Award-winning Joy Harjo on the Binds of Culture and More

JOY HARJO’S first book of poetry, The Last Song, was published in 1975, during a time period often referred to as the Second Wave of the Native American Renaissance. Born in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo’s ancestral Mvskoke (Creek) Nation roots weave effortlessly throughout her many books, books that include nine works of poetry, a poetry collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom, two children’s books, two anthologies, and the memoir Crazy Brave (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), which describes her journey to becoming a poet. Crazy Brave recently won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction.

How is it possible to do appropriate justice to an introduction for Joy Harjo, award-winning writer and musician? Harjo’s accomplishments span almost four decades. Her body of work is iconic, diverse.

Harjo never shies away from tough topics; she addresses inequalities and injustices through her writing, interviews, and public speaking. And this interview is no exception. Her razor-sharp intellect sculpts the heart knowledge that she channels effortlessly into prose and verse. Harjo’s imagery slowly reveals to the reader a vantage point that has been there all along, as if mists clear and the reader is shown an expansive vision, a vision each of us earns by virtue of confronting the simple truth that we are human. Harjo reminds us of this. That through our shared humanity, with all of its imperfection and suffering, we can see the wider truths of the universe.

Many contemporary poets are quick to mention her work as inspiration for their own writing. Words like “never afraid,” “quality of voice,” “mythic and timeless,” are used to describe Harjo’s writing. Her literary and music awards include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2009 NAMMY Best Female Artist of the Year.

In addition to wielding a mighty pen, Harjo is an accomplished saxophonist and, at sixty-two, still performs regularly with her band Poetic Justice, finding time for writing while on the road between shows. She has performed on the HBO Def Poetry jams internationally and in the US, and she has produced four award-winning cds of music. Harjo currently teaches in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois and lives in the Mvskoke Nation of Oklahoma.

Joy shares with StS her thoughts about the political, cultural binds, creativity, and writing:

Sheryl: What do you feel being a feminist in today’s world means?

Joy: I am wondering what the term feels and looks like from a younger generation. Does it smell like mold or dust? Feminism is just a term for equal rights for all, including women.

Sheryl: I read that you write to give voice to all parts of yourself, your sources: the Creek, the Anglo-European, the woman. Is there one body of work in which you feel you most give voice to each of these parts?

Joy: Your reference sounds like it came from an interview response from my younger self. I do not now consider myself “several parts,” though each human takes on several roles, and each of us bears streams of obligations, from our families, generation, people, earth, and so on. I have never called myself “mixed-blood” though DNA reality would affirm this. DNA reality would affirm everyone on the planet as mixed blood. My response about giving voice to so many parts most likely came at an age in which I was called on to represent my tribe (though I do not serve in an official capacity), all indigenous people of the U.S., of the world, and…women. I still am! But when I was younger the responsibility was overwhelming, and I used to suffer extreme stage fright.

I am a Mvskoke person of Hickory Ground tribal town, and female. The voice of my poetry, my music, of that which I was given to do here, is one voice. It speaks through the experience of my physical vehicle. All of my creative work embodies this voice. I have had a European-American education, as has everyone who has attended public schools and universities in this country. I have also had an Indian school arts education, and have been educated traditionally. And, like all of us, these times, and life, are a constant education. The poetic forms I employ have been influenced by all of these educations. I do not feel schizophrenic when I write, rather, hooked in to larger, wild, yet coherent meaning and shape.  The creative self is beyond the binds of culture, yet, employs cultural forms.

Sheryl: You have been described as a feminist poet, writing of personal and political resistance through unconscious imagery, as well as a storytelling form. Are you conscious of political and feminist ends when writing your poetry?

Joy: I am taken by the phrase “unconscious imagery” in your question. My imagery is often intuitive. Fresh or unknown images then might be “unconscious.”  Some of the imagery is very conscious, and springs from utterly conscious moments, like witnessing bullet holes in the houses of people in Estelí, Nicaragua and listening to the testimony of family members who had lost their relatives to American-speaking soldiers, or a sunrise over the desert on the Navajo reservation being born by twin gods not far from a coal-producing plant.

