Joy Harjo: An Interview

Stephanie Izarek Smith
From the July/August 1993 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Joy Harjo is a poet unafraid of self-discovery. She explored painting, dancing and medicine before focusing on a writing career. Born in Tulsa in 1951 to the Muscogee tribe (of the Creek Nation), Harjo is both Muscogee and white, and her acceptance of both heritages plays a crucial role in her work: Her poetry preserves her Native American background, while integrating aspects of the mainstream American culture in which she was also raised, to create a unique, poignant voice. 

The opening spread of “An Interview With Joy Harjo” as it appeared in the July/August 1993 issue. 

Harjo attended high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and went on the study at the University of New Mexico, where in 1976 she was in the first graduating class of its creative writing program. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. She has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of New Mexico. 

Harjo has published four books of poetry and several short stories, and has written several screenplays. She is a winner of several awards, including an Academy of American Poets Award in 1978, two National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowships (in 1978 and 1992), the Josephine Miles Award for Poetry from PEN Oakland in 1991, and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award in 1991. Harjo has also served on a policy panel for the NEA. 

Now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Harjo has a 23-year-old son, Phil Dayn, and a 19-year-old daughter, Rainy Dawn, who is the subject of the poem “Rainy Dawn” that appears in Harjo’s most recent collection of poetry, In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). 

From a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, Harjo reminisces about her childhood creative stirrings. “I went outside very early in the mornings to draw in the dirt while everyone was still sleeping. I’d sit there and imagine what I could paint. And what always came to me out of the imaginative sphere were images—not particularly words, but images. Maybe that’s how I think, because sometimes I feel that I write as a painter. It’s almost as if I paint the poems.” 

Harjo came from a family of painters. Her grandmother Naomi, a full-blooded Creek Indian, and her Aunt Lois, who was the family member closest to Harjo, were painters. Both women received their BFAs in fine art in the early 1900s and painted in the classical European style, but their subjects were often Native American. In her living room, Harjo has a painting by her grandmother of Osceola, the Seminole warrior who would never surrender to the U.S. government. Harjo uses a different medium, but the same collaboration of classical and Native American influences is the marrow of her poetry. 

Reading was a large part of her childhood. She loved poems and memorized them, first because she was forced to in school, and then because she enjoyed doing it. For her birthdays, she requested poetry books, but she was on her own in the quest for quality poetry because she did not have any outstanding educational figures to guide her. 

In high school, Harjo trained as a dancer under Rosalie Jones, a dancer of the Blackfeet tribe, and toured as a dancer and an actress with one of the first all-Indian dance troupes in this country. The show was called “Deep Roots, Tall Cedar” and gained recognition from many professional dance companies because it combined elements of classical European drama with traditional tribal drama. 

After the tour ended in 1968, Harjo, who was 17 years old, returned to Oklahoma, where her son, Phil, was born. She next moved to New Mexico, leaving Phil’s father behind and enrolled at the University of New Mexico as a premed student. Within one semester she returned to art. The university setting introduced Harjo to a world of poets from backgrounds similar to her own and among the group of Native American writers at UNM she found a poetry that spoke of familiar places in a language she understood, something she had never encountered before. “Most of the poetry available to my generation was set in New England or in the Northeast and was written by men, or women emulating the male experience. I always had to change myself to conform to the poem. But I loved the melodic tones, the rhythm, and the music—those are the things that pulled me into a poem, as much or more than the idea. 

One of the first poetry readings Harjo attended was given by Galway Kinnell, who became a source of great inspiration to her. She views him as a musician as well as a poet in the way he writes and reads his poetry. Harjo recounts with verve another significant event that was the turning point in her “unconscious decision” to take up the art of writing poetry: “I was watching a documentary one Sunday afternoon about a tribe in New Guinea. There was a storyteller, but he was also a poet—you could tell by the way he spoke his words. The story was about a hunt for a wild pig, and as he spoke he became—through his inflections and physical movements—the poem, the animal itself, while remaining human. It touched me as nothing else had.” 

When asked about other important influences on her poetry, she says, “There are people who were very important to me. They were poets who I felt were human beings with integrity—integrity to the word and integrity to their country (the land), and to their human beingness. I think of people like Pablo Neruda. One of my favorite poets from Uganda, Africa, who influenced me very much is Okot p’Bitek. I love his piece ‘The Song of Lawino.’ I also like the work of other African writers—West African writers especially. In this country, I became excited by the African American writers: Ishmael Reed’s fiction, the work of Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Leslie Silko, and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, a novel that was pretty much a poem. All were important to my writing.” Harjo had also read the Bible twice by the time she was 12 years old. 

