THE FIELD OF STORIES
Poets & Writers Magazine|September - October 2021
IN HER NEW MEMOIR, POET WARRIOR, PUBLISHED BY W. W. NORTON IN SEPTEMBER, U.S. POET LAUREATE JOY HARJO TRAVELS THE ROADS, RIVERS, AND RHYTHMS OF HER LIFE, TAKING READERS ON A JOURNEY ACROSS GENERATIONS AND SINGING POWERFUL LESSONS ON THE CYCLICAL NATURE OF TIME AND BECOMING.
LAURA DA'

SEATTLE TO Tulsa is a three-day journey by road. From the saturated green coast of fiddlehead ferns and roadside waterfalls to long, arid rings of inland prairie, mountains, and rivers of all description, all must be crossed. As Joy Harjo and I talk from our respective homes, her warmth makes the space diminish; I imagine the road between us beginning in Seattle, where I am, and crossing the Cascade mountains, to the towns of Cle Elum, Deer Lodge, Crow Agency, Cheyenne, Wichita, and Tonkawa. Cross the Arkansas River and there is Tulsa. The road is overlaid in concrete and numbered, but the paths have always been here.

Harjo is a traveler and a community leader whose experiences drive her storytelling. “My creative life, I have come to understand, finds energetics in traveling, either physically or through knowledge gathering,” she says, and these voyages inform the passages of poetry and prose in her new memoir, Poet Warrior, published in September by W. W. Norton. The book is told in six parts, and each movement opens for readers a different doorway to understanding the way lives and places intertwine.

Born in Tulsa, Harjo is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She is the author of nine books of poetry, including An American Sunrise (2019), Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015), The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (1994), and In Mad Love and War (1990), all published by W. W. Norton. Harjo’s first memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012), won the 2013 PEN Center USA prize for creative nonfiction. She has also published a children’s book, The Good Luck Cat (Harcourt Brace, 2000), and a book for young adults, For a Girl Becoming (University of Arizona Press, 2009). More recently she served as executive editor of When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations, published in August 2020.

Harjo is also a noted saxophonist and vocalist who performed for many years with her band Poetic Justice and currently plays saxophone and flutes with Arrow Dynamics. She has produced seven award-winning music albums, including Winding Through the Milky Way and I Pray for My Enemies. She has taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and elsewhere, and currently holds a Tulsa Artist Fellowship. Harjo is a founding board member of the Vancouver, Washington–based Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance equity and cultural knowledge, focusing on the power of arts and collaboration to strengthen Native communities and promote positive social change.

In 2019, Harjo was named U.S. poet laureate, the first Native American poet to hold the distinction, and is currently serving her third term. Last year she launched her signature laureate project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” an online map featuring work and recordings from forty-seven contemporary Native poets. In May, W. W. Norton published a companion anthology, Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry.

“We need rituals of becoming in which we are given instructions that define our relationship with becoming, with our relatives, those sharing the world around us,” Harjo writes in Poet Warrior. The new memoir is a profound story of the interconnectedness of becoming, illuminating the way that guidance comes to the learner in each season of life. One of the memoir’s most generous and tender passages proposes the following: “If grandchildren are evidence of our fulfilled dreams, then our grandparents are the dreamers and storytellers from whose imagination we arrive here.” In the memoir Harjo stands inside this generational reckoning of time and helps us to see it as a cycle. There is a powerful pulse in all the events that she describes, from traveling with an Indigenous dancing group, to young motherhood, to walking the original homelands of her nation. “What did you learn here?” is the gentle imperative that informs the power of her words, her leadership, and her guidance.

I am reading Poet Warrior with great curiosity, admiration, and pleasure. One feeling that I take from the beginning of the text is the primacy and clarity of breathing. This stood out to me because it made me realize that reading your work was affecting my attention not just to the text, but also to myself, my breathing, and my own surroundings. In Shawnee language the way we greet and ask after one another actually uses the verb to breathe, which is written as wesilaasamamo. It means that when we meet each other we are asking “How are you breathing?” I mention this because it made me curious about the role of breathing in your work and in the way Indigenous words and ideas can come up in literature.

When we take in our first breath, it is a promise to take on this human story, a story that has dimension in time and place. Breath is our entrance into story making—it is a promise. It is a constant ritual that we all share, and it is essential in poetry. Our phrasing and line making is based on breaths. To compose according to phrasing by breath or other means of rhythm counters a traditional method of composing by poetic form and measure.

However, if you look to the roots of poetry throughout Indigenous cultures in the world, poetry making is not without music, and music is not without dance. When I began writing and thinking in poetry, rhythm was primary, alongside image making. My first poems were conceived and written between all the tasks and requirements of being a full-time single parent and student and a part-time job holder. I wrote in the in-between, or during the very late hours, after the children were asleep. My poems were generally of short lines, like short, running breaths, and single-image-driven. I was also learning poetry as I wrote poetry. With self-confidence and continued study my breaths grew longer. With the collection She Had Some Horses [1983], especially the title poem, I became aware of chant language, of the language for long, sequential songs.

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