Joy Harjo

Citation metadata

Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 4,086 words

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: May 09, 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

Books

  • The Last Song (Las Cruces, N.M.: Puerto Del Sol, 1975).
  • What Moon Drove Me to This? (New York: Reed, 1979).
  • She Had Some Horses, edited by Brenda Peterson (New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1983).
  • Secrets from the Center of the World, by Harjo and Stephen Strom (Tucson: Sun Tracks / University of Arizona Press, 1989).
  • In Mad Love and War (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

Recording

  • Furious Light, Washington, D.C., Watershed, 1986.

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

To read the poetry of Joy Harjo is to hear the voice of the earth, to see the landscape of time and timelessness, and, most important, to get a glimpse of people who struggle to understand, to know themselves, and to survive. As Harjo has continued to refine her craft, her poems have become visions, answers to age-old questions, keys to understanding the complex nature of twentieth-century American life, and guides to the past and the future.

The daughter of Allen W. and Wynema Baker Foster, Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is an enrolled member of the Creek tribe; when she was sixteen, she moved to the Southwest to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts. She graduated from the University of New Mexico with a B.A. in poetry in 1976. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1978, after which she taught for a few years at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Arizona State University, and the University of Colorado, before joining the English faculty at the University of New Mexico in 1990. She has two children: Phil and Rainy Dawn.

Harjo has published five books of poetry; in addition, though, she is accomplished in several other areas. She has many screenwriting credits, including teleplays, public service announcements, and public broadcasting/educational television work. In 1986 the tape Furious Light was released, consisting of Harjo reading selected poems backed by musical accompaniment. Harjo has also edited several literary journals, including the High Plains Literary Review, and is currently a contributing editor for Tyuonyi and Contact II.

Frequently anthologized, Harjo's work is reaching a broader audience every year, helped in part by her extensive travels to do readings, workshops, and literary festivals. She is the recipient of several awards, including the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award, and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award, as well as other grants and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1978.

Harjo is very active in her profession, having served on several advisory panels, including the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium Board of Directors, the New Mexico Arts Commission, and an NEA literature policy panel, among others. She has extensive teaching experience at the postsecondary level and is currently a full professor at the University of New Mexico. She has been writer in residence at several institutions, including the University of Montana and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Harjo has also been very active in the Artists-in-the-Schools programs. One of Harjo's other passions is music, especially the tenor sax and flute, and she currently plays in a rock band, a big band, and a jazz band.

Harjo is at work on several projects, including a collection of poetic prose called "The Field of Miracles" and an anthology of native women's writing in the Americas titled "Reinventing the Enemy's Language."She has had a children's book, "The Good Luck Cat," accepted for publication by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Much like the characters in her poems, Harjo's poetry is always evolving, always moving, and becoming more universal over time. Harjo is a Native American, and while it is not advisable to lock any author into an ethnic box, her heritage does figure, either directly or indirectly, in her poetry. Being an American Indian carries with it a dual perception of the world, and much of Harjo's poetry deals with the often tenuous relationship between that which is "American" and that which is "Indian." Native American symbols and ideas are important to Harjo, but she writes of these in relation to the larger world they inhabit. Many of Harjo's poems are set in cities, airports, and bars, where the "traditional" Indian ways run head-on into the white establishment, often with devastating results, always with a profound truth coming out of the encounter. The desire for harmony and balance is a distinct undercurrent in Harjo's poetry, as she skillfully creates sense out of apparent chaos.

Harjo's first collection of poetry was a nine-poem chapbook called The Last Song . It was published in 1975, and most of the poems are set in either Oklahoma or New Mexico. The poems are often linked to the landscape and to the idea of survival, and though the poems have a definite modern feel, their roots in the red-dirt country of Oklahoma are obvious. Harjo lived in Oklahoma for several years and remembers the red earth vividly; as she told Geary Hobson: "When I was a little kid in Oklahoma, I would get up before everyone else and go outside to a place of rich, dark earth next to the foundation of the house. I would dig piles of earth with a stick, smell it, form it. It had sound. Maybe that's where I learned to write poetry" (The Remembered Earth, 1979). Though Harjo no longer lives in Oklahoma, she retains ties to it, familial and otherwise, which are clear in the title poem "The Last Song":

it is the only way
i know how to breathe
an ancient chant
that my mother knew
came out of history
woven from wet grass
in her womb and I know no other way
than to surround my voice
with the summer songs of crickets
in this moist south night air
oklahoma will be the last song
i'll ever sing.
The red soil is the source of the ancient songs, of history. Hobson points out that most of Harjo's poetry does not focus specifically on her Creek heritage and speculates that the lines "oklahoma will be the last song / i'll ever sing" may be a "promise of the theme Harjo will turn to in time." In any case, Harjo's deep connection with and understanding of the land are established in her first volume.

