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Poet Laureate Joy Harjo Says Age Does Not Define Her

First Native American in post is appointed to rare third term

spinner image Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo, June 6, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller.
Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

Joy Harjo did not plan on becoming a poet. A visual artist, she began creating poems as a new way to express herself after becoming active in the Native rights movement in the 1970s.

“I started writing out of the need to,” says Harjo, 69, who was reappointed Nov. 19 to her third term as the 23rd poet laureate of the United States. “Poetry became its own thing."

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Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden first appointed Harjo on June 19, 2019, and gave her a second term April 30. The Library of Congress established the position in 1936 as a way to promote poetry appreciation nationwide, and Harjo is only the second person to get an extension for a third term since terms were established in 1943.

“This has been a challenging year for the country, for our earth. Poetry has provided doorways for joy, grief and understanding in the midst of turmoil and pandemic.”

— Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States

“Throughout the pandemic, Joy Harjo has shown how poetry can help steady us and nurture us," Hayden said. “A third term will give Joy the opportunity to develop and extend her signature project.”

That term will begin in September 2021 and allow her to expand the digital project she launched Thursday, Living Nations, Living Words, that maps nearly four dozen contemporary Native American poets across the country — including Sherwin Bitsui, Natalie Diaz, Louise Erdrich, Craig Santos Perez, Layli Long Soldier and Ray Young Bear — and features audio of them reading and discussing their poems. The Library of Congress wanted to start publication of the project as part of Native American Heritage Month in November.

“This has been a challenging year for the country, for our earth," Harjo said in the announcement of her third term. "Poetry has provided doorways for joy, grief and understanding in the midst of turmoil and pandemic.”

Four decades in the arts

Poet laureate is Harjo's latest distinction in a career that spans four decades, eight poetry collections and numerous literary honors. It's also historic: A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Harjo is the first Native American to serve in the role.

"It makes a statement that there are indigenous people in this country,” she says. “And some of us are poets. Actually, there are many Native poets.”

Harjo lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was born, and is a Tulsa Artist Fellow. She began her term as poet laureate in mid-September 2019 with a reading at the Library of Congress.

Instead of an official set of duties, poets laureate are free to use their term on projects of their choosing. Harjo says her focus is on acknowledging the diversity of voices, especially those of indigenous and immigrant writers, in American poetry.

"As a poet, you're in service to truth-telling,” she said as she started her first term. “One concern is how do we speak across lines of separation? How do we speak to each other? Poetry, I believe, is one of the best ways."

In addition to her accomplishments as a poet, Harjo is also an award-winning musician (she learned the saxophone in her late 30s) and the author of the 2012 memoir Crazy Brave, which won an American Book Award. Her most recent poetry collection, An American Sunrise, was published in August 2019.

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"To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making,” Hayden said in a statement announcing Harjo's appointment.

The past affects the present

Those themes are at the heart of An American Sunrise, in which Harjo writes about the forced relocation of the Muscogee people from their homelands east of the Mississippi River to what is now Oklahoma as a result of the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

Drawing on personal and tribal history, Harjo captures both the profound injustice of forced relocation, whose effects persist into the present day, and the resilience that comes from engaging with one's history.

In “A Refuge in the Smallest of Places,” she writes about poetry's ability to express what might otherwise go unremembered, concluding: “Now I am here in the timeless room of lost poetry/ Gathering up the destroyed and forgotten."

Now in the fifth decade of her career, she says her own craft is continuously evolving, even as her motivation remains constant.

"I have not let age define me,” she said in 2019. “At this point, I'm 68 and I've continued to write and learn and add different elements and skills to what I'm doing. The point of view is quite amazing, to be at this age — and still, the spirit has no age.”

Editor's note: This article was originally published September 17, 2019, and has been updated to reflect Joy Harjo's appointment to a third term.

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