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10 Quick Questions for Joy Harjo

Former U.S. Poet Laureate narrates PBS Series ‘Native America’

spinner image joy harjo against orange ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Matika Wilbur)

Joy Harjo, 72, is a creative tour de force with a powerful voice. She’s written 10 books of poetry, three children’s books, two memoirs and several plays. An accomplished musician who plays saxophone and flute, she’s also produced seven albums. In 2019, she was named the country’s first Native American Poet Laureate. She was reappointed twice, serving in the position until 2022. A mem­ber of the Muscogee Nation, Harjo also lends her voice as narrator of the groundbreaking PBS series Native America. Season 2 premiered Oct. 24 and features engineers, musicians, astronauts, politicians and artists who draw upon Indigenous traditions to forge a better future.

You were originally a pre-med major in college. What made you switch your focus?

[The medical profession] always had its appeal, and every once in a while, up until a few years ago, I would think, OK, what do I have to do to get into medical school? But I realized that there are other ways, and all of us are essentially healers. And what healers do really, they're not healing, they're enabling. Every one of us can do it through a poem. You can do it through the way you speak to someone. Everyone of us is a healer of sorts. There's other kinds of healing modalities — art and culture — that are possible. So I never gave that up. I had no plans to be a poet. When I was at the University of New Mexico, I was involved in Native rights movements, and that's when I started writing. And my writing had started because of the need for justice for Natives and for all life.  

What kind of doctor did you want to be?

I was going to be a surgeon, which is kind of interesting. But if I were to go into the medical field now, I think I would probably be a midwife.

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What advice would you give your younger self?

Probably about 20 years ago, I was having anxiety or worried about some endeavor [and] an amazing teacher of mine … she was an elder from a pueblo in New Mexico [and] she looked at me and said, “Just be yourself.” I’ve come to realize how profound that is. Just be yourself. My first thought was, Well, of course, who else am I? But then as the years have gone on, I think, What would have happened, when I was younger and I got myself into some snarls because of not being myself? Or trying to be whatever I thought someone else or some other system thought I should be? I mean, it's very powerful. You say that to a young person who is too caught up in social media. … You’re forming yourself. You’re taking your cues from family and community, from images, and what does it mean in the midst of this plethora of overwhelming images? What does it mean to be yourself? It is overwhelming today.

You have a busy schedule. How do you prioritize your writing?

I've always admired Joyce Carol Oates, who sits down every day and writes for hours. My schedule is not like that. I travel quite frequently, and that interrupts it. My perfect day is getting up before talking — before slipping into the embattled email, news zone — to just stay in that place of dreaming, and I write out of that place. I work by projects, and of course you have to keep yourself in shape and keep learning. That’s what I think compels artists is that [drive to] keep moving toward exciting and new and different places. It can be challenging to get there.

Do you like to travel?

I've always loved to travel. We never got to travel when I was younger, and my mother used to joke that as soon as I heard the keys I would be in the car. My work has enabled me to travel all over the world, performing and speaking, and I've always loved it.

What was your favorite destination when you were younger?

The lake. I love swimming and just being in the water. And family. My mother would always make fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

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What do you do to stay in shape?

I used to be at the gym. I love the gym. For me, I go into a gym and I'm happy. I love doing weights. When COVID happened, I started doing weights at home. I have a lot of apps for dance and different kinds of workouts, so I vary my workout.  But I try to work out every day for a half hour or more. Or if it’s not hot [outside], I walk. I thought about going back into the gym, or even setting up more of a gym [at home], because I love that. I love dance classes. I used to be a Zumba freak.

Do you listen to music while you work out?

spinner image joy harjo sitting, holding her saxophone
Harjo is an accomplished musician who plays the saxophone and flute.
Paul Abdoo

Yes, music is crucial. I listen to Motown, Wayne Shorter, Lady Gaga. I love the old Motown, funk, dance mixes … and I dance around the house to Pitbull and Bruno Mars.

Does dancing help keep you feeling young? Or something else?

What's keeping me young, I think, has to do with movement. And it's not just body movement … but it’s also that you’re moving in your mind. I keep learning. I’ve been really focusing on learning the bass. You keep moving, you keep your mind fresh. It’s important to be around younger people, too.

Which one of your poems would you recommend that everyone read?

That’s very timely. The poem I would suggest is called Remember, and it just came out from Random House [as a] children's picture book … but it’s not just for children. It’s for everyone, reminding us to remember who we are … because we all get lost in moments, days and sometimes years. It came to me because I think I needed that reminder, like we all do. Remember that we’re all connected, and what a gift of life we’re in together, even through these challenges that we’ve all been facing. 

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