Also established in The Last Song is the previously mentioned balance between contemporary American life and ancient tribal truths, as articulated in "3AM":

in the albuquerque airport
trying to find a flight
to old oraibi, third mesa
TWA
is the only desk open
bright lights outline new york
chicago
and the attendant doesn't know
that third mesa
is part of the center
of the world
and who are we
just two indians
at three in the morning
trying to find a way back[.]
Harjo keeps her origins close to her, and they inspire her, whether or not they appear in the poetry. Her Creek ancestors helped lead the resistance during the time of President Andrew Jackson's removal of the Creeks from Alabama to Oklahoma.

Harjo's second published work and first full-length collection is What Moon Drove Me to This ? (1979). All of the poems from the earlier chapbook appear, as well as many new ones. With this collection, Harjo continued to refine her ability to find and voice the deep spiritual truths underneath everyday experiences, especially for the Native American. Often these truths are revealed through bitter anger and irony, as in "Blackbirds":

The United States Army says
it knows how to kill
a million blackbirds.
Blackbird lives are easy--
bones and black feathers
scatter in the wind
over Kentucky.
(A blue sky stained with feathers and blood.)
But the United States Army
doesn't know
that every blackbird has a thousand lives.
Harjo has the ability to look beneath the surface and then to articulate this vision. Her native tradition provides her a storehouse of images on which to draw, and her poetry is filled with the perception of woman as earth, people as horses, and wind as mother. This fusion of myth and tradition gives Harjo a rich source for her figurative language and her readers a deep and clear look straight into the center of existence. In this poetry, everything has its own identity and connection to the larger web of life.

In Harjo's poetry a harmonious balance is achieved through the careful juxtaposition of past and present, of mythic and mundane. In "For Two Hundred Years" this relationship is clear:

You were drunk that time
Over at the powwow grounds
Dust and Spit
Flew from the corners of your mouth
.................................
Chino said it was time to go
But you wanted to stay 200 years
With one afternoon.
Harjo is also good at articulating the experiences of the individual, especially of women. In "Fire,"the ideas of female harmony and balance come through clear and strong:
look at me
i am not a separate woman
i am a continuance
of blue sky
i am the throat
of the sandia mountains[.]

In Harjo's 1979 book readers are also introduced to Noni Daylight, an alter ego, a personality who can move with ease among the mythic, the concrete, the past, the present, and the future. Noni began as a real-life friend whose name Harjo could not use in the poem. Readers first meet Noni as she attempts suicide, then they travel with her on many journeys, including one to the Grand Canyon, in "Origin":

Noni Daylight ... drove west
into the shiny side of the earth....
Noni heard
that the Hopi say the Grand Canyon
is the birthplace of their people....
In "Evidence" Noni takes the speaker for a ride in which they drive off into a great unknown. The narrator's desire to get out of this layer of life is united with Noni's ability to take her to a different level. In Noni's world the boundaries of time and space mean nothing.

Another frequently occurring image in Harjo's poetry is the moon. It becomes something of a private symbol for her and appears often in her early poems as lover, guide, light, and woman. In "Going Toward Pojoaque, A December Full Moon/72," the moon is spirit, predator, and revealer:

it is a winter ghost
hunter
for old bones in the snow
the full moon
was so bright
I could see the bones
in my hands.

In "Looking Back," the full moon is, as the speaker says, "a good excuse for anything." By following the moon, the speaker ends up driving ninety miles an hour "into its yellow shoulder / not even looking back." The moon is a guide, a beacon to higher meaning and experience, or as critic Jim Ruppert calls it, an entrance into "mythic space."

