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."