Harjo, Joy (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Joy Harjo 1951–
American poet, scriptwriter, editor, filmmaker, and musician.
The following provides an overview of Harjo's career through 1993.
Strongly influenced by her Muscogee Creek heritage, feminist and social concerns, and her background in the arts, Harjo frequently incorporates Native American myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry emphasizes the Southwest landscape and the need for remembrance and transcendence. She asserts: "I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival."
Harjo is a registered member of the Muscogee Creek tribe—her father was Creek and her mother part French and part Cherokee—and a distant cousin of Native American poet Alexander Posey. Born and raised in Oklahoma, she graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts, a boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After graduation she joined a Native American dance troupe and worked a series of odd jobs before pursuing a college education. Intending to study medicine, Harjo attended the University of New Mexico but soon switched her major to art. She began writing poetry after hearing American poet Galway Kinnell and Native American writers Simon Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko read from their works. She eventually graduated with a B.A. in poetry in 1976. Attending the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, she took classes under the direction of Silko, earning an M.F.A. in 1978. In addition to teaching at various institutions, Harjo has worked for the National Association for Third World Writers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National American Public Broadcasting Consortium. She has also served on the editorial boards of Contact II, Tyuonyi, and the High Plains Literary Review and has won such honors as the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, and an NEA fellowship. Harjo is also an avid musician, frequently performing on the saxophone.
Harjo's work is largely autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and preoccupation with transcendence, survival, and the limitations of language. In The Last Song (1975), for instance, she writes: "how can you stand it / he said / the hot oklahoma summers / where you were born / this humid thick air / is choking me / … it is the only way / I know how to breathe / an ancient chant / that my mother knew / came out of a history / woven from wet tall 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 search for freedom and self-actualization are considered central to her volume She Had Some Horses (1983), which incorporates prayer-chants and animal imagery. Nature is also a prominent theme of Harjo's prose poetry collection, Secrets from the Center of the World (1989), in which each poem is accompanied by a photograph of the American Southwest. Her best known and most recent volume, In Mad Love and War (1990), is more overtly concerned with politics, tradition, remembrance, and the transformational aspects of poetry. In the first section, which relates various acts of violence, including attempts to deny Harjo her heritage, the murder of an Indian leader, the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, and events in war-torn Nicaragua, Harjo explores the difficulties of survival in the modern world: "… we have too many stories to carry on our backs like houses, we have struggled too long to let the monsters steal our sleep, sleep, go to sleep. But I never wore up. Dogs have been nipping at my heels since I learned to walk. I was taught to not dance for a rotten supper on the plates of my enemies. My mother taught me well." The second half of the book frequently emphasizes personal relationships and change. In the critically acclaimed "Transformations" Harjo states: "What I mean is that hatred can be turned into something else, if you have the right words, the right meanings, buried in that tender place where the most precious animals live…. / That's what I mean to tell you. On the other side of the place you live / stands a dark woman. She has been trying to talk to you for years. / You have called the same name in the middle of a nightmare, / from the center of miracles. She is beautiful. / This is your hatred back. She loves you."
Harjo has been consistently praised for the thematic concerns of her writings, and scholars predict that she will soon become a major figure in contemporary American poetry. They note that while Harjo's work is often set in the Southwest, emphasizes the plight of the individual, and reflects Creek values, myths, and beliefs, her oeuvre has universal relevance. Dan Bellm asserts: "Harjo's work draws from the river of Native tradition, but it also swims freely in the currents of Anglo-American verse—feminist poetry of personal/political resistance, deep-image poetry of the unconscious, 'new-narrative' explorations of story and rhythm in prose-poem form."
The Last Song (poetry) 1975
What Moon Drove Me to This? (poetry) 1979
She Had Some Horses (poetry) 1983
Origin of Apache Crown Dance (script) 1985
Furious Light (recording) 1986
∗Secrets from the Center of the World [with Stephen Strom] (poetry) 1989
In Mad Love and War (poetry) 1990
∗Strom provided the illustrations for this book.
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[Coltelli is the author of Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak (1990). In the interview below, which was originally conducted in 1985, Harjo discusses her heritage, her identity as a Native American woman, her literary interests and influences, and various aspects of her poetry.]
[Coltelli]: When did you start writing?
[Harjo]: Not until I was about twenty-two, which I've always thought fairly late. Up to that time I was mostly interested in art, especially painting, and majored in it at the University of New Mexico until my last year, when I transferred to the English Department to graduate with a creative-writing major. I went on to get my M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa.