Harjo's next volume of work, She Had Some Horses , was published in 1983 and is, at this writing, in its eighth printing. In this collection Harjo synthesizes many of the ideas and images established in her earlier work into a well-defined whole. The thrust is freedom and empowerment, mainly accomplished through self-knowledge and the letting go of fear. The book has a circular structure, for which Harjo credits editor Brenda Peterson. The book opens with"Call it Fear":

There is this edge where shadows
and bones of some of us walk
backwards
Talk backwards. There is this edge
call it an ocean of fear in the dark. Or
name it with other songs.
Once the fear is named, it can be dealt with, and it is, in the poems that follow. The volume is full of poems that name fears, claim power, and thus increase the chances of surviving a world of paradox and polarity. The polarity of life in the modern world sits in direct opposition to the Native American concept of harmony and balance. In "For Alva Benson, and for Those Who Have Learned to Speak," the ideas of the cyclical nature of birth, death, and life are articulated:
And we go on, keep giving birth and watch
ourselves die, over and over.
And the ground spinning beneath us
goes on talking.

The idea of survival is central to Harjo's work, both survival of the individual and of Native Americans as a people. In "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window," an Indian woman hangs from a window ledge, contemplating suicide. Harjo makes the experience universal--the woman hanging there could be Anywoman. As readers near the end of the poem, they can imagine themselves hanging there, weighing options:

The woman hangs from the 13th floor window crying for
the lost beauty of her own life. She sees the
sun falling west over the grey plane of Chicago.
She thinks she remembers listening to her own life
break loose, as she falls from the 13th floor
window on the east side of Chicago, or as she
climbs back up to herself again.

Horses also figure prominently in Harjo's work, becoming another symbol. This volume is filled with horses: prehistoric horses, and black horses, blue horses, running horses, drowning horses, and ice horses. The title poem,"She Had Some Horses," is one of Harjo's most anthologized and recognized works. It is a beautiful, chantlike poem, and, upon hearing Harjo read the poem, one becomes entranced:

She had horses who danced in their mothers' arms.
She had horses who thought they were the sun and
their bodies shone and burned like stars.
She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon....
She had horses who liked Creek Stomp Dance
songs.
She had horses who cried in their beer....
She had horses who said they weren't afraid.
She had horses who lied.
Harjo says this is the one poem about which she is asked most often, yet it is the one about which she has "the least to say." The horses are representative, she says, of "different aspects of probably any person...." The horses are spirits, neither male nor female, and, through them, clear truths can be articulated.

She Had Some Horses is dedicated to Meridel LeSeur, a writer Harjo credits as "having a lot of influence on me in terms of being a woman who speaks as a woman.... She kept to her particular viewpoint ... and has often been criticized for it" (interview with Joseph Bruchac, Spring 1985). Harjo's women are strong, no matter what their situation. They may not have the answers, but they have within them the power to find them. Even the woman hanging from the window ledge is not weak. Harjo told Brucac: "I think they reach an androgynous kind of spirit where they are very strong people. They're very strong people, and yet to be strong does not mean to be male, to be strong does not mean to lose femininity, which is what the dominant culture has taught. They're human beings ... it's time to break the stereotypes."

She Had Some Horses ends where it began. In "I Give You Back," Harjo releases the fear that she articulated in the first poem. The ritual, chantlike nature of the poem acts as a kind of exorcism of fear, and the poem goes beyond the letting go of fear to taking power over it:

I release you ...
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won't hold you in my hands.

In 1989 Joy Harjo collaborated with Stephen Strom on the critically acclaimed Secrets from the Center of the World. Strom's photographs of Navajo country, the Four Corners area, are accompanied by Harjo's prose poetry. Critic Luci Tapahanso calls it "a powerful combination ... rare beauty all at once: songs of birth, love, history, and the land--which is our life" (dust jacket). Harjo's work is very much earth-centered: "My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world." It goes beyond mere description of the land, past the boundaries of space and time to higher truths. Eventually, the poetry and the land become one, true to the cyclic, harmonious nature of Native American thought: "This land is a poem of ochre and burnt sand I could never write, unless paper were the sacrament of the sky, and ink the broken line of wild horses staggering the horizon several miles away."

