The following post was written by Rob Casper and Anne Holmes.
It’s a celebratory day for Joy Harjo: the Librarian of Congress has just appointed our poet laureate to serve a third term in the position. Joy is only the second poet in the history of the laureateship to do so, and with this third term (to begin in September 2021) she will hopefully be able to return to traveling across the country to read her work and champion poetry.
Today also marks the launch of Joy’s signature project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” which features 47 contemporary Native poets through a new Story Map and online audio collection.
“Throughout the pandemic, Joy Harjo has shown how poetry can help steady us and nurture us. I am thankful she is willing to continue this work on behalf of the country,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “A third term will give Joy the opportunity to develop and extend her signature project.”
When Joy first accepted the position in April 2019, she talked about wanting to create an online map of living Native poets. We were excited about the possibility, and started exploring options. Then, in the summer months leading up to the start of her laureateship, Joy had the opportunity to visit the Library and meet staff from across the institution. Fortuitously, she soon met with staff in the Geography and Map Division, who introduced her to the perfect platform: ArcGIS StoryMaps, an online app geared toward storytelling that the Library uses as an immersive learning tool.
As Joy explored the platform and talked about the possibilities for her project, it became clear that she not only wanted to feature a number of Native poets, but wanted to hear from them, too, reading and discussing their work. She felt strongly that these poets should choose their own poems, while keeping in mind the theme of place and displacement, and the following touchpoints: visibility, persistence, resistance and acknowledgment.
Joy had also spent time the previous summer exploring collections in the Library’s American Folklife Center. When we started discussing the possibility of building a new collection featuring the poems and voices of Native poets, AFC seemed like the perfect home. This new collection was a first for the laureateship, and we’re delighted that it features poets such as Louise Erdrich, Natalie Diaz, Ray Young Bear, Craig Santos Perez, Sherwin Bitsui and Layli Long Soldier. The accompanying commentary by the participating poets added ethnographic value to their recordings—a key component of AFC collections.
In the months that followed, we worked and dreamed with Joy and our colleagues in these two divisions to bring “Living Nations, Living Words” to life. In June, we began inviting poets to contribute their poems and voices to the project. In October, we began building the map that Joy first envisioned.
Today, we invite you to dive in and explore all that “Living Nations, Living Words” has to offer. As Joy writes in the introduction, “There are connections between all of the poets in ‘Living Nations, Living Words’—and connecting influences between these poets and many, many other Native poets who do not appear here, and many, many American and world poets from the present and generations before. As you explore, you too will be connected.”
This is so exciting! I can’t wait to see what this term brings!
To have a map of first people’s poetry is an immense gift which connects us all to the land, the flora and fauna, to all our relations. Through the map we enter the cosmology of first peoples and learn again the community of place, the touchstone of the sacred. Joy Harjo charts a way forward that includes the voices of all our sisters and brothers, all the songs that flow over this land in the air we breathe.
What a wonderful way to connect the stories–past, present and future–of the indigenous people of the United States of this place we call America. A living history–breathing, growing, morphing. Thank you for doing this work.