Poet Laureate Joy Harjo Gets a Third Term; Launches “Living Nations, Living Words”

This is a guest post by Rob Casper and Anne Holmes of the Library’s Literary Initiatives office.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Joy Harjo, the first Native American to serve as the U.S. Poet Laureate, will serve a third term in the office, the Librarian of Congress announced today, making her only the second person in the position’s 77-year history to do so. Harjo will start that third year next September. We’re hoping that health conditions in the country will by then allow her to return to traveling across the nation to read her work and champion poetry.

Today also marks the launch of Harjo’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 Carla Hayden. “A third term will give Joy the opportunity to develop and extend her signature project.”

When Harjo first accepted the position in April 2019, she talked about wanting to create an online map of living Native poets. She soon met with staff in the Geography and Maps 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 us, 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.

Map of Native American poets, part of Harjo’s project.

In the months that followed, we worked and dreamed with Harjo 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.

Today, we invite you to dive in and explore all that “Living Nations, Living Words” has to offer. As Harjo 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.”

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