The leap from She Had Some Horses toIn Mad Love and War (1990) is a long one. The poems in the latter are rich and varied, drawing on many different areas. Harjo's Native American voice is still present: images such as deer, laughing birds, the "language of lizards and storms," trickster crows, and rabbits inhabit the pages. But Harjo moves beyond these symbols and traditions, detailing lives and deaths of dreamers, who failed because of circumstances or violence: "the man from Jemez" huddled in a blanket in the snow who mistakes the narrator for his daughter ("Autograph"); civil-rights activist Jacqueline Peters hanged by the Klan in an olive tree ("Strange Fruit"). One of the most moving poems in the book is "For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars...." Aquash was a young Micmac woman, an active American Indian Movement member who was murdered for her work:

Anna Mae,
everything and nothing changes.
You are the shimmering young woman
who found her voice
when you were warned to be silent....
(It was the women who told me) and we
understood
wordlessly
the ripe meaning of your murder.

Harjo's narrators are strong and insightful. In "Javelina" the speaker stands squarely as "one born of a blood who wrestled the whites for freedom, and I have since lived dangerously in a diminished system." Reviewer Leslie Ullman calls Harjo "a storyteller whose stories resurrect memory, myth, and private struggles that have been overlooked and who thus restores vitality to the culture at large" (Kenyon Review, Spring 1991). These storytelling skills are honed and heightened by Harjo's sensitivity to the natural order and balance of the world and to the history, past and recent, which has violated that order. The rest of the title of the "Aquash" poem reads: "for we remember the story and tell it again so that we may all live."

This sensitivity carries over into other issues. There are several poems in the "Wars" section that deal with Nicaragua, including "Resurrection": "I have no damned words to make violence fit neatly / like wrapped packages / of meat to contain us safely."

Some critics chide Harjo for being too "politically correct," of carrying a banner for too many causes, and, at first reading, that may seem true. However, Harjo writes of war, peace, native concerns, economics, crime, poverty, love, hate, revolution, and death--all universal themes and all of concern to a Native American woman living in the late twentieth century. She does not tell her reader how to feel but simply tells the truth she sees. Harjo's poetry is not so much about "correctness" as it is about continuance and survival.

Besides social concerns, much of Harjo's poetry contains music imagery, probably because of her growing interest in and connection to jazz. Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Nat King Cole, and Aretha Franklin are all featured, and the poems in which they appear exude a smoky, erotic quality, like a saxophone riff. Besides the musical references Harjo also includes tributes to the tradition from which she comes: there are poems dedicated to June Jordan and Richard Hugo , two poets who have influenced her work.

Harjo is sometimes unfairly criticized for placing too much emphasis on the "prose" part of her prose poetry. She is a skilled wordsmith, though, as proven by some of the figurative language found in her 1990 volume. In "Climbing the Streets of Worcester, Mass," "houses lean forward on thin hips," and in a brilliant passage from "We Encounter Nat King Cole," Harjo's ability to use figurative language is showcased:

Yesterday I turned north on Greasewood
the long way home and was shocked to see a double
rainbow
two stepping across the valley.
Suddenly there were twin gods
bending over to plant something like
themselves in the wet earth.
In "Nine Lives," "Cicadas climb out of the carcasses their voices made, into their wings of fragile promises to glide over the wet grass."

Joy Harjo has a powerful voice and a clear vision. Her poetry moves in and out of the realms of dream and reality, hope and despair, and survival and extinction, pulling together the diverse strands into a harmonious, balanced whole, as in "Eagle Poem," from In Mad Love and War:

knowing we are truly blessed
because we
were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning inside us.
We pray that it may be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Joseph Bruchac, "Interview With Joy Harjo," North Dakota Quarterly, 30 (Spring 1985): 220-234.
  • Laura Coltelli, Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), pp. 55-68.
  • Laura Coltelli, The Spiral of Memory: Interviews(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
  • Geary Hobson, ed., The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature (Albuquerque: Red Earth, 1979).
  • Jim Ruppert, "Paula Gunn Allen and Joy Harjo: Closing the Distance Between Personal and Mythic Space," American Indian Quarterly, 7 (Spring 1983): 27-40.
  • Patricia Clark Smith, "Earthly Relations, Carnal Knowledge," in The Desert Is No Lady: South-western Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art, edited by Vera Norwood and Janice Monk, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 174-196.

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200001311