Muscogee (Creek) poet Joy Harjo has been on the move.
Since being named U.S. Poet Laureate in June 2019, the author has only been able to touch down briefly in Tulsa, her hometown, before being called elsewhere to speak or give a reading.
This whirlwind came on the tails of publishing her ninth collection of poetry, “An American Sunrise.” Harjo also will be recognized as the 2020 Saidie Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tulsa Chapter of Association for Women in Communications annual Newsmakers luncheon later this year.
A work that intimately connects the past to the present, “An American Sunrise” addresses how her existence is linked to the Creek Trail of Tears.
She returns to the lands from which Monahwee, her grandfather from several generations back, and other relatives and tribal members were forcibly removed by U.S. soldiers under the policies of President Andrew Jackson.
Using language with clarity and a deftness of spirit, Harjo innovates the way in which poetry is able to embrace oneself while at the same time confronting trauma directly.
In this interview, she addresses poetry as a force that can guide one toward mystery and concepts that surpass understanding.
Has your life changed drastically since becoming U.S. Poet Laurate?
Yes, it has. Right now, I feel like I’m in the middle of a marathon.
“An American Sunrise” is about the old lands and about the history of forced removal. How did you approach that connection between the past and the present?
Well, maybe it approached me. I’m always aware of the past being very much a part of the present. That book came about when I was ending my time as a Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I had accepted that job partially because it was at the northern part of Muscogee (Creek) homelands. So, when I was there, my husband — who’s also a Muscogee (Creek) citizen — and I drove all over the original homelands, which are Florida, Alabama, Georgia, even into Tennessee, those places we lived before we were forcibly removed to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma.
That book came about as I knew I was going to leave, which put me in a strange position because we had returned to the places our people loved and didn’t want to leave and then we were back there and getting ready to leave our homelands again to come back to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma — and I stood out and looked at the trees and I heard my spirit ask: “What did you learn here?” One thing that became very obvious is given the stories from my family, the history, and the stories are very alive and present in that landscape, in that place. They’re just as present as say, contemporary time. I think that’s the same almost everywhere, but particularly for our Muscogee people.
Something that stood out to me most in the poem “Exile of Memory” was the image of the tree. Can you talk about what trees mean in Muscogee (Creek) culture?
I think this is probably central to any indigenous peoples — that trees, stones, the land, they’re living beings, like the animals. They’re not at the bottom of a hierarchy; there is no hierarchy of existence, meaning one person is not better than another because of money or skin color or culture — rather that we’re all part of a shield of meaning. We live with them (trees). We live alongside them. This is something else I’ve learned: some we have resonance with, some not. Certain peoples have resonance with trees since they’ve been around for a long time, and they learn them and they come to understand each other.
In “Seven Generations,” you write, “To the need of stars / To know themselves against the dark.” How do you approach the subject of mystery or of silence or an image as great as the stars?
Well, I think that’s why I went to poetry in the first place. I started out as an artist and painter trying to get to that place without words, and I’ve also turned to music at the same time to get to that place. I see poetry ironically, or paradoxically would be better, as a way to use words to move into a place without words. Which is a place of mystery, of awe, and a place that hosts the deepest kinds of meanings — meanings that are too large for the mind to contain.
It’s obvious to me that your career has always transcended stereotypical indigenous imagery and subject matter, but is that something you consider since you’re writing to such a diverse audience?
I think at the root it’s really important. I have like a domestic center, which includes those trees and it includes my relatives and the (Muscogee (Creek)) people, so that’s always at the center. And I think that if you speak directly from within that kind of place — and this holds for any writer, you can look at Philip Roth, any writer — if you speak distinctly from a specific place, then I think it makes those universal connections even more precisely.
I would advise everyone to go read “Washing My Mother’s Body.” I have to ask about the image of the map in that poem and the series of maps. I was thinking about how a map is an abstraction of a place it represents, or a map is also a colonial device. How did you appropriate that image? you mention maps several times in “An American Sunrise.”
I didn’t realize I did, but I’ve always been intrigued about: How do you make a map of the soul? Or, how you make a map of history when there are so many moving parts? So many parts have been left out of an agreed-upon map. I think about it a lot.
I even called one of my books of poetry “A Map to the Next World” (published in 2000). For me, a map is a way of finding meaning or tracing meaning through — you can trace it generations, through roads, through time, through rivers. It struck me there especially, being back in the Southeast, how the rivers are roadways and that the Trail of Tears coming east to west was also the trail of American music, which also came on those same roads.
I found a major theme in this new collection: remembering. How does the earth help us remember?
Well, the earth bares everything. It’s like in the mother poem, “Washing My Mother’s Body.” See, poems always teach me something. I don’t always know it’s going to happen, and I learn by writing. I realized in writing that mother poem, I have that moment where I talk about the mother’s earth body, her body of earth memories being let down into the earth, because being returned to the earth, it belongs to the earth.
With the interviews and archival materials this book also bears the testimony and witness of others. What was it like including that alongside your own words?
I’ve always wanted to do a larger project like that. A project around a particular incident or moment with many, many different voices or testimonies. If I were going to go back and revise my book, I would probably have added more. But it is what it is. And I’m working on a memoir, and I might even try something like that in my next book.
What would you say to people as they move further and further away from the earth, further from their origins? How can they return to that?
I think we all have a homing instinct. After all, we’re creatures of the earth, and I came back. We all come back in some way or the other and face the story. I think that book (“An American Sunrise”) was a part of me returning home and then having to face the story of a broken history and how we still deal with the same kinds of elements that were at work in America. We’re still dealing with the same kinds of forces in Oklahoma, in Tulsa, in the U.S., that were at work at a time when our people were removed illegally and walked across the United States.
April 18 Earth Day events at Guthrie Green, including a performance by Joy Harjo and her band, have been postponed and/or rescheduled for a later date.
Check facebook.com/okrootsmusic for updates on future events.