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Journal, Day Four

By Joy Harjo

Today I got to listen over the phone to the calls and cries of the blanket toss competition at the Eskimo Olympics, going on right now in Fairbanks, Alaska. Tug-of-war is another of the events at the Eskimo Olympics. The tug-of-war between white men and native women is a recurring event. The women have always won.

Some tug-of-war games I’d love to see: academic poets versus slam poets, novelists versus poets, East Coast writers versus West Coast . . .


I agree with you Paul. Poems can exist as shimmering entities, in their own right. Can they exist without a voice? Even if they are on paper or the screen there is a voice we hear when we read. Where is that voice located? In the head, heart, belly, or somewhere else in consciousness? Is it our own voice? Is it an imagined voice, or parent’s voice, or teacher’s voice? Or is it the imagined voice of the poet speaking directly to us?


It can be disconcerting to hear someone else speak or sing your poems. “Eagle Poem/Song” has been licensed and recorded and performed in many different, mostly classically European styles. The poem is transformed, becomes something else. The other recordings or performances become stepchildren of a sort. They make a new life for themselves in the arms of someone else’s music. It’s always a little strange. The words are the constant, yet the context changes. The poem goes from wearing red cowboy boots and jeans to wearing furs, a glint of diamonds and heels—and hangs out in different company.


Each poem exists within my imagination differently than it does each reader’s—yet there is some sort of commonality or dare I say, spirit? A poem has to have integrity of architecture and voice to stand. What is it about Robert Frost and “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” that sticks to the American imagination? Rhythm, sound, image, voice, and feel all converge perfectly. And then there’s the horse. A horse ups the ante. The horses in James Wright’s poems are still there, giving a sense of vulnerability, nobility and grace.


Yet poetry, music, and dance came into the physical world together and they feel lonely when they separate. Most poetry of the world is oral, doesn’t appear in books of poetry. Hula was not invented as a dance to entertain tourists though a branch of it became just that—it’s dance that’s done to epic poetry. Most indigenous people’s poetry isn’t separate from music or dance. It was when I returned to the poetry of my father’s people, that I began my own experiments and practice of bringing back together poetry and music. My first experiment was with some of the best jazz musicians in Denver. The poetry was flatly read (those readings sound really flat, in retrospect), and recorded. Then the musicians came into the studio and added in selected places. Laura Newman, a fine jazz saxophonist held it all together with soulful riffs. Around that time I started playing saxophone, started with a G blues scale.

Mvskoke people were there when jazz was invented. Congo Square in New Orleans was on the site of a Houma ceremonial ground. If you ever hear Mvskoke music you will hear one of the important components of the American music that rose from those sacred grounds. We were part of that amalgamation.

When I was in junior high my stepfather forbid me to sing. It was also in junior high that I wanted to play saxophone. The band teacher refused. “Girls can’t play sax”, he said as he dismissed my request. I walked out of the band room and away from music. Though not really, because it was rhythm that drove the poetry I started writing in my mid-20s. And then in my late 30s I finally started on the sax, and eventually put my first band(s) together to put together poetry and music. At first I read—then the reading became more melodic, more integrated with the music. I had poems, and the music stood across the practice room in its own form and I had to figure out a way to get them together. Both had to make concessions in form and shape. Letter From the End of the Twentieth Centurywas the result of that experiment. Jayne Cortez, who I heard in New York City in the late ‘70s, blew me open. And Linton Kwesi Johnson, who I heard perform in Amsterdam at one of those wild One World Poetry events in the early ‘80s, inspired me. Ginsberg was the King of poetry there.

Now I’ve started singing and singing makes other demands on poems that become songs. Phrasing changes. The singing voice is an additional carrier of meaning. I’ve written some lyrics and hold them to the same standards as my poetry. At first it was difficult to do so—because we hear so many song lyrics, most of us, more than fine poetry—it’s difficult to transcend the hardened ruts. For awhile I got stuck in between the territory of demanding poetry and freewheeling songwriting and couldn’t write a decent poem or a good lyric.


I’m babbling and it’s late. And it’s finally cooling off and the incessant drilling and sawing that went on from 7 AM to 5:30 PM has mercifully stopped. At about four after I worked valiantly to record and arrange a poem, “Sunrise” that is now a song (with heavy cutting), and practiced sax, I couldn’t stand the racket anymore. I went outside to talk with the workmen. I couldn’t tell them to stop but I could ask them when the hell was going to end. Just knowing there will be an end gives the mind some sky blue to hang the frustration on. It turns out one of the guys is a trance medium. (I first heard it as “trans-medium”….hmmmmm….)He was asking me for “Indian” words as his guide is Indian. There are over five hundred tribes and nearly as many languages.


And, Paul, remember T.S. Eliot’s poems make the Broadway CATS production. And
Emily Dickinson’s poems can be song to the theme song for Gilligan’s Island.


Here is a Web site for one of my favorite poets, the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish:


Mahmoud Darwish wrote “A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies,” one of his best known poems, just after the 1967 war. Darwish tells of an Israeli friend who decided to leave the country after returning home from the front.

I want a good heart Not the weight of a gun’s magazine.
I refuse to die
Turning my gun my love
On women and children.

This poem was very controversial. To allow the enemy humanness is radical. What happens when you and the enemy become one? What happens when you become absolutely fearless?


I was disturbed and in a terrible funk yesterday with the weight of the ongoing news of wars, fires, heat and other intimate familial destructions. Drove to the other side of the island for an outrigger canoe paddling practice. Getting into the water, and practicing racing sprints helped ease the anxiety, the pain. Water soothes grieving. There’s a reason most of the surface of Earth is water.


Evening Song

I failed a little
Dipped the wound in water
Wrapped it in stars
Climbed into the canoe
And paddled out from the weeping
Let the failing fail
Let the stars do their staring
Let the canoe carry
What can’t be carried.


Good night.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, July 20th, 2006 by Joy Harjo.