Why did you shift from being an art major to creative writing?
Because I found that language, through poetry, was taking on more magical qualities than my painting. I could say more when I wrote. Soon it wasn't a choice. Poetry-speaking "called me" in a sense. And I couldn't say no.
Could you speak about going back to your roots, in your poetry, of your Oklahoma land and heritage?
I just finished a poem today. It's about trying to find the way back. But it's a different place, a mythical place. It's a spiritual landscape that Oklahoma is a part of—I always see Oklahoma as my mother, my motherland. I am...
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[Allen is a Laguna Pueblo novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, the critics provide a thematic analysis of Harjo's poetry.]
Joy Harjo's particular poetic turf is cities, especially from the point of view of an Indian woman traveling between them. Her poems are full of planes, cars, pick-ups, borders, and white center-lines; she writes not only of the Oklahoma of her childhood and New Mexico, where she's spent many of her adult years, but of Iowa and Kansas, Calgary and East Chicago, Anchorage and New Orleans, and corrugated tunnels in airports, "a space between leaving and staying." Her work traces the modern Pan-Indian trails criss-crossing the country, no longer trade routes in the old way, but circuits—the pow-wow circuit, the academic-feminist lecture circuit, the poetry-reading circuit. The primacy of travel in her works probably makes her … the most typical of contemporary American Indian writers. In and out of the Southwest, as Paula Gunn Allen remarks, wandering is an old custom among many tribes. This is perhaps especially true of Oklahoma tribal people, whose wanderings have not always been voluntary. In an interview, Harjo said, "maybe the people of Oklahoma always have this sense that somehow we're going to have to move again…. Somehow, it's not settled, even though we've all lived there since about 1830."…
Harjo does have a strong home-base, an...
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[Randall is an American poet, editor, short story writer, and essayist. In the excerpt below, she offers a favorable assessment of In Mad Love and War and Secrets from the Center of the World.]
… we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks…. I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn't; the next season was worse…. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.
Joy Harjo's lines are a metaphor for the pain and joy of this society we inhabit together and also, more specifically, for her life as a Creek (Muscogee) woman, born in Oklahoma and raised there and in New Mexico. Her language comes from what Marge Piercy rightly calls a sacred power, and the grit and endurance of a rebellious woman struggling to survive racism, capitalism and patriarchy.
Harjo reinvents myth to fit life as she is forced, and ultimately chooses, to live it. She is never facile New Age, but deeply political, though her allegiance goes beyond party or nation. In "Nine Below" she writes:
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[Ullman is an American editor, poet, and educator. In the following review of In Mad Love and War, she states that "all these poems seem written in a moment of urgency, fed by deeply rooted memory or longing, sometimes by defiance, and always by a warriorlike compassion."]
Joy Harjo speaks, as she has in her previous work, with great sureness of spirit and the mercurial, expansive imagination of a conjurer in this third collection, In Mad Love and War. Nearly all these poems seem written in a moment of urgency, fed by deeply rooted memory or longing, sometimes by defiance, and always by a warriorlike compassion that sees through the split between people and their histories, people and their hearts, people and the natural world.
These poems reflect her heritage as a Creek Indian, both in their evocation of emblems such as deer, laughing birds, and "the language of lizards and storms," and also in their identification with people whose dreams have been thwarted by dull circumstance or outright violence: "the man from Jemez" huddled in a blanket in the snow, nearly out of his senses, who mistakes the poet for his daughter ("Autobiography"); civil rights activist Jacqueline Peters hanged by the Klan in an olive tree near her home in 1985 ("Strange Fruit"); a young Micmac woman whose remains were autopsied, buried, and then exhumed and autopsied again before her identity or the cause of her death, a...
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[In the following review, Bellm offers an overview of Harjo's career.]
In one of Joy Harjo's new poems [from In Mad Love and War], a jazz musician brings trombone music home to his Papago tribe: "They had never heard anything like it," she writes, "but it was the way they had remembered." In another, a roomful of hardcore drinkers on the coldest night of the year is startled when a new stripper walks into the bar; they immediately know she is a Deer Dancer, a "myth slipped down through dreamtime," a creature of magic from "a people accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts." Coming upon these poems for the first time is like walking into a new world, too—then recognizing where you are. Time isn't linear. The past and future are happening now. Many worlds exist, and can converge. Dreams carry the same weight as physical evidence, are solid as rock and bone. It becomes apparent that these things aren't just true in the world of Native American spirituality; they're simply true. An Oklahomaborn member of the Creek Nation, fully at home both in Native ways and in the more recent "main" stream of American culture, Joy Harjo is now writing a visionary poetry that is among the very best we have.
