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Poetry by Joy Harjo

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Interview with Joy Harjo





Rebecca Seiferle: There are, as it were, two different landscapes present in these poems you've given us: the landscape of Hawaii which seems a landscape of healing and blessing, and the landscape of the American West which is preoccupied with the historical wounding of the Native American peoples which also have aspects of a more difficult healing through the blessing of song. Would you like to talk about the importance that place, those particular intersections of human reality with the earth, has in your work?

Joy Harjo: Lately I've been immersed in a revisioning, rethinking of my relationship to landscape. This is most definitely related to the dramatic shift in landscape and place that occurred when I left New Mexico, Oklahoma, (and even Los Angeles) for Hawaii six years ago. I crossed the Pacific to an island nation. The shift was abrupt, though I was familiar with the people and place of Hawaii, to move there was another thing. I moved to be with someone with whom I have a close kinship and with whom I enjoy a sense of peacefulness. I also moved to the water, and took up outrigger canoe paddling. And since I was a child I have always wanted to be in the south Pacific. I didn't really know too much about it but would always dream about Tahiti, Hawai'i, even New Guinea. What can happen, though, with such shifts, you come to know what you've left behind even more intimately because you have to imagine and remember intensely to bring it close. Sometimes you do that by writing, as Leslie Silko did when she wrote Ceremony while living in Ketchikan, Alaska, far from Laguna Pueblo. Ketchikan has one of the highest rainfall averages in the country. While it rained and rain, she wrote her desert home back around her. Hawai'i is a great refuge for my spirit. I paddle. I help out with horses. Practice singing and horn. And write music, poetry and stories that always return me to the root source from those birthing places. I continue to feel that pull and connection to those lands which have nourished and challenged me on this journey. As I grow older those places grow larger and larger.

Rebecca Seiferle: It seems to me that there is an opening in your Hawaii poems to a greater sense of peacefulness and a feeling blessed by what is. Not that it wasn't present in your earlier work, but it seems to flower forth here in these poems. How has living in Hawaii effected you?

Joy Harjo: Probably the largest shift in landscape is water. The island of O'ahu is relatively small. The Pacific is immense. I am learning water. And the water might be beautiful but it is also powerful and dangerous.
When you go out in the water, you have to be aware and know that anything can happen. There are shifts in currents and weather. You might start out your paddle in flat water, then struggle on the way back with wind and breaking waves. The most peaceful moments have been out on the water just after dawn, with sea turtles alongside, and once in awhile pods of dolphins. The most frightening was having a sudden rogue wave break over, a wave that could have broken the small canoe. It didn't, but threw me out of the boat. I made it back on and we got out of there. It's about learning to flow and not fight. I also like having my favorite fruits and flowers in the yard: mangos, papayas, bananas, hibiscus, coconut and fragipani. I have a great love and respect for Hawaiian poetry, which isn't separated from dance and music. It's all together. Poetry, music and dance came into the world together. Will go out that way, together,too.

Rebecca Seiferle: The Southwest is, of course, the most arid of environments, the depths of a long ago vanished ocean. Do you feel moving to a world of water has allowed you more fluidity and fluency of poetic being?

Joy Harjo: I've always noted waterlines of the old oceans on the mesas and mountains in the southwest. Often they are very visible. Too, I've often imagined the skies there as oceans. But yes, when water is the prevailing influence everything in the atmosphere carries its essence of being.

Rebecca Seiferle: There is an ease with the mythologies, the stories, of the Hawaiian people in these poems. Do you feel a natural affinity for these myths?

Joy Harjo: Despite the military takeover (the military controls and "owns" over 25% of the lands of Hawai'i)and the population growth of outsider groups, the overall cultural sense in Hawai'i is clearly Hawaiian. The myths, stories are still fluid and are present in the mountains, fields, rivers and oceans. They are in the names, the dances, in everything. They remind me of my own tribal stories.