It can be argued that everything is political in that our dreams, thoughts, and words have been nourished or starved by political movements and weather. I responded to a PEN survey a few weeks ago that questioned writers about the impact of U.S. government surveillance on what we write, how we write, and where and how we publish. The results were startling. Nearly everyone agreed they were more careful these days and many had even backed off from writing about certain topics.  Like most writers surveyed, I am very aware that anything I say or do on the Internet is being watched.

I have backed off from speaking about my bullying last year at this time, mostly by members of the academic left, because I refused to sign a petition for a cultural boycott of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people. There is tremendous injustice against Palestinians by the Israeli government very similar to that of indigenous people in North America. I have seen it first hand, not just during my visit last December but other visits.  I have seen the fences, checkpoints, the ugly spread of fresh Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, the ongoing repression. Of course I don’t agree with this injustice.

But, I was faced with an “either/or” proposition, by the proponents of the petition. If I signed I was on the right side of ethical law. If I didn’t, I was a murderer. There was no room for any other stance.

A campaign to force me to sign flared fast and ugly. A petition circulated nationwide. One of the instigators of the campaign even called up my friends and colleagues personally to urge them to go after me, to force me to sign. There was no room allowed for anyone who does not believe that a cultural boycott is the most productive way to force Israel to human rights. Our arts, our crafted words and ideas in story, poetry and song connect us beyond politics.  We need to speak across harsh political lines, against injustice, through any barriers of artillery or hatred.

Anything I spoke in response was immediately discredited and stomped on by a finely tuned rhetorical machine. I was the subject of hate mail. I feared for my life on my return from Israel. I made enemies of people who will always hate me because they see my stand as a betrayal. I was bullied to sign. I fled Oklahoma as a teenager because of this kind of bullying. You were forced to be Christian, or to roast in hell. There was no other point of view possible in that self-righteous template. And the people behind it were and are well meaning. They truly believe that Christianity is the only path and any other path is evil and punishable. So it was and is around the petition issue.

I still receive emails and Facebook messages by well-meaning people, mostly from the academic realm, who bear that same self-righteous tone. They ask, “When are you going to do the right thing and sign the petition? When are you going to acknowledge your wrong doing?”

I was not the most graceful in the middle of the controversy. I am not always quick with responses, or a word pugilist. I figured that anyone who knows my words, my body of creative work and my actions in this world knows that I work on behalf of justice.  Many stood by me through the attack, and one of the most vocal for the boycott took her name off the petition after witnessing the bullying.

We must remember that many Israelis have worked against this injustice, this repression of their Palestinian relatives. I understand. I once suffered a hatred backlash in South Africa because I was introduced to an audience solely as an American, when Bush and his family were killing and maiming on behalf of Americans.  I was seen as a collaborator because of my citizenship. I attempted to reintroduce myself from the point of view of my tribal citizenship but nothing I said or sung made it through the barrier of judgment. I was reviled. The audience remained set against me.

Sheryl: Take us into your process of writing. How do you start? Where do your ideas come from? What does revision look like for you?

Joy: Each poem, play, song or story starts in its own unique manner. Each teaches me how to write it. For poems, I often start with journaling. “Prompts” are a relatively new concept. I just…write. Who knows where ideas come from—some of them are very visceral. I literally feel a nudge. Or I hear a phrase, or some notion from a literary or esoteric source. Or I listen to John Coltrane. As for revision—writing is revision.

Sheryl: How do you avoid the sentimental in your writing?

Joy: I try to—what I loved so much about James Wright’s poetry was that he stayed in the heartscape. When he dipped into sentimentality, which he did often in some of his later poems, the poetry went soft and runny. Maybe that’s what it is, how to identify it and then avoid it—when the effect is too soft, you lose the edge, the power.  I am constantly working on that heart/head balance. I tend to intellectualize, am too analytical. Most people don’t know that about me.

