“Living Nations, Living Words” in Conversation

Last November, Poet Laureate Joy Harjo launched her signature project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” which features the voices of 47 contemporary Native American poets. Since then, we have been working closely with Joy and many of the contributing poets on building community-based outreach across the country. Through book groups, workshops, classroom discussions, readings, and other targeted programs, the poets are inviting their own Native and non-Native communities to engage with “Living Nations, Living Words” and explore the project’s thematic touchpoints of visibility, persistence, resistance, and acknowledgement. During Joy’s third term, we are dedicating space on this blog for poets to reflect on their outreach. 

The following guest post is by Jennifer Elise Foerster, a featured poet in Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s signature project, “Living Nations, Living Words.”

This fall, I had the pleasure of teaching a four-week reading and conversation course exploring the poetry of many of today’s Native Nations poets through Joy Harjo’s signature poet laureate project, “Living Nations, Living Words.”

As the Story Map and audio collection are available online, participants were able to access and explore the contents freely; they had the choice to purchase the companion anthology published by W. W. Norton (in association with the Library of Congress), but this wasn’t required. It was wonderful to experience how accessible this work is to anyone, requiring only a digital device and Wi-Fi!

The class was offered through the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Continuing Education program and comprised nine participants from all over the U.S. and Canada, from different professions, and from a number of Native Nations.

Each week we gathered on Zoom and, on a shared screen, explored the interactive map, pulling up poems and listening to the audio recording of the poet reading and talking about their poem. We would then discuss our responses to the work.

The goals of this reading and conversation group were to gain an appreciation of the significant, lasting presence and potential of poetry, and the scope, diversity, artistry, and concerns of today’s poets of Native Nations.

I also wanted to extend to the group the invitation to explore and create their own “maps” by keeping a journal and writing in response to the readings and discussions.

One of the touchpoints Joy Harjo asked each of the writers in this project to consider is that of place: Where do you choose to place yourself on this map of America, and how are you connected to your place? Relocation and displacement are widely shared experiences for many of this nation’s first peoples. The question asked of us for the purpose of this project was an invitation to place ourselves where we felt most rooted, whether this is where we currently live, a place we grew up, or in our homelands from which we were removed. It was an invitation to engage in our own mapmaking.

Interactive map of Native American poets from “Living Nations, Living Words”

In the beginning of the first class, I extended Joy’s question to the group and invited them to explore their own mapmaking. Just as we all have a story, we all have sources, places, and displacements that define us. We have unique maps just as we have unique lives. I asked the group to spend about 10 minutes reflecting and freewriting about this question:

  • Where do you place yourself and how are you connected to your place? Perhaps this place is a physical geography, a city or a landscape. But think about other kinds of places, too. Perhaps this place is a season or a cycle of time or age. Perhaps this place is a story, a story that was passed down to you, a story that has shaped your perception of your place in the world. Think of a place where you place yourself. Who are you and how are you in relation to this place?

Each week we explored the poems in “Living Nations, Living Words” through the overarching theme of place and displacement, and with Harjo’s four specific touchpoints in mind: visibility, persistence, resistance, and acknowledgement. Participants also engaged in their own creative writing practices inspired by poems in the collection.

As a group, we collectively identified these writing prompts and used them for our personal mapmaking. Here are a few of these writing prompts, below.

Freewrite:

  • As Joy Harjo defines place in the “Living Nations, Living Words” educator guide: “We all emerge from a place. Everyone does, whether you are a mineral, plant, animal, or winds. Our identity springs from place. Indigenous peoples of a land are deeply rooted. We are taught not to forget where we came from, and to know that we are related to the plants, elements and animals, to the very land itself of that place. Our languages, ideas, and bodies are shaped, fed and given meaning by place.”
    • What does place mean for you?

Writing prompt based on Jake Skeets’ poem, “Daybreak”:

  • Revisit Jake’s commentary on his poem. Write about the land or landscape that is currently around you every day, the land or landscape you wake up to. Focus on the energy of that land/landscape; the energy that moves through you in your encounter or relation with the land/landscape. As much as possible, write without the presence of a speaker or singular perspective.

Writing prompt based on Cedar Sigo’s poem, “What did you learn here? (Old Man House, Suquamish)”:

  • Consider either the place you wrote about in the first freewrite OR the land/landscape in the writing prompt based on Skeets’ poem. Ask yourself “what did you learn here?” and write a poem that answers, explores, or asks new questions about that which you learned there.
    • You might also include what you “dreamed” in that place, and include the question, “What else do you remember dreaming of?”

Freewrite:

  • What is a map? Maps are made to guide our journeys, to identify places, points of connection, boundaries, and relationships. Consider identifying each of these elements when you make a personal map: places, points of connection, boundaries, and relationships.
    • What comes to mind when you think about “points of connection” in your life? What significant junctures have shaped your path?
    • What comes to mind when you think of “boundaries” in your life?
    • What are the touchpoints or guideposts on your personal life-map that tell you where home is?
    • What are the guideposts that signal boundary or danger—signals that tell you: this is a place where fear lives; don’t go here.
  • Exploring our points of connections, boundaries, and relationships is a way of honoring your unique story, your unique voice.

Freewrite:

  • As you read/explore the “Living Nations, Living Words” Story Map, consider the touchpoints of persistence and resistance. What do these two ideas/terms mean to you? Make a list of things you resist. Make a list of things that persist. What is your role in this persistence?

Writing prompt based on Sherwin Bitsui’s selections from Dissolve:

  • Consider how you might pick out a sequence of images from your surroundings—your home—the place where you live. Elaborate on these images or scenes and describe them using figurative language (metaphor, personification, simile, etc.). Allow these fragments to remain as fragments that are connected as “floating islands.” Imagine that the acceptance of fragments without forcing a meaning or resolution is its own form of restoration.

Writing prompt based on Louise Erdrich’s poem, “Advice to Myself”:

  • Write a poem that is advice to yourself and use directives: Let, Don’t, Allow, Remember, etc.
  • Write a poem that gives yourself permission to do something or be or act in a way that is hard for you . . . give yourself permission to . . . (what do you wish you could give yourself permission to do?)

Freewrite based on Louise Erdrich’s poem, “Advice to Myself”:

  • What is “necessity” for you?
  • What keeps you from living your authentic self?
  • What would it mean or look like for you to resist what you deem as necessity?

During the last of the four classes, we focused on the theme of acknowledgement, which involved acknowledging each other’s living words and maps. Participants were asked to share anything they had written or created over the four weeks in response to the themes in the project and their own journaling or reflections. We shared our works with attentive listening, honoring our unique stories, paths, and challenges.

I felt we had, together, through our discussions, celebrated the living power of “Living Nations, Living Words,” and added our own breath and story to the map that connects us all.

Thank you to the participants of this workshop! It was an honor to hear your words.

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