Joy Harjo with Laura Coltelli (interview date 23 September 1985)

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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 connected psychically; there is a birth cord that connects me. But I don't live there and don't know that I ever will. It's too familiar, and too painful. My son lives there now; he's going to Sequoyah High School, a tribal school that is now managed by the Cherokee tribe.

So my return usually takes place on a mythical level. I mean, I do travel there as often as I can. I've written a literary column for my tribal newspaper, the Muscogee Nation News, know my relatives, keep in touch. There are many memories there for me, it's one of my homes.

How much does your Creek heritage affect your work as a poet?

It provides the underlying psychic structure, within which is a wealth of memory. I was not brought up traditionally Creek, was raised in the north side of Tulsa in a neighborhood where there lived many other mixed-blood Indian families. My neighbors were Seminole Indian, Pawnee, other tribes, and white. I know when I write there is an old Creek within me that often participates.

You said once, memory is like "a delta in the skin," so you are "memory alive," your poetry stems from memory always at work.

It is Creek, and touches in on the larger tribal continental memory and the larger human memory, global. It's not something I consciously chose; I mean, I am not a full-blood, but it was something that chose me, that lives in me, and I cannot deny it. Sometimes I wish I could disappear into the crowds of the city and lose this responsibility, because it is a responsibility. But I can't I also see memory as not just associated with past history, past events, past stories, but nonlinear, as in future and ongoing history, events, and stories. And it changes.

You see a very close relationship between writing poetry and "digging piles of earth with a stick: smell it, form it." So, does it mean you're still looking for your roots down there?

They're there. That's no question. When I speak of roots I often mean more than what's usually conjectured. I consider the place we all came from, since the very beginning. It's a place...

(This entire section contains 4603 words.)

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I don't yet have a language for. But, on the more mundane level, I did drive around the United States in my car, alone, about three or four summers ago—just to know it better, this beautiful land. And one place that was most important for me to visit was outside a little town in Alabama called Atmore. There is still a settlement of Creeks there, who hung on through the destruction set off by Andrew Jackson's greed. I went there to say hello, and they welcomed me, treated me well. There is a communication beginning between the Oklahoma Creeks and the Alabama Creeks. We [Oklahoma Creeks] still have the language, the dances, ceremonies, which they have lost much of, but then again, nothing has destroyed their memory, which is strong, and which has kept their small enclave alive through these years of the racist South. I was so proud of them, am proud that they have kept their Creekness alive when Jackson meant them to be destroyed.

My family on my father's side was originally from Alabama. They were forced to leave during the time of Removal [1832], which really wasn't that long ago. In fact, my great-great-grandfather, Menawha, led the Redstick War of the Creeks against Andrew Jackson. Of course, we know what happened, and Menawha and his family were forced into Oklahoma. Menawha said he never wanted to see a white face again; from that part of my family we were rebels, and speakers. So what I am doing makes sense in terms of a family memory.

Do you look at writing as a means of survival?

Sure. I have to. On both a personal level and a larger, communal level. I don't believe I would be alive today if it hadn't been for writing. There were times when I was conscious of holding onto a pen and letting the words flow, painful and from the gut, to keep from letting go of it all. Now, this was when I was much younger, and full of self-hatred. Writing helped me give voice to turn around a terrible silence that was killing me. And on a larger level, if we, as Indian people, Indian women, keep silent, then we will disappear, at least in this level of reality. As Audre Lorde says [in her Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches], also, "Your silence will not protect you," which has been a quietly unanimous decision it seems, this last century with Indian people.

She Had Some Horses is a kind of circular journey, walking and talking backward. "Call it Fear"is the very first poem and in the last one, "I Give You Back,""the terrible and beautiful fear" comes to an end. Could you elaborate on that?

"Call it Fear" was one of the earliest poems I wrote in that series, and "I Give You Back" one of the last. I didn't consciously set up the structure of the book that way, but maybe unconsciously I did. I want to thank Brenda Petersen, a novelist-editor friend of mine, for her arrangement. I gave her the manuscript when I couldn't get the arrangement right after many, many tries, and it is because of her that it works well. She understood that I meant a circular journey.

In the last section of the same book you see in the horses the coming of a new people. Does it also shape your identity as a woman?

I'm not sure I know what you mean. When I consider a new people, I consider a people whose spiritual selves are obvious. There are no judgments, or prejudices. Sexual identities are not cause for power plays, and we become fully who we are, whether male, female, or any combination. We need this resurrection; it's who we truly are, yet you could be deceived, especially when you look around the world and see the hatred against the female, and notice, too, that all the wars are basically race wars, white people against the darker-skinned ones. But I am especially speaking of a power that would be called women-woman-intuitive. My work is woman-identified. One of the funniest questions I've been asked as a visitor to an Indian-culture class in a university is, by a male student, "Where are the men in your poems?" He was offended because he didn't see himself, not in the form that he looked for. I truly feel there is a new language coming about—look at the work of Meridel LeSueur, Sharon Doubiago, Linda Hogan, Alice Walker—it's coming from the women. Something has to be turned around.

The moon image is central to your poetry. Moon as wholeness, which speaks of the universe, a circular design again, which speaks also of woman's life. Is that true?

Yes, although she appears less and less in my new poems. I associate the moon with the past, evoking the past, past fears, and so on.

Your personal past?

Anyone's personal past. Now I am looking toward fire, a renewal. But still aware of the dream, in which the moon appears, a constructive kind of dreaming.

What do you mean by constructive?

I mean, consciously understanding that dreamtime is another kind of cohesive reality that we take part in.

A kind of active perception instead of a passive one.

Yes, it's much more active.

Feminism and tribal heritage—can you see any connection?

The world has changed so much. Yes, I'm sure there is a connection, but so much differs from tribe to tribe.

Because some Indian cultures are woman-oriented?

Some are woman-oriented, especially when you consider the earth as woman, like the Pueblo people of the Southwest. But all have changed over the years after much white contact. And values have changed. Many have evolved, or devolved, into male-centered, male-dominated cultures, following the pattern of the dominant Euro-culture that is American, but generally women were, are, recognized as physically, electrically, whatever, more grounded, in tune with the earth, and again, that's a generalization, because there are always exceptions. You will find "grounded" men, also. I still don't feel as if I have answered your question. I know I walk in and out of several worlds everyday. Some overlap, some never will, or at least not as harmoniously. The word "feminism" doesn't carry over to the tribal world, but a concept mirroring similar meanings would. Let's see, what would it then be called—empowerment, some kind of empowerment.

What does it mean, being an American Indian woman in the United States nowadays?

To begin, it certainly means you are a survivor. Indian people make up only about one-half of 1 percent of the total population of the United States! It means you carry with you a certain unique perception. And again you are dealing with tribal differences, personal differences, and so on. We are not all alike! Yet, I believe there is a common dream, a common thread between us, mostly unspoken.