Sheryl: “Minority literature” is very popular. A re-balancing is taking place in the literary world, although its institutions still remains patriarchal. You’ve been a celebrated author for several decades.  Can you reflect on what you’ve seen change and what you think still needs to change?

Joy: This question is a book, not just a quick answer, but I will give my best quick answer. I haven’t heard anyone say “minority literature” in a few years. “Minority” in America meant anyone who was not Euro-American. I began writing as a student at the University of New Mexico and inadvertently caught that wave, which morphed into the multicultural literature movement. When you’re in it, you’re in it, like being in the middle of an artistic revision or ocean wave. It has power and trajectory. You don’t always see it or know where it will take you until you’ve come out the other side.

The term “minority” is a pejorative term that preserves the notion that there is one real literature, and everyone else is on the periphery. Or that English has proprietary issues and belongs to those born to England. English will always return to the roots for nourishment, just as any language.  I pause to consider the Mvskoke language taken away from its roots. Meanings would shift. It would get lonely for certain places.  Languages are different and some languages have roaming spirits. English has certainly elbowed its way all over the world. It has changed us and been changed in return. English moves about and finds delight in fresh use, like red English, the creativity of the pidgin I heard when I lived in Hawaii, the rhythms of Jamaican English. The Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson had us all moving to poetry as he spoke sang the first time I saw and heard him at an Amsterdam poetry festival in the Netherlands in the late seventies. Change is always happening whether you are a language or a literature.

Universities don’t always mirror or keep up with these changes, even as some faculty are at the forefront, thinking a little ahead. Revolutionary minds don’t tend to park themselves in the academy. Their eyes and ears are usually out in the streets, in the community, synthesizing the creature of culture. Culture is always evolving.

Sheryl: Tell us about your music. Are you still writing and performing?

Joy: Yes, I am still writing and performing. These last two or three years I have been on the road at least three weeks a month performing. My performances usually include music. When I’m lucky I have a whole band. My Arrow Dynamics band performed to a standing ovation at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign a few months ago. I am working on a new album, and am at work on a musical that will show how the Mvskoke people are part of the origins of jazz and blues. I am also working to get blues and jazz education going for my Glenpool Creek Indian community. I’ve hired the incomparable Selby Minner to put on blues jams every Tuesday. I’m learning blues bass. Community members come to learn and play. This Saturday we’re playing for the community Christmas party.

Sheryl:  Congratulations on your PEN Center award for best creative nonfiction! We’ll be featuring a review of your memoir on the blog this month. Can you tell us what it was like to write a work of nonfiction? How did your writing process differ from your poetry writing?

Joy: The memoir took me fourteen years to write. Much of that time was settling into a form, which was unlike any other memoir form. The memoir taught me to write it. It was in three different forms before I found the one that became CRAZY BRAVE. The first was jazz riffs and memories. The second version was Indian school stories and teenage mother stories as short stories. The process of poetry is language driven. Narration is driven by event and perception. I have applied for grants to begin work on the next version, an exploration of generations, my generation, and the seventh generation before us.

Sheryl: What are you working on now?

Joy: I am working on the musical. Excited about sitting down with it after Thanksgiving and traveling. Traveling almost non-stop on top of teaching eight weeks this fall at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign put a crimp on creativity. I just had to keep up with my duties. I’ve let my saxophone have a break too, but it was wailing away at blues practice a few weeks ago, and at a Michigan gig with Grayhawk Perkins from New Orleans.  I am also working on poetry, new songs, and conceptualizing the next memoir.

Sheryl: What advice do you have for writers just beginning their writing journeys?

Joy: Honor the writing spirit, that which is compelling you to write. Take time with it. Writing in journals helps. For me journal writing and note taking is about listening, and writing down what I hear. And feed the spirit. Listen to music, poetry, and stories. Listen to the tree people, animals, and the elements. History has many voices, as do mythic roots. And…write!

Joy Harjo received her BA from the University of New Mexico and her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Visit her website for more information about her writing and music. Next up on the StS blog, a review of Joy Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave. Be sure to listen to her reading of She had Some Horses!









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