A Larger Context that Reveals Meaning: An Interview with Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Photo credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh

In the past week, we have been thinking a lot about this unprecedented moment and how poetry might help us live through it. We have also been talking to our poet laureate, Joy Harjo, about her life right now—as she has started to field requests to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis with an eye toward poetry.

Below is a short interview I conducted with her via e-mail over the past two days. 

What’s life like now in Tulsa? And what’s it like right now for you as Poet Laureate?

In Tulsa, like the rest of the country, we have been put on alert to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Yet spring began despite the virus. Last night the thunder beings opened the door of the season as they met over the city and stormed. Today as my Tulsa Arts Fellowship (TAF) assistant and I transported items to my apartment office from my TAF studio, a snow of white flower petals rained over us. After we set everything up for working, I received a group email that our assistants would not be allowed in our studios. The organization is being extra cautious. We were told they could work remotely with us. This stymied the plans my TAF assistant and I had set for working through the spring. Most of the assistants have been let go for safety during the epidemic, though their pay means the rent paid, utilities and groceries.

All the restaurants have been shut down except for carryout. All performances and concerts have been cancelled. Because of the poet laureateship, I had a full schedule of performances, with weekly travels booked through into summer. All my events in March and April except for one have been cancelled. Only one venue asked if I’d be open to a virtual event. I agreed and was pleased that they will pay my full fee. Many poets, musicians and performers earn their living performing. Everyone is scrambling to figure it out, including restaurant workers and owners, and everyone else affected by the economic fallout from the virus. This morning the state ordered that all non-essential businesses close their doors.

I’ve been hearing from people by phone call. Before, everyone was running too fast. Texting serves a life speeded up by internet velocity. I question the driver, the impetus of the virus itself, for every life form emerges from desire, and finds its shape and intent there. I read there are now dolphins in clear Venice canals, less environmental pollution all over the world. There is always a larger context that reveals meaning, and that context is often larger than the human mind. We find parts of it in mythic roots, in the inspiration from life forms on this earth. And this is why we often turn to poetry. And why the mythic and the natural world find a home in poetry.

I have been talking way too much as I travel, when so much of the time I would rather listen to what is going on in the deepest roots of our collective being. I have been such a reluctant servant of poetry.

At this moment, are you thinking of/turning to any poems of yours or others?

About four in the morning a few nights ago, when I knew this question was going to be asked, I thought of what I call “the fear poem,” or “I Give You Back.” It was a poem “given” to me not long after I started writing poetry. I came to realize how much I needed it, and how it came forth and had a life that was larger than that intimate space in my heart where poetry lives. And as I am thinking about it, there are some lines that can be revised with substitutions of the reader’s own. It’s the line, “I give you back to the soldiers . . .”. Those lines could contain the reader’s own list of what is stunning them with fear. Here is that poem:

I Give You Back

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my children.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the soldiers
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.

to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid

of dying.

(From How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. W. W. Norton: 2002. Reprinted with permission from the author.)

This is straight out of the Mvskoke tradition of writing poems/songs to directly transform what might be harmful to you or the people. I am reminded of the Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday’s poem, “Prayer for Words,” a poem that will be published in the forthcoming anthology, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: a Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. (It is due out from Norton in August.) It is a poem written to ensure the poets and those who speak with the intent of poetry have the words they need. We need the right words now.

How might the reading or writing of poems be helpful now?

Poetry is made to hold that which is too heavy for humans to hold. Poems can contain our grief, remorse, fury, even as they can reveal joy, celebration, and delight. Not everyone is a poet by calling and gift, but everyone can write poetry. We can each make word constructions that we can hold in our hands and even in our hearts, if we commit those poems to memory.

Poetry is one of the very few vehicles that is able to adroitly carry that which is without words. There’s something about the process that can communicate to those we love, or not, to our allies and enemies. Poets have been writing through the centuries; there are poetry traditions in every continent and culture. Poetry can heal. We are certainly in need of healing now as part of the earth collective. An intrinsic part of any healing is communication. Who are we? Where is the pain? Who is suffering? Why? How? Metaphor is a powerful healing component. A damaged heart can become a white bird whose wings are larger than the sun.

Poetry provides a kind of interior singing that can lift up our feet to keep walking when there is no way, no way at all. I recently watched a Nina Simone video performance of “Backlash Blues.” She praised the poet Langston Hughes. She said that he told her: “Keep on workin’ until you open up the door. You know who you are—”. She looked directly into the camera with a fierce stare that revealed her whole history of struggle as a black woman in a racially divided America and added, “And when they open up the door make sure you tell them where it’s at, and there will be no place to hide in all them strange hats.”

We will survive with poetry.

8 Comments

  1. Diana Kostelecky
    March 20, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    Thank you for your calm words. I am at the point of releasing a flood of tears but they stay knotted in my gut. I’m ready to bolt from self-isolation in Oregon and drive home with my daughter and grandson. Thank you.
    Diana Elizabeth Zunie Kostelecky

  2. Joan L Smith
    March 20, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Thank you Joy,
    I so needed your beautiful words today, when I can
    be at home, and take time to enjoy reading and listening
    to music, MVTO,

  3. lentigogirl
    March 20, 2020 at 5:39 pm

    This is so fabulous. Thank you!

  4. Eva Cruz
    March 20, 2020 at 11:39 pm

    Joy, I have been immersed in your poems for the last three weeks and I can see how your ideas here about the effects of poetry on life and the world are expressed in your poems, and how your words in this interview echo your poems. Thank you for such comfort in times of trouble.

  5. Dawn
    March 23, 2020 at 11:32 am

    Thank you for this. Hearts must sing truth, now more and more.

  6. Max ‘Tad’ Crocker
    March 30, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    I met you virtually today via my new copy of “Mirage”, our UNM alumni publication. As I read Leslie Linthicum’s article “A Poet for our Time”, I found myself seriously wondering what you were feeling, thinking, and writing today, March 30, 2020. Our shared COVID-19 pandemic pulls at our hearts and minds. We, all of humanity, are living through biological challenges not unlike those faced by our various ancestors. I hope this is an opportunity for personal, cultural, and social healing and growth. I look forward to your thoughtful vision and leadership.

  7. DONA L WEBSTER
    April 1, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    Joy,
    I have just discovered you. I want to thank you for the vision of dolphins in the clear water of the Venice Canals. I’d so love to see that!

    I’ve shared your words with my friends and family. One more positive occurrence to come out of this situation.

  8. Kim
    April 1, 2020 at 8:17 pm

    I have been living, with my husband in Australia for the last 40 years making pottery for a living. Living in a small beachside village. During the holidays we get a few tourists coming thru our doors. One such tourist, Louise, and I met and there was an instant connection. She introduced me to you. I am not much of a reader, but took the time out to learn a bit about you. Feel very blessed to have Louise come into my life and introduce you to me!

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