A version of the following post by Katherine Blood and Melissa Lindberg originally appeared in the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center’s “From the Catbird Seat” blog as part of a series discussing Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s visits to several Library of Congress reading rooms.
We were excited by the news that Joy Harjo would include the Prints & Photographs Division in her series of exploratory visits around the Library—an opportunity to share items from the collections that might intersect and spark with her research ideas. Rob Casper, Head of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, had mentioned Joy’s interest in maps and place-based works, as well as her family history and Mvskoke (Muscogee) heritage—all subjects that resonate with our visual holdings.
Along with visual poetry in the form of artists’ prints, drawings, and photographs, including many works by Native creators, we preserve a rich and growing body of artworks engaged with poetry and literature. Our holdings also include a number of documentary images related to Native communities, including portraits of individuals, and groups of material that feature life and the built environment on reservations. Inspired by all of these and Joy’s own poetry and writing, we set out to prepare a visual feast.
After Joy and her husband Owen arrived in our reading room, we started looking together at a series of stunning screen prints by Potawatomi creator Woody Crumbo, received in 1952 when they were submitted as part of the copyright registration process. Like Harjo, Crumbo was an Oklahoma-born artist whose talents crossed disciplines. In addition to expressing himself through the visual arts, he danced and performed music. Joy, a poet and musician who has also trained in dance and visual arts, was familiar with Crumbo’s work.
Our display included a few pieces of documentation from a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) of the Cherokee National Capitol Building in Oklahoma. Not only was Joy familiar with the location, we discovered that she knew it well! She pointed out that as a girl she hung out, people-watching, in the bandstand that’s visible in one of the survey photographs. HABS surveys often include architectural drawings, photographs, and a written report that provides information about the site’s history. In addition to those studying history and historic preservation, the HABS surveys hold appeal for researchers who might find that a surveyed site has a familial connection.
We shared a historic portrait of a man with the surname Harjo from the collections, although we were unsure whether he had any connection to Joy. In fact, Joy and Owen were very familiar with Chitto Harjo, who they explained was a Muscogee leader and vocal opponent of government efforts to divide communal land into individually-owned allotments around the turn of the 20th century. We learned that for some Harjo means something to the effect of “so brave you are crazy.” Crazy Brave is also the title of Harjo’s 2013 memoir.
The discussion of conflict arising from the imposition of individual land ownership was reminiscent of Harjo’s poem, “Rabbit is Up to Tricks,” which begins with the lines: “In a world long before this one, there was enough for everyone / until somebody got out of line.” The poem goes on to describe how Rabbit fashions a man out of clay and trains him to steal. The clay man’s insatiable appetite upsets the world’s equilibrium after Rabbit is ultimately unable to rein in his creation’s greed.
During Joy’s visit, we talked about her poem It’s Raining in Honolulu from her collection Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Kindred in subject is Waiting for Rain by artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, Montana. Rabbit also makes an appearance in Smith’s image which meditates on aspects of nature, the environment, and native identity. At the center is a figure based on a 19th-century portrait of a Mandan man by Karl Bodmer which is also in the Library’s collection. Surrounding him are signs of the natural world and song lyrics from You Are My Sunshine. On the left are three words: “Listen up humans.” The artist, a gardener, made the work during a period of severe drought—a commentary on the fragility of our ecosystem.
We also discussed Arrival III by Norman Akers, an Osage artist who was born and raised in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and teaches at the University of Kansas. Engaging with issues of immigration and indigeneity, his imagery includes Alexander Hamilton, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Washington arriving in alien spaceships. Their presence also evokes the history of government policies leading to devastating results for indigenous Americans, including forced cultural assimilation and the extensive loss of lands. Other details include a background map showing fragments of America, Europe, and South America and such individual places as Kansas and Oklahoma City—both of which have personal meaning for the artist. Akers notes that he is making his own migratory path–and that “…the space birds navigate are not necessary restricted to the borders and boundaries placed on the landscape through years of colonization.”
Ideas continued to flow as we looked at fine prints by Alice Leora Briggs and Cy Twombly responding to poetry by Mark Strand and Robert Duncan respectively, and an array of artworks by David Driskell, Sandy Gellis, Jane Hammond, Howardena Pindell, Kay WalkingStick, and others. We also highlighted photographs by Richard Throssel, Will Wilson and Frances Benjamin Johnston plus news photos showing American Indian Movement activism on the National Mall in 1978. So many themes emerged from our discussions of the collection materials on display: the concept of walls and borders, the history of colonization, climate change, mental health on reservations, and many others. We feel honored to share in Joy’s creative process, and look forward to learning more from her as her ideas grow.
- See Native American History and Culture: Finding Pictures, a guide to searching for resources in the collections of the Prints & Photographs Division.
- Read about and see additional materials from the Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey collections.
- Enjoy these other poetry-related blog posts from “Picture This”: Life was Made for Love and Cheer: National Poetry Month and Caught Our Eyes: Playing with Shadows.
- View other “From the Catbird Seat” posts written by Katherine that feature P&P collections in dialogue with poetry: The Visual Poetry of Grace Hartigan, Ingenuity and Homage: Poetic Lotería by Artemio Rodríguez and Radical Form: Lesley Dill’s Poem Dress of Circulation.
- Learn more about Poet Laureate Joy Harjo from this LibGuide.