Harjo became disenchanted with the academic view of poetry, because it distorted poetry’s sheer beauty. “I think that what’s happened within the past centry, and it probably came with T. S. Eliot—although you can’t blame everything on T. S. Eliot—is that poetry became the property of the academic. It was taken away from the people in a sense, and I don’t believe that’s where poetry belongs—it belongs to the people. Yes, you can take apart literature, separate it, and see how it works, but as with taking apart the human body, you can’t see the spirit, which is at the root of it. It is the same with a poem—you can’t touch the spirit.” 

Harjo sought a more creative approach to teaching and adopted a method that was directly influenced by one of her students. “I was teaching a class that involved African music and its connection to the spoken word. There was a young Ghanian man who told an incredible story about how he studied to be a master drummer. At seven years old, he was the apprentice to the master drummer, who would send him out into the bush every morning. He had to listen to all of the sounds going on around him, including the sound of the sun coming up, the insects buzzing, the people going for water, and the sound of the hunters as they went out into the bush. He would take it all in, and his ongoing lesson was to repeat those sounds on the drum and perfect them. Of course, it was the same lesson that went on for years, but it was the first teaching method I felt made sense. The workshop method is useful for technique and craft, but the approach seems more like business rather than the sacred art that poetry is.”

As a poet, Harjo viewed a changing society as an opportunity to explore the new attitudes toward her culture and humanity through writing. “I have felt the explosion of the civil rights movement in this country and have been challenged by the shock waves of human rights struggles all over the world. I’ve been especially involved in the struggles of my Indian peoples to maintain a place and culture in this precarious age. My poetry has everything to do with this. I came into writing at a poignant historical moment. I was lucky to be a part of a major multicultural movement with other writers.”

The beginning of her writing career also coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. Harjo noticed a great many poems being written straight from “the kitchen table,” and her poetry fit into this niche as well. “This poetry spoke very openly and honestly of women’s experiences. I considered it to be an incredible revolution in which we gave ourselves back to ourselves. Women had been stripped away by the language, by expectations of the language, and by expectations of the poets and the fathers of the poets. And we are not out of it yet.

“I am seen as a feminist poet. The way I interpret feminism in my own work is the power of a woman to be a warrior—to recognize the warrior characteristics within herself, which include self-love, vulnerability, honesty, integrity, a sense of morals, and so on.” But in a broader sense, Harjo’s poetry reflects the truths of being human, our relationship to one another, and our relationship to the physical world we inhabit. 

Harjo views herself as a woman who has had to learn—or who is learning—to honor the female within herself. “I think it’s easier to honor the male in our culture because it’s much more accepted. There are almost no truly powerful and sustained images of female power. None. Look at Marilyn Monroe? The Virgin Mary? And what images exist for Indian women? The big question is, How do we describe ourselves as women in this culture? It’s unclear. 

“I’ve had to nurture and accept all the elements of myself—both the creator and the destroyer; accept both my white and my native relatives, and accept the female and the male. It’s an ongoing internal war. I almost destroyed myself by the time I was twenty, because I felt like I had to be one or the other. Finally, at one point I made a stand, and here I am.” If there is any one poem that exemplifies her reconciliation of self, Harjo says it is “I Give You Back” in She Had Some Horses (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1983), her second collection of poems. 

Harjo’s subject matter is drawn mainly from the Native American tradition of exalting the land and the spirit, the realities of American culture, and the concept of feminine individuality. Her characters may be actual people like Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Russell Moore, or they may be imaginary entities. “I imagine like a fiction writer sometimes. Most readers assume that the events in a poem actually happened to the poet. Not everything I write is autobiographical. In my work, I add to or change the truth. It is still the truth, just presented in a different form.” 

There is an inherent spiritual quality to Harjo’s poetry, but she doesn’t feel that she is any more spiritual than the next person. “Part of the way I am comes from being around Native American people, but I wouldn’t really use the world ‘spiritual.’ It is natural for human beings to be in awe of the sacred and to realize that the sacred is everywhere. But humans seem to have lost their way, although every once in a while someone may find it, and I think that’s the artist. The artists and the poets are the ones who search for the sacred place.” 

