirit asked, where are the Native women’s voices? Their voices are different from these guys’—and these guys are good speakers. I listened to them, and I watched them. Yet my life was about trying to put food on the table. We cooked everything; we didn’t have money to go out to get McDonald’s or go anywhere. That wasn’t even in our consciousness then. It was a different kind of world. And that was some of the criticism I faced for majoring in poetry. How are you going to take care of your family with poetry? What does poetry matter? But I was thinking about what was going on at Wounded Knee in our day-to-day lives as Native people … just as it continues now, at Standing Rock, in our Native communities throughout this hemisphere. We were struggling with just basic considerations of life and the quality of life. Our art had to somehow intersect with that. 

But those earliest poems were so raw. And it was like, OK, what is our experience? There was a lot of violence. There was a lot of drinking, even on my part. My earliest poems dealt with so much of that rawness; it was discovery. I thought, I’m going to see what a poem can do. What do you put in a poem? What do you leave out? What kind of medium is this? It’s different from paint. And what can a poem hold? Are some things too heavy for a poem to hold? Maybe some things are not supposed to be put in English words at all. Maybe some things do not belong in a poem. Maybe some things are for another time. Do I even have a right to speak in a poem? All those issues started coming up. When I look back, I kind of flinch too. I don’t know that I was brave, but I was writing my life in poetry. Yet what’s always motivated me in the midst of all this human behavior, coming and going, is that sense of mystery and incredible beauty.

I feel, as a writer, especially in the times we’re in right now, there’s an urgency and a responsibility to speak a truth. To speak to current issues, to be bold and fearless. But I’m learning that I also need to be conscious of the kind of energy I’m creating. How do you balance being fearless, being bold and speaking truth—and being mindful about the kind of energy you’re engaging in? 

It’s a hard one. The thing with my poetry is, there’s a voice. It’s a certain voice. It has its own integrity. It will not go where it doesn’t want to go. I have tried to “make” it, for example, write something inspired by hip-hop. And my poetry voice looked over at me and said without words, “Go ahead and try.” But it did not fit my poetry voice. It has its own sound, is so much older than me, wiser even, and … wiseass.

So as this destruction of democratic principles, disassembling of protections of our environment, and police violence continue in this world and overwhelm, I always remember hearing someone older and wiser in the circle point out that we are in a continuum that has gone on for millennia, and colonization is just a moment. It will destroy itself, and we will go on. That helps my mind. So when I approach political poems, I believe essentially they are all political. My first impulse is to fight, to engage in a struggle. But if I stop and listen, my poetry spirit will say, “OK, we’re going to walk around until this wears off, until you start seeing beyond this immediate confrontation.” Go read Neruda or Li Po or listen to John Coltrane. 

I’ve been trying to write poems that directly confront our current political situation, which is really not current at all. I have a hard time with those kinds of poems, but the role of the poet is truth teller. So I go to mythology. Trickster figures, such as Rabbit, are useful for speaking of lying, greedy, and braggart leadership that has tilted our country. 

Yes, it’s hard to force oneself to write “about” a thing when the poem may want to be free of that. I think my poems always want that—a freedom, even from me. 

Even with Standing Rock—I have a song about Standing Rock that comes at the beginning of a play—I am rewriting it. … And I recently finished one of my best poems, which will be featured in Poetry: “How To Write a Poem in a Time of War.” Sometimes I just hear a voice, and that’s what started the poem: 

You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck. 
                                              Shrapnel and the eye  
Of a house, a row of houses. There’s a rat scrambling
From light with fleshy trash in its mouth. A baby strapped to its mother’s back
Cut loose.                                       Soldiers crawl the city, 

the river, the town, the village, 
                               the bedroom, our kitchen. They eat everything. 
Or burn it.

And then it just goes from there … it winds back through American history and threads then with now. 

Being in these homelands (in Tennessee) will be another transformative place and time for my creative work. I realized that when Owen [Harjo’s husband] and I landed here, we were the grandchildren who came back. It felt really sad that first night we stayed here because I could feel those Mvskoke ancestors whose spirits still live here in the trees. I was just crying, and they were crying because we didn’t all die. All this can live in a poem. You do that too, Layli, in Whereas.

It’s our existence, really.


Is there anything you’ve been thinking about recently that you’d like to share with regard to this journey toward poetry that we’re all on, together? 

Yes, one thing I’d like to talk about is your generation. What has been a light of this whole journey is to come to this point—I’m still working, and I still feel as though I’ve got my best work ahead of me—but the one thing you always look for is, who’s coming with you. Who’s coming up? I remember looking for a long time, and different people would emerge, but what’s been very exciting is to watch your generation, such as Jennifer Foerster, dg okpik, and you. There’re so many others too; I’ve watched this emergence of Joan Kane, Santee Frazier, and Sherwin Bitsui. Watching this, I know it’s going to continue. There is a continuum, as that person reminded me/us, that goes beyond the present mind. 

I think of the generation before me—with Simon Ortiz, who’s ten years older than me, and Leslie Silko, who is a few years older than me as well. They were my teachers, coming up. They passed it on. I have poems written by my grandchildren. I’ve begun thinking in terms of generations. A generation is like a person. Each bears particular themes and predominant colors. There are songs and a music scape of your generation. The rest of us hear it and experience it, but it’s in a different way. So a generation, in a sense, is quite an incredible being. 

That’s really a beautiful way of putting it. I love the idea of our generation’s having a “music scape” or "predominant colors.” It seemed as though, a few years ago, whenever there was a discussion of Native poetics, we were often asked to try to define the differences between my generation and yours. Yet, as I get older, I also recognize so many threads that are the same—or at least, very similar—between generations. It’s a continuum, as you said. 

Finally, I wonder, what does it mean to you to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement in poetry?

It’s a surprise, and it’s a deep honor. I write poetry because I’m motivated by beauty, by vision and seeing something beyond my understanding. So to receive recognition for this … well, it’s never a given. But I want to thank the spirit of poetry that continues to find me here, to find all of us. It has stood by me when I have had nearly nothing else to sustain me. Poetry continues to stun me with insight through language, wherever and however it appears throughout this Earth. Most poetry isn’t written but rather spoken and sung. To win such an esteemed award for my art means that a door has been opened for indigenous poets to be heard, for women poets, and acknowledges that there are many roads to poetry, though some are obscure and will never have names or schools behind them. 

Originally Published: May 9th, 2017

Layli Long Soldier earned a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA with honors from Bard College. She is the author of the chapbook Chromosomory (2010) and the full-length collection Whereas (2017), which won the National Books Critics Circle award and was a finalist for the...

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