I don't believe there are any accidents in why people were born where they were, who they were, or are. There are no accidents. So I realize that being born an American Indian woman in this time and place is with a certain reason, a certain purpose. There are seeds of dreams I hold, and responsibility, that go with being born someone, especially a woman of my tribe, who is also part of this invading other culture, and the larger globe. We in this generation, and the next generation, are dealing with a larger world than the people who went before us—that we know of, because who knows what went down many, many many, years ago that no one remembers. We are dealing with a world consciousness, and have begun to see unity, first with many tribes in the United States and North America with the Pan-Indian movement, and now with tribal people in the rest of the world, Central and South America, Africa, Australian aborigines, and so on. We are not isolated. No one is. What happens here, happens there. But it is on sometimes subtle yet disturbing levels.

Are you active in women's organizations?

Not really. Sometimes I feel I should be, but it isn't my manner. I participate by doing benefit readings, appearances, taking part when it is useful to do so. I know it is important, and groups are more powerful than one person working alone, but I guess there is no one group that I feel strong enough about to be active in, though I actively take part in many.

Are you suspicious? Of what?

I've wondered. Maybe it comes from being a mixed-blood in this world. I mean, I feel connected to others, but many women's groups have a majority of white women and I honestly can feel uncomfortable, or even voiceless sometimes. I've lived in and out of both worlds for a long time and have learned how to speak—those groups just affect others that way—with a voicelessness. It's my problem, something I've learned to get over, am learning to overcome, because I am often the only one to speak for many of us in those situations. Sometimes it gets pretty comical, bizarre. When I was on the National Endowment for the Arts literature panel I was often the spokesperson-representative for Indian people, black people, all minority people, including women's, lesbian, and gay groups. It was rather ridiculous and angering at the same time, for we were all considered outside the mainstream of American literature. And it's not true, for often we are closer to the center.

Noni Daylight appears in some of your poems, persona poems. You said, "It's like she was a good friend." Would you comment on that, on the persona in your poems?

She began quite some time ago, as a name I gave a real-life woman I couldn't name in a poem. Then she evolved into her own person, took on her own life. And then she left my poems and went into a poem by Barney Bush, a Shawnee poet, and I never saw her again. She never came back!

What about the other stories of women in your poems? Are they true stories?

Yes, always on some level. I'm a writer, I like to make up stories, to add to them, often make them larger. The "I" is not always me, but a way I chose to speak the poem. "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor" is written around an imaginary woman. You could call her imaginary. But within that space she is real, also. I made a trip to Chicago, oh, about eight years ago, and one of the places I went to while I was there was the Chicago Indian Center. The center was rather bleak, as there wasn't extra money around to buy things to make the place warm, home-like; there were no curtains, nothing like that, but in one room I noticed a rocking chair. It may have been empty, or there may have been someone in it—the image stayed with me. Perhaps it was because the chair was round, and everything else, all around, was square. So, a few years after that trip, the image stayed with me, and I would see this woman, rocking and rocking, for her life, and she compelled me to write the poem. And I felt her standing behind me, urging me on as I wrote, kept looking behind me. When it first appeared, and during the first readings of the poem others would come up after the reading and say, "You know, I know that woman," or "I knew her," or "I heard the story and have a newspaper clipping of it," and the event always had occurred in a different place. And other women are composites of many women I know, or stories I've heard, probably much like a fiction writer would work.

So you became a kind of storyteller?

In a way, though I am not a good fiction writer, or should I say, have never really tried it, except in terms of screenplays.

"Language identifies the world." You said that the English language is not enough. "It is a male language, not tribal, not spiritual enough."

Yes, I said that. I have learned to love the language, or rather, what the language can express. But I have felt bound by the strictness imposed by its male-centeredness, its emphasis on nouns. So, it's also challenging, as a poet, to use it to express tribal, spiritual language, being. But maybe all poets basically are after that, and sometimes it isn't enough and that's when those boundaries become frustrating.

What do you mean by saying English is not enough, English is a male language?

Again, maybe it would be that way in any language, the sense of somehow being at a loss for words; [that] could always be the poet's dilemma. The ending of a poem, "Bleed-Through," says it: "There are no words, only sounds / that lead us into the darkest nights / where stars burn into ice / where the dead arise again / to walk in shoes of fire."

Since language has an importance of its own in Indian culture, what's the contribution or influence, just in terms of language, to mainstream American literature?

What I think of immediately is the denial, the incredible denial of anything other than that based on the European soul in American literature. Anything else is seen as "foreign," or not consciously integrated into what is called American literature. It could be ethnocentrism backed by a terrible guilt about what happened in this country.

So what's the contribution, just in terms of language, to main-stream American literature?

That's a difficult question, one that will take me many months to consider, because I'm always thinking about what I can add to the language, as someone of this background—dreams, and so on. I consider first a certain lyricism, a land-based language.

The spirit of place?

Yes, the spirit of place recognized, fed, not even paved over, forgotten. Sometimes I feel like specters of forgotten ones roam the literature of some of these American writers who don't understand where they come from, who they are, where they are going. The strongest writers have always been the ones with a well-defined sense of place—I don't mean you have to be a nature writer—I'm thinking of "nonethnic" people, like Flannery O'Connor.

What about imagery?

Oh sure, imagery. That's definitely part of it.

A new feeling of landscape perhaps?

Or a knowing of the landscape, as something alive with personality, breathing. Alive with names, alive with events, nonlinear. It's not static and that's a very important point. The Western viewpoint has always been one of the land as wilderness, something to be afraid of, and conquered because of the fear.

The so-called wilderness.

Yes, it depends on your viewpoint what wilderness is. For some the city is a wilderness of concrete and steel, made within a labyrinth of mind.

You mentioned before you are not only a poet, but you're a scriptwriter for television and film. How does the process work in translating your poetical world from one medium to another?

Screenwriting is definitely related to poetry. You're dealing again with the translation of emotions into images. There's a similar kind of language involved. One goal I have, a life goal in terms of the cinema, is to create a film with a truly tribal vision, viewpoint, in terms of story, camera viewpoints, angles, everything. It hasn't been done, not on the scale I would like to do it.

What do you think of non-Indian critics of your work and of Indian literature in general?

That question could be answered many ways—I mean, there are specific non-Indian critics who get into trying to be Indian, when they don't have to. What I write, what any of us write, or are after, whether we are Indian, Chicano, Laotian, is shimmering language, poetry, the same as anyone else who is writing in whatever language; with whatever sensibilities. Or too often they won't approach the literature at all, won't read it or speak of it because, again, that guilt enters in, or that fear that keeps them from entering any place other than what is most familiar.