Her first collection of poetry, a chapbook, What Moon Drove Me to This? (I. Reed Books, 1979) is now out of print. “It should stay out of print,” says Harjo. “It was a very young book. There are probably only two good poems in it—poems that showed promise. It was a painful book, written during a difficult period in my life. You could see the beginnings of something, but it wasn’t quite cooked.” 

Harjo’s second book, She Had Some Horses, sold over 11,000 copies and is now in its eighth printing by the same publisher. Horses are a recurring image in many of her poems, but when asked about their meaning, she laughs and replies, “I don’t really want to say, and I get asked that question often. I just leave the horses to themselves.” 

Secrets From the Center of the World (University of Arizona Press, 1989) was a new kind of book for Harjo, combining photography with poetic language. The photographer/astronomer Stephen Strom was looking for a Native American writer to collaborate with him on his book of photographs of a Navajo reservation. “My friend Rain Perish, a Navajo artist and writer, couldn’t do it and referred him to me. We met, and I loved his photographs. Whichever way you turned the pictures, the perspectives made sense, and I think his being an astronomer and spending so much time looking at the universe affected his vision. He sees the world with immense detail. I wrote some text to go along with the photos, made the rounds to all of those places, and then rewrote the text.” Harjo and Strom worked on the arrangement of the photographs together. 

Harjo had already visited most of the places featured in the photographs. “I spent a lot of time going out as a student activist to work with the Navajo people. Many of my friends were Navajo, so I learned the language. I learned the language to the point where I could speak it pretty well, joke in it, and I actually started to dream in it. For me, Secrets From the Center of the World is, in a way a tribute to that time of my life, to those people, to the land, and to the language, which I think influenced my writing very much.” 

In Mad Love and War, Harjo’s most recent book of poems, departs from her original chant-oriented writing style. “In Mad Love, the story started to take precedent. Even though the lyric is important for me, the narrative had more of an edge. Maybe I’m getting farther away from the poetics. My next book will be very different. Harjo’s next collection—The Field of Miracles—is a prose narrative, which she hopes to finish within the next year. A recent short story appears in a Norton anthology called Best of the West, a collection of works by writers west of the Missouri, and another story appears in an anthology of short stories by Native American writers called Talking Leaves (Harper, 1991). 

Harjo’s work has grown in density and in scope, and her increasing love of music has become a major element in her poetry. She plays tenor and soprano saxophone and is now learning to play the flute. She is excited by the literary possibilities that arise out of writing and playing music. “I started playing the saxophone about halfway into writing Mad Love and could already see the effect of jazz. Even though I’m just learning the elements of jazz, I listen to it a lot.” She doesn’t think that her poetry is “jazz poetry,” although it is very much influenced by the music. “I’m close to my tribal music and ceremony, and there is a relationship to jazz. There is a history of connections among the Muscogee, African American, and Seminole people. What I hear in jazz is my people, and I feel related to the music.” 

Harjo’s relationship to jazz runs parallel with her relationship to American poetry. “I am an American, but it took me a while to reconcile my feelings toward American poetry. James Wright praised the American condition, as did Richard Hugo, who truly came out of the American experience. Adrienne Rich, too, is very important—more important to America than America wants to know or realize. I think academics felt betrayed by her when she refused to wear the clothes of her fathers. She refused the forms of her fathers, and left the house of her fathers. When she left the house of the fathers and embraced the mothers, academia felt betrayed. But I look to her honesty as much as her incredible gift of language and intellect.” 

Harjo has recently formed a band called Poetic Justice, with a drummer and a bass player, and would like to record a mixture of poetry and music. She has already completed one projected called “Furious Light” (distributed by Watershed Foundation in Washington, D.C.), taped a reading of poetry from She Had Some Horses and In Mad Love recorded over music. The music was taped separately in this instance, but Harjo is eager to produce a tape that integrates poetry and music even more dramatically. 

In addition to working on her new book and pursuing her musical career, Harjo is teaching and writing several screenplays for a television series called “Tales From the Center of the Earth.” The acknowledgement and integration of all creative energy—art, history, emotion, music—are highly important to Harjo’s work and daily life. The personal growth Harjo sees through the evolution of her writing is key. “If my style didn’t change and evolve, I would quit writing. Poetry is reciprocal. As poetry feeds you, you have to nurture the art and give it time and attention. It does give back to you, I suppose like anything else.” 


Stephanie Izarek Smith is a writer an editor based in New York City. She is currently writing a collection of short prose and poetry.