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Joy Harjo with her Ivan Sandroff Award crystal. (Beowulf Sheehan)

Celebrating Joy

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In honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to give a shout-out to our 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Joy Harjo. On March 23rd, Joy received the Ivan Sandroff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. The award, named after the first president of the organization, honors “a person who has, over time, made significant contributions to book culture.” Previous recipients of the prize include Margaret Atwood, Wendell Berry, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison.

Joy Harjo onstage at the National Book Critics Circle Awards. (Beowulf Sheehan)

I had the honor of introducing Joy at the awards ceremony in New York City last month. I read the quote from the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, upon appointing Joy back in 2019, and talked about Joy’s record-tying three terms in the role. She accomplished so much, including her signature “Living Nations, Living Words” project, her Native American Heritage Month event with the Librarian and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Joy’s former student), and the week of events that closed her laureateship–featuring a historic first retreat of In-Na-Po: Indigenous Nations Poets, a new organization mentoring emerging Native writers.

Joy’s speech–in front of a standing-room only crowd of writers, critics, publishers, students, and fans of literature–opened with a joke: “I am honored to be standing here before you, in person, to accept this honor for a lifetime of mischief, I mean writing.” She then explained that “the best writing makes for a kind of mischief, that is, it runs counter to the expected, opens doors of fresh insight that upset the status quo, makes a pathway for justice to have its say.” Joy went on to talk about her own coming-to-poetry, and the dearth of Native poets and writers she encountered in her education, as well as the changes she has seen–and, really, been a part of creating–in her fifty-year career. And, as only Joy can do, she talked about poetry in a larger and more powerful time-frame: “Through the years I came to understand that poets are the point people, that is, we are just a little ahead when it comes to the shape of an age, and how it will arrange itself around the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.”

I’m happy to say that this wasn’t the only high-profile honor Joy received this spring; she also won the 2023 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. This prize is awarded biennially by Yale University to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years or for lifetime achievement in poetry and includes a cash award of $175,000. Those of you who know the literary history of the Library know that the Bollingen Prize was originally given by the Library of Congress, and know of the controversy around its first recipient–I’m happy there’s nothing but praise for its most recent recipient and her work. As this year’s judges wrote, ““Through decades of restless creativity and expansive memory, Joy Harjo has produced a spellbinding body of work that unsettles new forms of language, and continually challenges the possibilities of where poetry has been and where it can still arrive.”

If you’re curious about Joy, go to her LIBguide to learn more about her–you can see our past blogs on her, as well as watch her performances and listen to her interviews, and even read reviews of her books. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite photos of Joy, at her last official event as poet laureate: a dance party on the steps of the Library’s Jefferson Building. I am so happy she continues to be celebrated for her writing and her service, including as the nation’s poet.

Joy dancing at her Closing Event Dance Party, April 29, 2022. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

Comments (2)

  1. Good job

  2. So happy to have heard Joy Harjo both at an AWP conference, and at the Shinnecock Nation this past year. Congratulations!

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