As far as the literature goes, I've seen much growth in these last several years, in all of us. We are setting high standards for ourselves, our own standards, mind you, in terms of what is possible with this language, and with what we have come to know as artists of this continent.

What writers are important to you?

I consider first the writers who got me turned on to writing, what writing could do. Because I was rather a late bloomer in this business, I was never turned on by conventional English-language poetry. These writers include Simon Ortiz, Leslie Silko, and many black American writers, like June Jordan, later Audre Lordre and Alice Walker. Also Pablo Neruda, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and African writers. I love the work of Amos Tutuola, especially The Palm Wine Drunkard. And there are many others.

Do you see any changes in your work?

Yes, many. If I didn't see them, didn't see growth, then I wouldn't do it any more. There are leaps between What Moon Drove Me to This? and She Had Some Horses, and I expect the leap to be huge between Horses and this next collection I am working on. I feel like I am just now learning how to write a poem. It has taken me over ten years to get to this point of just beginning.

And what about in terms of technique?

I'm certainly much more involved with process, inner travel, when I write now than even five years ago.

Can you speak a bit more about these new poems?

For one thing they are not so personal. I am in them, for I believe poets have to be inside their poems somewhere, or the poem won't work. But they aren't so personally revealing, and the space has grown larger. The first book was definitely centered in Oklahoma, or New Mexico. Then, in Horses, there was much more traveling, and in the new work [In Mad Love and War], there is even more traveling into the inner landscape.

So, in comparison with the other books, how could you define this new book?

Oh, it's hard to say—intensity. I would hope it is more powerful, stirring. "We Must Call a Meeting" is one of the newest poems in it. I'll read what I have, but I might change some of it.

"We Must Call a Meeting"
      I am fragile, a piece of pottery smoked from fire
                                         made of dung,
      the design drawn from nightmares. I am an arrow, painted
                                         with lightning
      to seek the way to the name of the enemy,
                     but the arrow has now created
      its own language.
        It is a language of lizards and storms, and we
                                                 have
      begun to hold conversations
               long into the night.
                                         I forget to eat
      I don't work. My children are hungry and the animals who live
      in the backyard are starving.
               I begin to draw maps of stars.
      The spirits of old and new ancestors perch on my shoulders.
      I make prayers of clear stone
               of feathers from birds
                         who live closest to the gods.
      The voice of the stone is born
               of a meeting of yellow birds
      who circle the ashes of smoldering ashes.
                  The feathers sweep the prayers up
      and away.
       I, too, try to fly but get caught in the crossfire
                                               of signals
            and my spirit drops back down to earth.
      I am lost; I am looking for you
         who can help me walk this thin line between
                                       the breathing
                and the dead.
      You are the curled serpent in the pottery of nightmares.
      You are the dreaming animal who paces back and forth in my head.
      We must call a meeting.
        Give me back my language and build a house inside it.
           A house of madness.
               A house for the dead who are not dead.
      And the spiral of the sky above it.
      And the sun
            and the moon.
            And the stars to guide us called promise.

Also another new poem, called "Transformations," about turning someone's hatred into love. I tried to actually work that transformation in the poem.

          "Transformations"

This poem is a letter to tell you that I have smelled the hatred you have tried to find me with; you would like to destroy me. Bone splintered in the eye of one you choose to name your enemy won't make it better for you to see. It could take a thousand years if you name it that way, but then, to see after all that time, never could anything be so clear. Memory has many forms. When I think of early winter I think of a blackbird laughing in the frozen air; guards a piece of light. I saw the whole world caught in that sound, the sun stopped for a moment because of tough belief. I don't know what that has to do with what I am trying to tell you except that I know you can turn a poem into something else. This poem could be a bear treading the far northern tundra, smelling the air for sweet alive meat. Or a piece of seaweed stumbling in the sea. Or a blackbird, laughing. 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 in your heart where the most precious animals live. Down the street an ambulance has come to rescue an old man who is slowly losing his life. Not many can see that he is already becoming the backyard tree he has tended for years, before he moves on. He is not sad, but compassionate for the fears moving around him.

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.

It's a kind of circular design again.

Yes.

Would you describe your writing process? I understand that you revise a lot.

I begin with the seed of an emotion, a place, and then move from there. It means hours watching the space form in the place in front of the typewriter, speaking words, listening to them, watching them form, and be crossed out, on the paper, and so on, and yes, revision. I no longer see the poem as an ending point, perhaps more the end of a journey, an often long journey that can begin years earlier, say with the blur of the memory of the sun on someone's cheek, a certain smell, an ache, and will culminate years later in a poem, sifted through a point, a lake in my heart through which language must come. That's what I work with, with my students at the university, opening that place within them of original language, which I believe must be in everyone, but not everyone can reach it.

You said before that you were speaking with your students about your work as well?

I can't separate my work, my writing, from who I am, so of course it comes into the classroom with me in one way or another.

Just a piece of paper with a new poem?

Oh no, as part of that space I teach out of, a space of intuition made up of everything I know as well as what I don't know, and I've learned in writing, and in teaching, that it is important to recognize that place, to open yourself, believing.

Joy Harjo with Laura Coltelli, in an interview in Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, University of Nebraska Press, 1990, pp. 54-68.

Introduction

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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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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."

Patricia Clark Smith and Paula Gunn Allen (essay date 1987)

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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 acute sense of the red earth and the red people that the name Oklahoma simultaneously signifies. The literal earth is part of her early memory: "I love language, sound, how emotions, images, dreams are formed in air and on the page," she writes [in "Bio-poetics Sketch," The Greenfield Review 9, Nos. 3-4 (Winter 1981–82)]. "When I was a little kid in Oklahoma, I would get up before everyone else and go outside to a place of rich dark earth next to the foundation of the house. I would dig piles of earth with a stick, smell it, form it. It had sound. Maybe that's when I first learned to write poetry, even though I never really wrote until I was in my early twenties."

An early poem, "The Last Song," especially affirms that strong childhood bond with a particular patch of southwestern earth that "has sound," that speaks and nurtures:

      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

Here, the land is a mother and a mother of mothers; a singer who gives human singers their songs. This is the poem of a woman who grew up not only playing in the soil, but listening to it. Most of Harjo's poetry does not center specifically on her Creek heritage—or not yet: Geary Hobson speculates [in a review of What Moon Drove Me to This? in The Greenfield Review 9, Nos. 3-4 (Winter 1981–82)] that "oklahoma will be the last song / i'll ever sing" may be a promise of the theme Harjo will turn to in time. meanwhile, the land does not manifest itself in her poetry in spirit-figures out of her particular tribal tradition, like [Luci] Tapahonso's Snake-man or [Leslie Marmon] Silko's mountain ka'tsinas. What does pulse throughout Harjo's work is a sense that all landscape she encounters is endowed with an identity, vitality, and intelligence of its own. This sense of life and intelligence in the land is quite different from the human emotions an Anglo poet might project upon landscape; the life in Harjo's landscapes makes poems written out of the pathetic fallacy indeed seem pathetic by comparison.