In traditional Native story and song, writes Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux), the aesthetics are grounded in kinship; what makes art beautiful is its communality, its expression of...
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[In the essay below, Scarry provides an overview of Harjo's poetry and briefly compares her work to that of other Native American women writers.]
Writing on Joy Harjo in 1990, [in William Balassi, et al.'s This Is About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers], John F. Crawford referred to the poet as an artist who "resists simplicities," a particularly astute comment that could as easily allude to Harjo's approach to her work as it could to our critical reactions to that work. As a poet, Harjo has always resisted simplicities, and we must exercise a similar discipline as we make judgments on her work. That work has recently taken some dramatic new directions and received important critical appreciation: her 1989 book of poems, Secrets from the Center of the World, and her 1990 volume of collected work, In Mad Love and War, have received national attention, earning the writer not only many favorable reviews but also two prestigious accolades, the William Carlos Williams Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Prize. Many who saw and heard Harjo read her own poetry on the 1989 Bill Moyers PBS series "The Power of the Word" may have thought they were listening to a new poetic voice from the American Southwest, but actually they were experiencing the fruits of over two decades of poetic thinking and production. This is an appropriate juncture to review her work and try to give some indication of her...
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[In the following laudatory review, West discusses thematic and stylistic aspects of In Mad Love and War.]
It is difficult not to use the word "magic" when thinking of Joy Harjo's poetry—on the page, words enter another dimension; the cadences of her stunning readings stay with the listener for days; and even the television or video screen is only a scrim easily slipped through by this poet accustomed to easing beyond the barriers of time and structured thought.
In Mad Love and War continues this exploration of the beyond: "I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it," and the attempt to translate memory, time and passion into the inadequacies of first, language itself, second, into the language of the white people, a tongue already suffering the loss of much of its own integrity. "In this language there are no words for how the real world collapses." With this collection, Harjo moves ever closer to making this language expand to bear the awful burden of poetry, even while acknowledging the ultimate paradox: "All poets / understand the final uselessness of words."
But words as components of music, "chords to / other chords to other chords, if we're lucky, to melody," can be a method of understanding other worlds, if not actually entering them:
When I am inside the Muscogee world,...
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[An American poet, educator, and translator, Kallet specializes in women's studies and English and comparative literature. In the following, which comprises two interviews originally conducted with Harjo in April 1991 and September 1992, Harjo discusses her literary influences and concerns, her education, the creative process, and her interest in the arts.]
[Kallet]: What were your beginnings as a writer?
[Harjo]: I could look at this in a couple of ways. One is to look at the myths and stories of the people who formed me in the place where I entered the world…. Another way is to look at when I first consciously called myself a writer. I started writing poetry when I was pretty old, actually—I was about twenty-two. I committed to poetry the day I went in to my painting teacher who mentored me and expected a fine career in painting for me, and told him I was switching my major to poetry. I made the decision to learn what poetry could teach me. It was a painful choice. I come from a family of Muscogee painters. My grandmother and my great-aunt both got their B.F.A.'s in Art in the early 1900s. And from the time I was very small you could always find me drawing, whether it was in the dirt or on paper. That was one thing that made me happy…. I always said that when I grow up I am going to be a painter, I am going to be an artist. Then I made the decision to work with words and the power of words, to...
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Berner, Robert L. Review of In Mad Love and War, by Joy Harjo. World Literature Today 65, No. 1 (Winter 1991): 167.
Favorable assessment of In Mad Love and War, in which Berner praises Harjo's treatment of war, love, and transformation.
Hobson, Geary. Review of Secrets from the Center of the World, by Joy Harjo and Stephen Strom. World Literature Today 65, No. 1 (Winter 1991): 168.
Mixed assessment of Secrets from the Center of the World. Hobson faults Strom's illustrations but praises Harjo's stylistic and thematic focus, concluding: "Joy Harjo is indeed well on her way toward becoming a major poet."
Ruppert, Jim. "Paula Gunn Allen and Joy Harjo: Closing the Distance between Personal and Mythic Space." American Indian Quarterly 7, No. 1 (Spring 1983): 27-40.
Comparative analysis of Allen's and Harjo's writings. The critic states that "both writers see the importance of a vision wider than that which contemporary American society encourages. They create effective poetic structures designed to open the perceptions of readers so that the readers may be moved—through the writer's search for meaning—to significate their own lives, to perceive the mythic/spirit level of understanding inherent...
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