U.S. Poet Laureate holds reading at Northeastern State University
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, speaking with Northeastern State University President Steve Turner, visited NSU’s Tahlequah campus on Sept. 25 for a free poetry reading and book signing. D. SEAN ROWLEY/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – Northeastern State University welcomed the U.S. Poet Laureate to campus for a Sept. 25 poetry reading, but she was not in unfamiliar territory.
Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen Joy Harjo, born in Tulsa and a onetime resident of Tahlequah, is the first enrolled Native American and first Oklahoman to be named the national Poet Laureate. Her work consistently receives international acclaim, and she is an award-winning musician.
“It is good to come back to Tahlequah,” Harjo said. “I was thinking about those times walking – walking to the hospital to give birth. Those were different times in my life, but they were important times. The people were very much a part of my journey. My grandmother was raised over in Moodys…. I’m partly from here, too.”
Speaking to an overflow crowd inside the W. Roger Webb Educational Technology Center, Harjo said Tahlequah and many parts of northeast Oklahoma have long benefited from those who understood the need to conserve natural resources.
“I would like to acknowledge the original people and caretakers of these lands,” Harjo said “There are some wonderful caretakers, because Tahlequah has some of the most beautiful places. Every time I walk here – I used to walk and walk and walk – I was always fed by the beauty of these rocks and trees…. I was watching this fresh water, and I thought ‘what an amazing gift.’ There are fewer and fewer places in the world that are not contaminated by all the industrial processing of waste in the world. We have a special place here.”
After playing a brief traditional musical piece, Harjo opened with perhaps her most read and quoted poem, “Remember.” Before reciting, she said she didn’t always want to be a poet. She preferred painting because she “didn’t have to speak to anyone.”
“The spirit of the poetry came to me and said ‘you need to learn to listen,’” Harjo said. “I was the least likely person to be a poet, and I said ‘OK,’ and I knew I needed to learn how to listen. Poetry always teaches me something, and I think most artists will tell you that. Raising a family will always teach you about humans and being a human being. I wrote this poem probably when I needed it. This was one of my earliest poems. I think of it as my spirit saying ‘OK, this is what you need to remember.’”
Harjo also spoke further of her time in Tahlequah, which was full of challenges as a teenaged mother. She had little money and little idea of what to expect.
“Our dreams are like living beings,” she said. “We are all given something to share – absolutely everyone has something uniquely given to them to develop and share, and we know when we are off kilter.”
She also compared time and its passage to a living person.
“I think about the time we are all in together right now,” Harjo said. “There are stories in a lot of our communities where we say this has all happened before. We reach a point where we stop listening and we destroy the world. Then it is remade beautifully and we have a chance all over again. Which is kind of like a day. We start out in the morning, and we have all this opportunity, and at the end of the day, what did we make of it?”
Harjo said she realized poetry could be about her own life, Native people and Native women.
“You can put almost anything in a poem,” she said. “They can be repositories. You can put time in there. It’s like a song. Songs are like little memory pieces.”
In 2016, Harjo joined the faculty at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and held the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence within the English department. When it was time to start the next chapter of her life, she was conflicted.
“It was in the homelands,” she said. “These were original lands. When we were getting ready to leave, I was torn. Everywhere you walk, there are places where our houses were. I stood there looking out, and looking back, and now we were going to leave, and that was disturbing to me. I looked out into the beautiful woods and my spirit asked, ‘What did you learn here?’”
Harjo’s works include nine books of poetry, including her latest “An American Sunrise,” children’s books and her memoir, “Crazy Brave.” Her awards are numerous, and she was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame in 2014.