This is a guest blog by Barbara Bair, curator of Literature, Culture and the Arts in the Manuscript Division.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo returns to Washington, D.C., to celebrate new books and engage in collaborative storytelling of the earth and the natural world in sessions shared with author Camile T. Dungy and artist Michaela Goade at the 2023 National Book Festival, coming up on Aug. 12.
“Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in . . .” Joy Harjo writes in “My House is the Red Earth,” which is one of fifty poems for fifty years included in her new collection “Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years,” a featured book for this year’s National Book Festival.
Harjo “invites us in” to hear more in the spirit of this poem at the festival coming up this Saturday on August 12, when she will share a morning session and noon-time book signing with visual artist and Caldecott medalist Michaela Goade (“A Poem Is a Pocket That Can Hold Your Dreams,” Curiosity Stage, Room 202, South Building 10:45-11:45 EDT) and a separate story-telling conversation in the afternoon with fellow poet, professor and memoirist, the nature writer Camile T. Dungy (“The World Offers Itself to Your Imagination: Nature Poetry,” Inspiration Stage, Ballroom A, 1:45-2:45 EDT).
The spirit of the red earth—and of sky, sun, moon, air, and water—is strongly evoked in Harjo and Goade’s new children’s book “Remember,” which combines text from Harjo’s poem “Remember” and illustrations by Goade.
Harjo began her college studies focused on the visual arts, but soon shifted to poetry, music and performance art. It is thus fitting that this new storybook melds together artwork and the written and spoken word into visual immersive poetry. The picture book can be shared aloud with children at storytelling time, or explored by fledgling readers on their own. “Remember” centers on the emerging consciousness of a Native American girl, who is pictured on the cover surrounded in a vibrant verdant burst of swirling red and redness. It combines elements of Harjo’s Mvskoke Nation heritage, Indigenous creation tales passed through generations and Goade’s Tlingit Pacific Northwest cultural tradition, including her use of modes of formline art. A sister in spirit to Lucille Clifton’s poem “the earth is a living thing” (which includes a black bear, a hawk, the mountain and the sea, a fish, a favorite child), Remember embraces ecological universality. It is crafted out of Native American creation stories and images of the natural world.
Originally published in 1983 in She Had Some Horses, Harjo’s poem “Remember” has proven to be perennial. It blooms persistently in 2023 as both the text of Remember and as a selected poem in “Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light.” In her foreword to “Weaving Sundown,” fellow writer Sandra Cisneros describes Harjo, her long-time friend, as a seer or navigator, and classifies the poem “Remember” as a prayer.
The first lines of this poem (and first page of text in the children’s book) ask the reader/listener to “Remember the sky you were born under, / know each of the star’s stories.” Turning further into the pages of “Remember” to view Goade’s illustrations, we see night sky and raven, a female moon, creatures of the earth, water, and sky—fish, seaweed, bird, a pregnant sea lion balancing her floating offspring inside her body while swimming onward; a bear curled asleep in a den dug in the earth among roots of trees, and shaped round like the pad of her paw. A river winds under the rising sun and trees stretch their branches toward the light. We learn in poem-and-picture of life springing from generations of human ancestors, but also sea-wise turtles, swiftly running mammals, and leaping fish.
Like Camille T. Dungy, who in her National Book Festival featured book “Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden,” describes reaching down with bare hands into her garden and showing her daughter Callie all that grows, an illustration in “Remember” depicts a brown mother and daughter kneeling together, tending seedlings that are newly taking root atop deep rich earthen soil. Harjo’s accompanying text reads:
“Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth,
white earth, brown earth, we are earth.”
She reminds the reader that animals and plants are living poems, and that the winds know the origins of our world. “Remember,” the pictures and text join together to say in closing, “you are this universe / And this universe is you.”
Professor Camile T. Dungy is the editor of the anthology “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.” Her new book “Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden” is a botanical litany, grounded with love in the Prairie Project garden Dungy nurtures from rich mulched soil on the south side of her yard in Fort Collins, Colorado, in association with her husband and young daughter.
Writing in fellow recognition with Harjo and Goade of the importance of Black and Brown people in relation to nature and the Earth, Dungy story-tells out of the deep roots of generations of her African American family, Black intellectualism and civil rights. Her book—which is part memoir, part literary criticism, part history—uses neighbor and familial relations, book learning, and discussions between experts and friends as well as personal experience as the basis for its content. Dungy offers critiques of the environmental literary canon, including nature writing by essayist Annie Dillard and poet Mary Oliver. Novelist Willa Cather and painter Mary Cassatt also people her pages, as does conservationist John Muir and English botanist-explorer Thomas Nuttall. She includes her own poem, “Origin Story,” and weaves in stories and words of fellow poets from Anne Spencer to Nicki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Lucille Clifton. She educates the reader about plants, birds, and animals of the West—sage and cottonwood, mountain ash, choke cherries, bison, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and the cottontail rabbits who inhabit her own garden.
“Soil” is a story in which Dungy remembers backwards through time and reaches forward to the world in the making, documenting resilience. She tells of the natural and social-justice ecosystems of the places where she and her family have lived, worked, or traveled—Lynchburg, Virginia; Irvine and Oakland, California; historic sites of Memphis and St. Louis—but always loops back in her narrative to Fort Collins and the Colorado prairies in recent years. The soil and mulch that first arrived dumped in heaps on her street and driveway, full of hope and promise, gives way—through imagination and mindful planning, impatient waiting, work, sweat, tenderness and numerous adaptations—into a varied diverse garden full of living beings. Dungy’s garden waxes and wanes with snow and sun in the seasons. It provides beauty outside her windows and a life-affirming counter-force to outer elements that threaten to ravage—be those deaths due to the Covid 19 pandemic, remote learning for her daughter, Black Lives Matter events or the wind-swept fires that burn through enormous acreages of wild spaces and reach within ten miles of her family’s urban home.
While Cisneros categorized the poem “Remember” as a prayer, Dungy near the end of “Soil” speaks of a garden as a matter of faith. Referring to Hebrews II:1, she thinks of her garden as a promise of the still-to-be-imagined, a matter of trust in the substance of things not yet seen. “I dig up a lot of awful history when I kneel in my garden” she writes, “But, my god, a lot of beauty grows out of this soil as well.” (p. 308).
For more appearances from Dungy, Harjo and Goade, see:
Joy Harjo and Michaela Goade Book Signing starting at 12:00 EDT
“Behind the Scenes With Black Writers with Jericho Brown, Camille T. Dungy and Tiphanie Yanique” starting at 3:30 EDT and Dungy’s Book Signing at 5:00 EDT.
Come see, hear and enjoy the insights and creative work of Harjo, Dungy and Goade and the many other authors and books represented at this year’s National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, August 12, 2023 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (doors open at 8:30 a.m.). A selection of presentations will be livestreamed and available online for nationwide audiences, and videos of all presentations will be made available on demand in the weeks following the Festival. Learn more about how to experience the Festival by using the virtual attendee guide.