Joy Harjo Named First Native American Poet Laureate

By Taylor Smith 

Poet, writer, activist, and musician Joy Harjo will succeed Princeton University professor Tracy K. Smith as the nation’s 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Announced by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the appointment will make her the first Native American to occupy the position. 

Harjo, 68, is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, a federally recognized Native American tribe situated in Oklahoma. It is the fourth largest tribe in the U.S. with over 86,500 citizens (http://www.mcn-nsn.gov). 

Born in Oklahoma, Harjo completed her undergraduate degree at University of New Mexico and earned an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in creative writing. Much of her poetry utilizes stories of tradition, myth, Native American histories, colonization, environment, sovereignty, and feminism. A vast majority of her writing is set in the American West and Southwest and has been translated into musical performances (Harjo plays the saxophone), theater, and protest. 

As Poet Laureate, Smith made a point of touring rural communities around the country. She concluded her one-year term by editing an anthology called American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. 

Harjo hasn’t indicated any plans as yet for her term, but has publicly stated her belief that poetry is innately political and that she was first attracted to the genre as a means of political expression. She is currently editing an anthology of Native American poets and a new book of her own poetry is due to debut in August 2019. 

Some of Harjo’s best-known collections of poetry include The Woman Who Fell from the Sky and In Mad Love and War. Her non-fiction work, Crazy Brave: A Memoir, earned great accolades and is described as a “transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music, and poetry,” on her website http://joyharjo.com. 

In a radio interview with NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Harjo described how trauma in her early years acted as a roadblock to creativity: “At least I’ve had to come to that in my life, to realize that this stuff called failure, this stuff, this debris of historical trauma, family trauma, you know, stuff that can kill your spirit, is actually raw material to make things with and to build a bridge. You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.” (https://n.pr/31UvY6a).