Writers & Company

U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo pays homage to art and ancestors in her new memoir, Poet Warrior

The poet, musician and memoirist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about the joys and harsh realities of her early life — and finding refuge in poetry and art.
Joy Harjo is an American poet, musician, playwright and author. (Shawn Miller)

Joy Harjo's work is a powerful mix of the spiritual and political. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the writer, musician and artist often combines songs and poetry with personal, family and ancestral history.   

In her new memoir, Poet Warrior, Harjo reflects on both the joys and harsh realities of her early life — her parents' complicated marriage, her abusive stepfather — and how she found refuge in poetry and art. She first explored this history in her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave, which won a National Book Award and a PEN USA literary prize for nonfiction. Now in Poet Warrior, she expands on her story, chronicling her path to becoming the United States' first Native Nations poet laureate in 2019.

Born in Tulsa in 1951, Harjo is the author of nine collections of poetry and two award-winning children's books. She also performs on saxophone and flute, and has produced seven albums featuring spoken word and original music.

Harjo spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Tulsa. 

Her lively mother

"My mother was very charismatic, very outgoing. She genuinely loved people and her centre of gravity was in the kitchen. I think of how a kitchen often functions for many of us as the centre of the universe — all the conversations, people come in and out. It's not a dining room, it's the kitchen. I can't separate my mother's kitchen from the music that was always playing on the radio and her singing or dancing along. 

"I used to tell her that she had eyes in the back of her head. My mother was very intuitive. She was actually born with a caul over her face, which is said to bring second sight. The older I've gotten, the more I've appreciated and understood the gift of her intuition. And then there's the mother thing — all mothers have this thing where we know what our children are doing. I've woken up nights and heard my son crying and he was miles and miles away. He's not somebody who cries, and I knew he was going through something."

The door of knowing everything

"We all come into this world and take breath. I know that when I've held newborns and looked in their eyes, they know why they're here and they come with memories.

"They come with memories of where they've come from and who knows what other kind of memories. It's become very obvious with my grandchildren in how present they are. Then slowly, through the early months, they can lose a lot of that. Children are still close to that door, and they're naturally creative. They're naturally, absolutely who they are. 

When you get to my age, I think that's where you see a lot of women, especially older women, coming into their own power.

"Then when you get to my age, I think that's where you see a lot of women, especially older women, coming into their own power. That door widens and you become more aware that the context of being human is huge.

"This experience here on Earth is only part of it."

The warrior

"I always had a fighting instinct. But I think I've come to see 'warrior' as something else — as someone who will keep going, no matter the failures. You get back up and keep walking. I know that most people associate warriors with men who battle in war. Especially with Native warriors, that's who you see most in history books.

"And yet, many of our finest warriors are those who get up at dawn, make meals for the children, get everyone dressed, get them out, go to work, make sure everyone is taken care of — and do this day after day and do it gracefully. That, to me, is the sign of a warrior going into the battle of life."

Discovering poetry

"Poetry was not something that we had in our everyday life; I didn't see people like us as poets. It came in from somewhere else, usually England. My first image of a poet was an old white man in a trenchcoat, declaiming. I don't know where I got that image. I think it's because of the poetry we read at school.

"It wasn't until Emily Dickinson — and even then, Emily Dickinson wouldn't live in our neighbourhood, you know? But there was something about her voice saying, I'm Nobody! Who are you? that I felt like I made a friend. It connected. But as far as it came down to me, or anyone else in our community, writing poetry as a means to make a path in life, we just didn't see that. You never see tables for the arts on Career Day, especially not for poetry.

People in our communities can write poetry, and the poetry can be specific to cultures.

"It wasn't until I was a student at the University of New Mexico and a member of the Kiva Club, the Native student club, that I heard Native poets, and the doors opened to the possibility. People in our communities can write poetry, and the poetry can be specific to cultures."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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