"Kansas City" illustrates Harjo's sense of the individual identities of natural things. In that poem, Noni Daylight (a kind of alter ego who appears often in Harjo's works) elects to remain

        in Kansas City, raise the children
        she had by different men,
        all colors. Because she knew
        that each star rang with separate
        colored hue, as bands of horses,
        and wild
        like the spirit in her …

Her children of different colors are comparable, in their beautiful singularity, to the each-ness of stars and horses. Noni's children, Noni's men, and Noni herself are singular and vitally connected with that natural universe of stars and horses. Even though they live in Kansas City, they are not alienated from or outside of nature.

Moreover, in Harjo's poems the land acknowledges its connection to people. In "Leaving," the speaker wakes as her roommate gets up to answer a late-night phone call:

       Her sister was running way from her boyfriend and
       was stranded in Calgary, Alberta. Needed money
       and comfort for the long return back home.
       I dreamed of a Canadian plain, and warm arms around me,
       the soft skin of the body's landscape. And I dreamed
       of bear, and a thousand-mile escape homeward.

Even the imagined landscape of the Canadian plain, usually considered harsh country and certainly radically different from Harjo's Oklahoma, is like the sisters and friends earlier in the poem who warm and sustain one another. Both the women and the land are soft, comforting, erotic, familiar, associated with the healing and power of the totemic bear, and with home.

Harjo turns to the theme of human erotic connections with spirit figures who embody the land in her many poems about the moon. In them, the moon appears not as symbol and certainly not as background lighting, but as a full, intelligent female person. That the moon should be so important in Harjo's work makes sense given her woman-centeredness and her representation of herself as a woman on the move. The woman-ness of the moon is in almost all cultures, and she can be there for the wanderer in Anchorage or Hong Kong; like Harjo, she is a traveler too. The moon, that medieval emblem of instability for Western Europeans, is a stable comforter for Harjo; in "Heartbeat," Noni Daylight drops acid and drives through Albuquerque with a pistol cradled in her lap. In the middle of this nighttown horror, "Noni takes the hand of the moon / that she knows is in control overhead." The poem concludes, "It is not the moon, or the pistol in her lap / but a fierce anger / that will free her." Even so, given that Noni has yet to find that anger, the moon is the only entity who remains steady, who reaches out to Noni in a time when "these nights, she wants out."

And yet the comforting moon Harjo knows is also as completely herself and as mysterious as Snake-man or mountain ka'tsinas. Harjo conveys this moon's wildness and independent life beautifully in "Moonlight": "I know when the sun is in China / because the night-shining other-light / crawls into my bed. She is moon." Harjo imagines the other side of the world,

in Hong Kong, Where someone else has also awakened, the night thrown back and asked, "Where is the moon, my lover?"

And from here I always answer in my dreaming, "The last time I saw her, she was in the arms of another sky."

What matters most about Harjo's moon is her ability as a living spirit to enter into the sort of dialogue with people that reassures them, no matter where they are, of their own lives and their connection with wilderness. In "September Moon," as Harjo and her children try to cross Albuquerque's Central Avenue in the midst of State Fair traffic, she encounters the moon rising out of the trapped air of the urban Rio Grande Valley:

        I was fearful of traffic
        trying to keep my steps and the moon was east,
        ballooning out of the mountain ridge, out of smokey clouds
        out of any skin that was covering her. Naked.
        Such beauty.
        Look.
        We are alive. The woman of the moon looking
        at us, and we are looking at her, acknowledging
        each other.

The land and the person acknowledging each other as living beings, sensate and sensual, their lives inextricably woven together in Spider Woman's web—this is what lies at the heart of American Indian ritual and southwestern American Indian women's writing.

Patricia Clark Smith and Paula Gunn Allen, "Earthy Relations, Carnal Knowledge: Southwestern American Indian Women Writers and Landscape," in The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art, edited by Vera Norwood and Janice Monk, Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 174-96.

Principal Works

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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.

Margaret Randall (review date July 1990)

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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.

                                  ("Grace")

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:

       Across the frozen Bering Sea is the invisible border
       of two warring countries. I am loyal to neither,
       only to the birds who fly over, laugh at the ridiculous
       ways of humans, know wars destroy
       dreams, divide the
       country inside us.

This poetry is bright and courageous and well made; it speaks from a culture that is at once our history and ignored. Among the several Native American poets—especially the women—whose work has gripped us in recent years, Harjo's voice most relentlessly bridges the several worlds she inhabits. These worlds include, but are not limited to, the wisdom and warning of those who came before; a childhood ignited by oppression, alcoholism, resistance and proud memories; the young woman's cycle of hard times and early children; the poet/screenwriter/university professor who never loses her roots.

Though until very recently she had only a single book in print (She Had Some Horses, 1983), Harjo's unique voice is well known by most readers of contemporary American poetry. Earlier titles, The Last Song and What Moon Drove Me to This?, had long gone the way of most small-circulation collections. To a steady demand and to its credit, Thunder's Mouth has kept She Had Some Horses available. Harjo's poetry has begun to be anthologized, as well, in places like the new Heath Anthology of American Literature. Perhaps more pertinent to her broadening circle of fans, though, is that this is a poet who reads everywhere. Her passionate voice can be heard regularly in auditoriums, classrooms and bookstores, in places ranging from an Indian pow wow in New Mexico or Arizona to New York City's 92nd Street Y.

Now, in the months that bridge eighties to nineties, Harjo has two new books. Secrets from the Center of the World is a collaboration with photographer/astronomer Stephen Strom: 60 prose poems and 60 colored images combine to create an evocative little gem, intensely personal, hauntingly universal. And In Mad Love and War is the major new book those of us who love Harjo's poetry have been waiting for.

In Mad Love And War fulfills the promise. The power of She Had Some Horses is still there, but there is more wildness in construction and imagery. And it is a wildness that works. A collection of prose poems as well as some with a shorter breath line, the book opens with "Grace," the signature poem I quote from at the beginning of this review. "Like Coyote, like Rabbit," writes Harjo, "we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey …"

This is what people do, when they are born of those who must fight racism, indeed genocide, to survive. They swallow towns and poverty and scorn and ecological destruction and the smallpox blanket or the bottle of cheap whiskey—"with laughter so it [will] go down easy as honey." And they remind themselves—or the poet who is sage reminds them—"there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it."

The book is divided into two sections: "The Wars" and "Mad Love." The first is a series of poems about just what its name implies, the ongoing Indian wars, inside and out of the body. The poet asks "How do I say it? In this language there are no words for how the real world collapses." But she invents them. Harjo hunts down the words, by listening to her mutable "knower" or spirit guide, and reinventing a language from the plain talk of her ancestors' stories and an always surprising almost staccato contemporary sound.