Rebecca Seiferle: I am particularly struck by the speaker's honest confrontation with her own anger, and turning away from it. Given the state of the world today, would you like to talk about how poetry has been a part of your turning away from "the war club" into song, which while it does not disavow the justified anger or deny the ways in which people have been afflicted is another way of being?

Joy Harjo: Without poetry, without song, without dance I would not be alive. Nor would any of us. We come from root cultures in which song, poetry, stories, art was something that belonged to all of us. They were not "spectator sports" as they are mostly in this over-culture. Everyone sang, everyone, danced, made art. It was/is integral to being human. Now it seems reserved for the elite, for those who can afford the time. We need expression to feel connected, not just to our communities but to who we are down deep, past the eyes and the gullet, to the heart and the incredible depth past it.

Rebecca Seiferle: You play the saxophone and perform your works with a band. How has performing music altered your sense of writing poetry? Do you feel there's a natural affinity between these arts, a complementary quality?

Joy Harjo: I've been working hard in the studio on my next CD, Native Joy for Real. It will be released later in May. I am singing on this album, playing horn and doing some speaking of poetry. After this album I believe most of my energy will be more in the direction of music. Poetry has always felt a little lonely, needed some kind of accompaniment. And I've gone back, in a way, to my roots, to the singing. That was the original impetus of the poetry, and of the sax, to find a way to sing. I still want my poems to stand up on their own. This will make me even more a maverick in the poetry world, in this country at least. I don't enjoy academic reverie.

Rebecca Seiferle: Has the performing of music made you feel less isolated as a poet? I remember once you're discussing how you felt somewhat 'misfitted' to the world of graduate school, the MFA program that you attended. Has music given you a different sense of community?

Joy Harjo: I feel like I fit more in the music community. I've tended to hang out more with musicians, though obviously I have a great many valuable poet and fiction writer friends. Speech, language, English has always made me feel tense and anxious. Music is another thing.

Rebecca Seiferle: What new projects are you working on at the moment?

Joy Harjo: The big one is the Native Joy for Real CD. I already have plans for two others in the works. And of course, poetry. That's ongoing.


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Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and an enrolled member of the Muskogee Tribe, Joy Harjo came to New Mexico to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts where she studied painting and theatre, not music and poetry, though she did write a few lyrics for an Indian acid rock band. Joy attended the University of New Mexico where she received her B.A. in 1976, followes by an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. She has also taken part in a non-degree program in Filmmaking from the Anthropology Film Center.

She began writing poetry when the national Indian political climate demanded singers and speakers, and was taken by the intensity and beauty possible in the craft. Her most recent book of poetry is the award-winning How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. It wasn't until she was in Denver that she took up the saxophone because she wanted to learn how to sing and had in mind a band that would combine the poetry with a music there were no words yet to define, a music involving elements of tribal musics, jazz and rock. She eventually returned to New Mexico where she began the first stirrings of what was to be Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice when she began working with Susan Williams. Their first meeting occurred several years before in Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., a hint of things to come.

Joy has published in magazines such as Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, River Styx, Contact II, The Bloomsbury Review, Journal of Ethnic Studies, American Voice, Sonora Review, Kenyon Review, Beloit Poetry Review, Greenfield Review and Puerto del Sol. She has made recordings, done screenwriting, given readings all over the world and is now performing with her own music.

Joy has taught at Arizona State University as a Lecturer in 1980-81, at Santa Fe Community College as an Instructor in 1983-84, at the Institute of American Indian Arts as an Instructor in 1978-79 and in 1983-84. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado from 1985-1988, an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona in 1988-1990 and a Full Professor at the University of New Mexico from 1991-1995. She is currently teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Joy is a member of the PEN Advisory Board and the PEN New Mexico Advisory Board. She has been a member of the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium Board of Directors from 1987 to 1990, The Phoenix Indian Center Board of Directors in 1980-81, the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines Grants Panel for the Fall of 1980, the National Endowment for the Arts Policy Panel for Literature 1980-83, the New Mexico Arts Commission Advisory Panel 1979-80 and 1984, and the National Third World Writers Association Board of Directors (which is no longer functioning).