Harjo, Joy (Poetry Criticism)
Joy Harjo 1951–
American poet, screenwriter, short story writer, and editor.
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 is also praised for her powerful poetic voice and clear vision.
Harjo is a registered member of the Muscogee Creek tribe. Her father was Creek and her mother part French and part Cherokee. She is also 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. As a student at the University of New Mexico, 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 a 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 received many honors, such as the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award, and a NEA fellowship.
Harjo's work is largely autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and preoccupation with transcendence, survival, and the limitations of language. The search for freedom and self-actualization are considered central to her volume She Had Some Horses, which incorporates prayer-chants and animal imagery. Nature is also a prominent theme of her prose poetry collection, Secrets from the Center of the World, in which each poem is accompanied by a photograph of the American Southwest. Each poem and picture underscore the importance
of landscape and story within the Native American world view. In Mad Love and War focuses on politics, tradition, remembrance, and the transformational aspects of poetry. The first section 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. The second half of the book frequently emphasizes personal relationships and change. Her recent collection, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, is named for an Iroquois myth about a female creator. The poems are concerned with the vying forces of creation and destruction in contemporary society, and utilize images ranging from wolves to northern lights and subjects such as the devastation of alcoholism and the Vietnam War.
Harjo is considered an important figure in contemporary American poetry. Scholars 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 also has universal relevance. She is often criticized for being too political in her work. Yet some critics see her concern over injustice as an integral part of being a Native American woman living in the twentieth century. Some commentators analyze the recurring image of the American urban landscape in her poetry, asserting that Harjo often juxtaposes the modern city with traditional Native American culture in order to underscore the alienation of native peoples in modern American society. Many critics trace her maturation as a poet, maintaining that as the body of her work unfolds, she expresses herself with increasing confidence and a stronger poetic voice.
The Last Song 1975
What Moon Drove Me to This? 1979
She Had Some Horses 1983
Secrets from the Center of the World [with Stephen Strom] 1989
In Mad Love and War 1990
The Woman Who Fell from the Sky 1996
The Good Luck Cat [with Paul Lee] 2000
A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales (poetry and short stories) 2000
Other Major Works
Origin of Apache Crown Dance (screenplay) 1985
The Spiral of Memory (interviews) [edited by Laura Coltelli] 1996
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SOURCE: "Notes towards a New Multicultural Criticism." A Gift of Tongues, Marie Harris and Kathleen AGuero, eds., Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987, pp. 155-95.
[In the following essay, Crawford provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Harjo's She Had Some Horses.]
In her early writing, Joy Harjo already addressed themes of land and people, fear and healing. Speaking of her native landscape, she remarked:
What is breathing here is some sort of dangerous anger that rises up out of the Oklahoma landscape. The earth is alive with emotions, and will take action on what is being felt. This way of seeing is characteristic of most native poets and writers of Oklahoma. That which has happened to the earth, has happened to all of us as part of the earth….
What Oklahoma becomes, in a sense, is a dream, an alive and real dream that takes place inside and outside of the writer…. Our words begin inside of the dream and become a way of revealing ourselves within this landscape that is called Oklahoma. Language becomes all of the people that we are. Living voices surround us and speak from the diverse and many histories we have been, the ones we have become, and most of all, how we will continue. There are those voices among us who will assume the cadence of an ancient and living chant.15
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SOURCE: "The Story of All Our Survival: An Interview with Joy Harjo," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press and Sun Tracks, 1987, pp. 87-103.
[In the following interview, Harjo discusses the role of memory and storytelling in her poetry as well as the major themes and images found in She Had Some Horses.]
This interview took place on December 2, 1982, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Joy Harjo was living while a student in a post-graduate film-making program at the College of Santa Fe. Although the interview was done before the publication of her new book of poems, She Had Some Horses (Thunder's Mouth Press), a proof copy of the book had just arrived in the mail and we made reference to it during the interview.
The living room of the rented house in which we talked was one of those open "modern" living rooms typical of contemporary southwestern architecture. It was dominated by a painting on the wall of a group of horses—the same painting which became the cover design for her book—and a large stereo with reggae tapes piled on top of it.
I began by asking Joy if there was a poem she would like to start off with. The one she chose came out of her recent experience of teaching a workshop in an Alaskan prison.
[BRUCHAC]: I'm glad you started with that poem, Joy. Those last few lines,...
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SOURCE: '"Twin Gods Bending Over': Joy Harjo and Poetic Memory," in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 41-9.
[In the following essay, Lang emphasizes the importance of memory in Harjo's poetry by examining her depiction of various urban American landscapes.[
Contemporary Native American poet Joy Harjo expresses and reflects patterns of ongoing, multilayered and multivocal memories within the narratives of her poems. These memories flow and interweave on a continuum within a metaphysical world that begins deep within her personal psyche and simultaneously moves back into past memories of her Creek (Muskogee) heritage, as well as forward into current pantribal experiences and the assimilationist, Anglo-dominated world of much contemporary Native American life. Harjo's poetic memories may be personal stories, family and tribal histories, myths, recent pantribal experiences, or spiritual icons of an ancient culture and history. And, while Harjo writes using both an "alien" language, English, and within expected structural and narrative formats of contemporary poetry, her poems also frequently resonate with the distinctive chanting rhythms and pause breaks associated with traditional Native American oralities. As with other contemporary Native American women poets such as Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw), and Wendy Rose (Hopi/Chowchilla Miwok), Harjo's past memories and...
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SOURCE: "An Art of Saying: Joy Harjo's Poetry and the Survival of Storytelling," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 1-3, 5-15.
[In the following excerpt, Leen explores the function of storytelling in Harjo's poetry.]
In her poem titled, "The Book of Myths," Joy Harjo (1990:55-56) introduces "stories / that unglue the talking spirit from the pages" (lines 33-34). Stories have the power to take action, to unglue a spirit, to revise words on a page, to cross sacred boundaries to revisionist myth-making. Another Native American writer addresses storytelling and crossing boundaries in his short story, "Four Skin." Gerald Vizenor (199:91) crosses the boundaries between science (computers and research) and art (story-telling), between nature (the night) and academia (graduate school): "The truth is that this computer time was given to me to do research, but research is too slow to hold the night, so I have been telling stories to this machine about being a crossblood skin and graduate student." This quote also crosses the vague oral (crossblood skin as noble/howling savage) and literate (graduate student) boundaries that many Native Americans—as do most oppressed minorities—consistently maneuver.
In oral cultures, storytelling maintains and preserves traditions. It takes listeners on a journey toward a renewal of life, a common survival theme in Native rituals...
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Goodman, Jenny. "Politics and the Personal Lyric in the Poetry of Joy Harjo and C. D. Wright." MELUS 19, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 35-56.
Examines recent poetry by Harjo and Wright, contending that the two authors "work consciously at the borders of aesthetics and politics, reshaping the available language for both."
Harjo, Joy. "Writing with the Sun." In Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, edited by Sharon Bryan, pp. 704. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
Traces Harjo's interest in poetry and assesses the impact of her Native American background on her maturation as a writer.
——, John Crawford, and Patricia Clark Smith. "Joy Harjo." In This Is About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, edited by William Balassi, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, pp. 171-79. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
Harjo discusses her theory of communication and her interest in music.
Holmes, Kristine. "'This Woman Can Cross Any Line': Feminist Tricksters in the Works of Nora Naranjo-Morse and Joy Harjo." SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 7, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 45-63.
Compares the recurring female characters in Naranjo-Morse's and Harjo's work,...
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