Tradition and revelation come together in her verse. In "Deer Dancer" there is a "brother-in-law [who] hung out with white people, went to law school with a perfect record, quit. Says you can keep your laws, your words. And practiced law on the streets with his hands …" It is the brother-in-law who asks "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" And the poet's voice responds: "That's what I'd like to know, what are we all doing in a place like this?"

The war poems are peopled with the dead who are not dead, hooded ghosts, circling panthers, the trickster, warriors all. They have come and they speak, right alongside the rioting inmates and the bootleggers. In "Autobiography" the mother tells her daughter about God deciding to make people: cooking the first batch too long and burning them (black people), taking the next from the oven before they were done (whites), and finally producing a perfect batch: "and these were the Indian people, just like you." Harjo internalized the fable, but pushes past it to the child's confusion: "At five I was designated to string beads in kindergarten. At seven I knew how to play chicken and win. And at fourteen I was drinking…."

"Autobiography" ends:

I have since outlived … my father and that ragged self I chased through precarious years. But I carry them with me the same as this body carries the heart as a drum. Yesterday there was rain traveling east to home. A hummingbird spoke. She was a shining piece of invisible memory, inside the raw cortex of songs. I knew then that this was the Muscogee season of forgiveness, time of new corn, the spiraling dance.

And, from "Strange Fruit":

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 woke 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.

A war of many layers, first autobiographical and then about us all, at precisely those places where spirit intersects oppression on its wild flight home. "Unmailed Letter" is a particularly condensed example of Harjo's use of language to translate the markings in flesh and psyche:

      Your laugh, and I considered myself
      resurrected, but then made the correction
      for time and space and it still added
      to an irrational number.
      It's elementary. You can't add
      apples and oranges. I've mixed
      faith with your distraction.
      But I was never good at math.
      Or with any test that meant jumping
      hoops
      of water. This is how it is at specifically
      noon. I am fire eaten by wind.
      I drink water for a cure
      that will teach me the fine art
      of subtraction.

One poem is a savage prayer for Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, the Micmac American Indian Movement activist murdered by the FBI in February of 1976. In it Harjo could be writing about herself—or other women of color—when she says: "You are the shimmering young woman / who found her voice, / when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away / from you like an elegant weed." And there are two strong poems out of Harjo's experience of the Nicaraguan revolution, "Resurrection" and "The Real Revolution is Love." Many of her images are thunderingly precise: from "Resurrection," "Ask the women who have given away the clothes of their dead children. Ask the frozen soul of a man who was found in the hole left by his missing penis."

The poems in the second section all seem to drop an octave, settle in, offering up a resolution of sorts. Never less, but certainly more comfortable. Rabbit is still with us, but Deer has come to stay; she/he is "no imaginary tale." In these poems the movement between inner (spirit, memory) and outer (tangible) perceptions quivers in the air, frenzies like the long solo of a tenor sax. Take this piece from the second movement of "Deer Ghost":

… I can taste you now as I squat on the earth floor of this home I abandoned for you. On this street named for a warrior people, a street named after bravery, I am lighting the fire that crawls from my spine to the gods with a coal from my sister's flame. This is what names me in the ways of my people, who have called me back. The deer knows what it is doing wandering the streets of this city …

Rain washes many of Harjo's images, leaving them pristine, shining. In "Mad Love" as well as in "The Wars" there are love poems that wet the tongue, connect with every longing or satiation you've ever known. And there are those structured on Harjo's devastating use of irony, like "If I Think about You Again It Will Be the Fifty-third Monday of Next Year":

And here I am stirring an imagination that has always got me into trouble, thinking what I could do to you. It wouldn't be pretty as the dusk sun slipping from one bed to the next. Or feel like a sultry fish on the dance floor with a woman you have loved forever. Nothing like that is what I would do to you. I could make you into the fifth cat and turn my back. I could say your name backward and send it to a warring star. Or, better yet, erase it, your whole story a sterile page, and I would rewrite it without you in it. Yes. Let me begin with a day like this, a musical animal like Weather Report blowing through the black market on this snowy snowy Monday and I can go anywhere I want, and do without you.

Joy Harjo is the stranger who is always right next door, the musician (yes, she does play tenor sax), religious (in the old way), a mother, daughter, lover of women, a storyteller for whom love and memory are interchangeable tales….

[Secrets from the Center of the World] is a book whose magic relies on each pairing of a startlingly beautiful landscape photo with a short prose poem written precisely to prolong its splendor. The images pull us into themselves. Together each set becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

Stephen Strom is an astronomer as well as a color photographer, and his pictures are frequently like maps—of a land as vast and rich as the star-studded heavens. The colors—muted creams, ochres, yellows, reds, browns, purples, mauves, blues, greens—might be the colors of the sea, or the sky at sunset or dawn. Trees, specks of green dotting undulating hills, might be planets or fish—or trees. A lone house, one telephone pole distant from another by who can say what emptiness, the serpentine movement of a dry wash cutting through land that has been here forever. Suddenly, the orange fire of foliage, crease of rock, the cool heat of violet sand. Time seems motionless; seasons and shadows are the real agents of change.

This is how this land is, its true space and color and—most important—light. But only those who inhabit the landscape of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, will recognize the simple realism of these images. Others will surely suspect technological tampering.

There is no alteration in these photographs, nor do the poems lack a word or possess one too many. Language and visual image are perfectly tuned and balanced, producing an experience in which neither illustrates the other but each needs its counterpart. Here are some of the poems:

If all events are related, then what story does a volcano erupting in Hawaii, the birth of a woman's second son near Gallup, and this shoulderbone of earth made of a mythic monster's anger construct? Nearby a meteor crashes. Someone invents aerodynamics, makes wings. The answer is like rushing wind: simple faith.

.…

Invisible fish swim this ghost ocean now described by waves of sand, by water-worn rock. Soon the fish will learn to walk. Then humans will come ashore and paint dreams on the drying stone. Then later, much later, the ocean floor will be punctuated by Chevy trucks, carrying the dreamers' descendants, who are going to the store.

.…

Don't bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It's a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.

I wish I could reproduce Strom's images as easily as I can Harjo's words. I can't, but you can get the book and see for yourself.

Margaret Randall, "Nothing to Lose," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, Nos. 10-11, July, 1990, pp. 17-18.

Leslie Ullman (review date Spring 1991)

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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 bullet fired through the back of her head, was correctly identified ("For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit Is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars …").

