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Exploring Joy Harjo’s Poetry and Music with Students

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The following guest post was written by Kaleena Black, educational resources specialist in the Library’s Learning and Innovation Office.

Joy Harjo performs with her band during her opening event as the U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress, September 19, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

The recent announcement of Joy Harjo’s reappointment as Poet Laureate of the United States marks an exciting new beginning. It also offers a good opportunity to revisit the work she has done so far at the Library—starting with her inaugural reading from September 2019. Inspired by that event, I wrote a “Link to the Library of Congress” feature that was recently included in the March 2020 issue of the Music Educators Journal, published by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), one of the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources consortium members.

In that article, “Listening to Poetry and Speaking about Music with Poet Laureate Joy Harjo,” I focused on Harjo’s inaugural reading, and suggested to music teachers how their students might find a model approach presented by the new Poet Laureate. I described how poetry, song, instrumentation, and personal anecdotes were threaded throughout the evening, and seemed to render an even larger narrative. I also noted how Harjo’s performances of selected poems (including “Remember,” “She Had Some Horses,” “Fear,” and “Equinox”)—as well as her reflections on influences and finding inspiration, approaches to performance, creative decision-making, and the ways she has connected with her work—might resonate with students.

Drawing from Harjo’s performances, I then suggested some strategies that educators might use with students to engage with this material. Students might, for example, choose and contemplate one of the poems performed, then analyze features of the text and the performance independently. Alternatively, they might consider the stylistic choices they notice in the performance or the dynamic between instruments and voice, music, and text. Or they might identify and discuss any memorable moments or surprising elements that might provide insight into the creative process.

For a deeper dive, Harjo’s references to what she called the “poetry ancestors” of her work might also offer points of access and reflection for students. In fact, among the influences she named, several artists are represented in the online collections of the Library of Congress—for example, Lucille Clifton, Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, and Walt Whitman.

There is plenty to explore! And, in this next year and beyond, we look forward to continuing to share the work of Poets Laureate—past and present—with teachers and students! In the meantime, please read “Listening to Poetry and Speaking about Music with Poet Laureate Joy Harjo” (March 2020 issue of the Music Educators Journal, published by NAfME).