Harjo stands squarely in these poems as "one born of a blood who wrestled the whites for freedom" ("Javelina"), but her stance is not so much that of a representative of a culture as it is the more generative one of a storyteller whose stories resurrect memory, myth, and private struggles that have been overlooked, and who thus restores vitality to the culture at large. As a storyteller, Harjo steps into herself as a passionate individual living on the edge, at once goaded and strengthened by a heightened sensitivity to the natural order of things and to the ways history has violated that order. This sensitivity, a gift of her heritage, becomes her gift to the readers of her poems. The rest of the long title to her poem on Aquash reads: "… we remember the story and tell it again so that we may all live."

Other Harjo poems touch upon blues music and saxophones, troubled love, South American revolutionaries, figures from her childhood, weather, and landscape. These subjects become "stories" too, the way a good blues song seems to carry the whole history of an emotion, but her style finally is too fiery for blues; it is that of an alchemist who seizes and transforms images with tremendous speed. Time and again, her language enacts quicksilver darts and leaps of association, giving these poems momentum and tension that resolve finally in healing transformation. Here is an example from "Deer Dancer," a narrative poem about a nude dancer in a rundown reservation bar:

       … She borrowed a chair for the stairway
       to heaven and stood on a table of names. And danced in a room
       of children without shoes….
                   .....
       And then she took off her clothes. She shook loose memory,
       waltzed with the empty lover we'd all become.
       She was the myth flipped down through dream-time. The promise of
       feast we all knew was coming. The deer who crossed through
       knots of a curse to find us. She was no slouch, and neither
       were we, watching.

In "The Fury of Rain" Harjo takes in the full violence of a thunderstorm, letting the weather evoke a kind of ritual dance inside her:

       Thunder beings dance the flooding streets
       of this city, stripped naked to their electric skeletons.
       I stand inside their wild and sacred ritual
       on these streets of greasy rainbows
       and see my own furious longing
       erupt from the broken mask of change
       to stone, to bear, to lightning.
       Gut memory shakes this earth like a rattle….

Or she exorcises the pain over a vanished lover, in "If I Think about You Again (It Will Be the Fifty-third Monday of Next Year)", flinging herself into it by way of letting it go:

       … Hatred is a vice that
       smells like four mutilated cats smoking in a gasoline fire. And
       worse. And
       here I am stirring an imagination that has always got me into trouble,
       thinking what I could do to you….
       I could make you the fifth cat and turn my back. I could say
       your name backward and send it to a warring star. Or, better yet, erase it …

Like a true magician, Harjo draws power from overwhelming circumstance and emotion by submitting to them, celebrating them, letting her voice and vision move in harmony with the ultimate laws of paradox and continual change. Many of her poems, such as "We Encounter Nat King Cole as We Invent the Future," reach for what is healing in the forces of nature and of human imagination, for the "double rainbow / two-stepping across the valley … / twin gods bending over to plant something like / themselves in the wet earth, a song / larger than all our cheap hopes…." And some poems, such as "Legacy," reach simply for bravery and clarity, the acceptance of what is, that keep her vision honed and flashing: "I don't know the ending. / But I know the legacy of maggots is wings. / And I understand how lovers can destroy everything / together."

Leslie Ullman, "Solitaries and Storytellers, Magicians and Pagans: Five Poets in the World," in The Kenyon Review, n.s. Vol. XIII, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 179-93.

Further Reading

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Criticism

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 in Native American experience."

Dan Bellm (review date 2 April 1991)

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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 tribal values of proportion, harmony, and balance. The Navajo equivalent of "beautiful," Harjo writes in Secrets From the Center of the World is "an all-encompassing word, like those for land and sky, that has to do with living well, dreaming well, in a way that is complementary to all life." The poet is anonymous because poetry doesn't come from individuals; it comes from ancestor spirits and powerful dreams. 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. Not to mention the jazz riffs (Harjo plays the tenor sax) that swirl steadily through her latest book, In Mad Love and War.

"Healing Animal" is a fine example of this way of living in a many-layered world:

       Sleep, your back curledagainst my belly.
I will make you something todrink, / from a cup of frothystarsfrom the somewhere there is
       the perfect sound
       called up from the best-told
       stories / of benevolent gods,
       who have nothing better to
       do. / And I ask you
       what bitter words are ruining
       your soft-skinned village,
because I want to make apoem that will cup / theinside of your throatlike the fire in the palm of ahealing animal. Likethe way Coltrane knew love inthe fluid shapeof a saxophone / that couldchange into the wings of ablue angel….

As in a shaman's ritual prayer-chant, as in jazz music, healing power in this poem is the free flight of improvisation, a way of changing one thing into another. The potion is a fluid shape in a cup, in the throat, in the palm of an animal's hand—a brew of frothy stars, perfect sound, love and fire. The body is a soft-skinned village, a community, an entire world. Many of the poems in She Had Some Horses (1983) use the prayer-chant tradition of healing, the original "talking cure," more explicitly. In "The Black Room," the nightmare of a childhood rape is punctuated by the repeated line, "She thought she woke up." The title poem is a long litany of the "horses" inside a woman who is trying to become whole. In her new book, Harjo has moved further away from traditional song forms, and as a result, some readers will probably miss what they liked best about the earlier work. But In Mad Love and War is a strong leap forward; while the poems may appear less "Indian" on the surface, they have a stronger connection to tradition, which makes them freer to soar madly, risk everything, and spiral back again. The image of the spiral, "the structure of the spiraled world," recurs constantly in Mad Love. "Our bones are built of spirals"; stories are spirals; time is a spiral; the "Muscogee season of forgiveness, time of new corn," is marked by a spiraling dance. In "Fury of Rain," she writes,

       We are all in the belly of a
       laughing god
       swimming the heavens, in
       this whirling circle.
       What we haven't imagined
       will one day
       spit us out
       magnificent and simple.

For Harjo, to live in the world is to live inside a breathing, sentient being. There are voices in the landscape; the ground speaks; things have memory. Other forms of life "have their tribes, their families, their histories, too," she says. "They are alive poems."

This doesn't mean that Harjo idealizes the natural world, or the spirit world, or Native culture; she looks and listens to know what these worlds are. The whirling circle includes murder, convulsive change, "dazzling" anger, the ravages of "the alcohol spirit." Many of Harjo's characters are "beautiful native misfits" or "broken survivors"—a woman hanging from a 13th floor window ready to jump, the Deer Dancer in the bar, a wise elder with no home who sleeps out on a sidewalk in the snow. The poems forage for sustenance in the desert, change fear to love, turn destruction into "the epic search for grace."

Inevitably, the question of physical and cultural survival is bound up with the land, which not only feeds a people but nourishes who they are. "It's true the landscape forms the mind." Harjo writes in Secrets From the Center of the World (1989). "If I stand here long enough I'll learn how to sing. None of that country & western heartbreak stuff, or operatic duels, but something cool as the blues, or close to the sound of a Navajo woman singing early in the morning." Secrets is a rather unlikely experiment that turned into a satisfying and beautiful book, a kind of trickster in the age-old tradition of Coyote, Rabbit, and Crow. On alternating pages facing Harjo's brief prose poems, Stephen Strom presents photographs of vast Navajo-country desert landscapes as 4 × 4 miniatures, tiny eye-sized windows on immense space. The one close-up looks like a panoramic view of sand dunes; the photograph before it, which looks like a close-up of a river bottom, turns out to be a distant aerial view of mud hills. As Harjo notes, the pictures "emphasize the 'not-separate' that is within and that moves harmoniously upon the landscape." The depth of field is an emblem of tribal vision.

The book's best poems enhance this play of scale and perspective, suggesting in very few words the relationship between a human life and millennial history. Next to a view of red desert, an abstract swirl of sand shaped by wind, she places this tiny but large story: "Two sisters meet on horseback. They gossip: a cousin eloped with someone's husband, twins were born to his wife. One is headed toward Tsaile, and the other to Round Rock. Their horses are rose sand, with manes of ashy rock." Another poem sketches out evolution, the synchronicity of time and the convergence of the seen and unseen, all in four sentences:

Invisible fish swim this ghost ocean now described by waves of sand, by water-worn rock. Soon the fish will learn to walk. Then humans will come ashore and paint dreams on the drying stone. Then later, much later, the ocean floor will be punctuated by Chevy trucks, carrying the dreamers' descendants, who are going to the store.

A few of the poems do seem too closely bound by what the photographs already say, or settle for a quick-and-easy poeticism that rarely appears in Harjo's other books: "Approaching in the distance is the child you were some years ago. See her laughing as she chases a white butterfly." But a more common objection to Harjo's work concerns its occasional diffuseness, a way of stating connections in a poem instead of actively reaching them.

While this is fairly true of the earlier books, it is also largely the objection of readers who stand outside the tradition of Native poetry, in which a poem is less important on its own than in its relationship to the whole body of knowledge, and in which many connections—between a cedar tree and prayer, say, or between stars and the religion of ghost dancers—can be assumed in the minds of the listeners.

In Mad Love and War is the farthest-ranging of Harjo's four books; it is both the wildest and the most disciplined. There are poems about Nicaragua and about a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan, poems about Charlie Parker and Nat King Cole, a dream song in the vision-quest tradition in which a woman warrior sics dogs on her lover across the ice of the Bering Strait. But some of my favorite poems are the quietest—like "Crystal Lake," about a young girl out fishing with her grandfather and feeling "restless in adolescent heat." Or "Summer Night":

There is an ache that begins/in the sound of an old bluessong.
It becomes a house where allthe lights have gone out/butone.
And it burns and burns/ untilthere is only the blue smokeof dawnand everyone is sleeping insomeone's arms/ even theflowerseven the sound of a thousandsilences./ And the arms ofnightin the arms of day./ Everyoneexcept me.
But then the smell of damphoneysuckle twisted on thevine.
And the turn of the shoulder/of the ordinary spirit whokeeps watchover this ordinary street./ Andthere you are, the secretof your own flower of light/blooming in the miraculousdark.

Joy Harjo's poetry continually displays this humble, startled consciousness, as in the 19th century Pawnee dream song which asks: "Let us see, is this real, / Let us see, is this real, / This life I am living? / You, Gods, who dwell everywhere, / Let us see, is this real, / This life I am living?" Sometimes youhave to stay awake all night, attuned to the ordinary spirit of the street, just listening to how the answer keeps changing.

Dan Bellm, "Ode to Joy," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXVI, No. 14, April 2, 1991, p. 78.

John Scarry (essay date Spring 1992)

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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 place in the evolving canon of Native American literature, itself a continually growing phenomenon in the larger context of contemporary literature.

Even before we deal with Harjo's poetry, we must resist simplicities. Joy Harjo is, among other things, a painter, a filmmaker, and a musician. Until her early twenties she worked as a painter, actively seeking out one of her own family members, her great-aunt Lois Harjo Ball, for inspiration and guidance. When she found that relative, the young woman was given more than the inspiration one would find in a studio. "She was very connected to what I call the dream world," Harjo told [Susan Lepselter, in "Spinning Dreams into Words," Tusconweekly (27 December 1989)]. Her own poetry would provide another entrance to that world. In fact, some of the actual techniques a painter takes to a canvas have influenced Harjo's approach to the making of a poem: she has said that her whole approach to writing is similar to a painter's technique, as "images overlap until they become one piece." [quoted in John Nizalowski's "Joy Harjo: A Mystical Serse of Beauty," Pasatiempo (26 August 1989)]. There can also be no doubt that Harjo's extensive work in film has given her a special way of seeing, an insightful vision that leads to so many of the striking and crystalline images found throughout her poetry. It is music, however, that is an even more dominant influence on the poet. She has been described as listening to music more than reading the work of other poets, and Harjo herself has said that when she writes poetry she does not start with an image but rather with a sound. It is significant too that her favorite musical instrument is the saxophone, often described as being remarkably close to the quality of the human voice.

N. Scott Momaday has noted that Harjo's work contains the elements of "oral tradition and ancient matter," a comment that brings together two of the most important elements in her poetry, elements that have been present in her work from the beginning. One of the keys to Harjo's thinking is her firm belief—confirmed in so many of her poems—that, in her words, "in the real world all is in motion, in a state of change." This helps explain why it is often so difficult, if not impossible, to point to the actual moment in a Harjo poem when one world moves into the next, when one voice changes to another, or when one landscape is utterly transformed in either an evolutionary or a revolutionary way. This apparent surreality of many of Harjo's settings and situations is not really a distortion; it is simply a presentation of reality observed through the poet's prism. Her instrument is myth, which the poet uses extensively because "that's where meaning is exploded," and one is taken "into the realm where anything is possible."

It is striking how many of the poet's recurring images and lasting concerns have been present in her work from the beginning. For example, "Are You Still There" from her 1975 chapbook The Last Song contains clear indications of some of Harjo's themes and her approaches to those themes.

         there are sixty-five miles
         of telephone wire
         between acoma
              and albuquerque
         i dial the number
         and listen for the sound
         of his low voice
              on the other side
         "hello"
              is a gentle motion of a western wind
         cradling tiny purple flowers
         that grow near the road
              towards laguna
         i smell them
         as i near the rio puerco bridge
         my voice stumbles
         returning over sandstone
              as it passes the cãnoncito exit
         "i have missed you" he says
         the rhythm circles the curve
         of mesita cliffs
              to meet me
         but my voice is caught
         shredded on a barbed wire fence
         at the side of the road
         and flutters soundless
         in the wind

Initially one may have doubts as to the use of the telephone as a central device, and the final images may resonate with too many echoes of haiku to be completely original; but the security of the tone, along with the impressive integration of image and meaning, is remarkable in a poet writing in her early twenties. The opening lines immediately establish the exterior and interior landscapes; in fact, by the time we are shown the "tiny purple flowers / that grow near the road" we cannot be absolutely sure which landscape we are in, or if indeed it is only the speaker's own mind. Those same flowers, seen as they are in an ambiguous "cradling" by a "western wind," are filled with implications for a relationship we know is already doomed. However, the final image of the wind shows no such nurturing: barbed wire has taken over telephone wire, and conversation has become the "soundless" voice of the speaker alone. We are led, finally, back to the title and left to consider the ambiguities of "still," "you," and even the significance of the quotation marks. Does "still" mean a lack of movement, or does it mean "yet"? Is the "you" the speaker being addressed by the other person, or is it the speaker who addresses the other? The use of quotation marks around the words of the title is no help either; we return to the title and cannot tell who is speaking, or to whom.

This poem, and several others in this first collection, show Harjo moving easily between the worlds of imagination and reality. When Dan Bellm, writing in the Village Voice of 2 April 1991, tells us that for this poet, "time isn't linear. The past and future are happening now…. Dreams carry the same weight as physical evidence, are solid as rock and bone," he could have been alluding to the poetic fluidity of Harjo's simultaneous physicality and spirituality, and her ability to combine the eternal past and the continuing present. These are among the most noteworthy of her characteristics, qualities evident in her work of nearly two decades ago.

Tracing Harjo's treatment of similar themes enables the reader to follow her thinking, noting her transformations of images and her shifts in emphasis. For example, the following poem from The Last Song, "3 AM," is a work filled with ghosts from the Native American past, figures seen operating in an alien culture that is itself a victim of fragmentation.

       3 AM
       in the albuquerque airport
       trying to find a flight
       to old oraibi, third mesa
       TWA
          is the only desk open
       bright lights outline new york
                                             chicago
       and the attendant doesn't know
       that third mesa
       is a part of the center
       of the world
       and who are we
       just two indians
       at three in the morning
       trying to find a way back

       and then i remembered
       that time simon
       took a yellow cab
       out to acoma from albuquerque
       a twenty-five dollar ride
       to the center of himself

       3 AM is not too late
       to find the way back

Points of embarkation always carry with them haunting, romantic images for writers, and airports are redolent with meaning in more than one Harjo poem. Here the Albuquerque airport is both modern America's technology and moral nature—and both clearly have failed. Together they cannot get these Indians to their destination, a failure that stretches from our earliest history to the sleek desks of our most up-to-date airline offices. Even the airline attendant, surrounded by the triumphs of technology and framed by the glowing images of our urban culture—New York and Chicago—stands as an ineffectual center of ignorance. However, "the center / of the world" soon shifts from Indian mesas to the mind of the poetic speaker, to the landscape of memory, to the perception of self. We do not have to know who Simon was or what he found at the "center of himself"; the true journey in this poem is far beyond the failed promise of an alien culture's technology. It is significant too that the final journey in the poem—the only one truly accomplished—is the speaker's voyage back into memory. As in so many of Harjo's poems, movement and progress are only indicated or promised in the world where we expect them to happen; they really happen in the landscape of the mind, journeys made all the more vibrant and meaningful by the external paralysis we are shown only too clearly.

The same chapbook contains "I Am a Dangerous Woman," a work that in many ways is a significant variation on the themes announced in "3 AM."

        the sharp ridges of clear blue windows
        motion to me
        from the airports second floor
        edges dance in the foothills of the sandias
        behind security guards
        who wave me into their guncatcher machine

        i am a dangerous woman

        when the machine buzzes
        they say to take off my belt
        and i remove it so easy
        that it catches the glance
        of a man standing nearby
        (maybe that is the deadly weapon
        that has the machine singing)

        i am a dangerous woman
        but the weapon is not visible
        security will never find it
        they can't hear the clicking
        of the gun
                       inside my head

Again, the setting is clearly the American Southwest, but the reader is immediately aware of other, overlapping settings that urge themselves upon the attention. There is the natural world and the human construction of an airport, there are men and machines, there are men and at least one woman, and, more subtly, there are cultures that encounter each other in very limited ways and only for a very limited time. In "3 AM" the speaker does not come forward until we are halfway through the poem; in "I Am a Dangerous Woman" the speaker identifies herself in the first word of the title. The tension in the latter poem is also announced early and decisively and is sustained throughout: the "sharp ridges" of the windows, the "guncatcher machine" and its buzzing, along with the most dramatic sound of all, the inaudible "clicking / of the gun" inside the speaker's mind—all combine to create a tension-filled atmosphere, one that is intensified by the strange similarity between the control imposed by the security forces and the self-control exercised by the always silent poetic speaker. Without question, "I Am a Dangerous Woman" is a more political, more feminist poem than "3 AM," but beyond this primary distinction both works are expressions of the almost wistful determination one senses in so many of Harjo's poems. In "3 AM" we find ourselves huddled together in the long American night, with those in control of conquering distance no better off than the would-be passengers trying to get on a flight; this is, after all, "Trans World Airlines," but no airline has ever flown that will get us to the "center of the world."

Joy Harjo is clearly a highly political and feminist Native American, but she is even more the poet of myth and the subconscious; her images and landscapes owe as much to the vast stretches of our hidden mind as they do to her native Southwest. This is one reason why her Secrets from the Center of the World is such a continually intriguing book. Ostensibly, the setting is a landscape known to all (with the Stephen Strom photographs giving that part of the country an appropriate surreality to which all of us can truly respond), but Harjo's prose poems give us a vision of the land for the first time, as this seer takes us below the surface of the literal world for visions and images we recognize as simultaneously new and timeless. The following prose poem from the book gives us a fresh and arresting invitation to maintain this double vision of our world. It also contains echoes of some of her earliest images and themes.

Near Shiprock five horses stand at the left side of the road, watching traffic. A pole carrying talk cuts through the middle of the world. They notice the smoking destruction from the Four Corners plant as it veers overhead, shake their heads at the ways of these thoughtless humans, lope toward the vortex of circling sands where a pattern for survival is fiercely stated.

The opening picture of the five horses is not an unexpected one—this is one of the most durable of Native American images, and certainly one of the images most associated with the poet of She Had Some Horses—but here the animals are seen against the ambiguous "traffic." It does not matter if we see the traffic as slow pedestrians or as roaring cars and trucks—"traffic" is an unnatural intrusion here, as is the "pole carrying talk" that cuts through the "middle of the world." The stilted phrase used to describe the telephone pole is of course an allusion to one culture's attempt to grasp the language of another, even as the technology that carries the alien language violates the land that should be sacred to all. In this context the phrase becomes a virtual parody of an entire history of an oppressed people trying to understand the oppressor. Unlike the earlier "Are You Still There," this telephone pole does not show two people trying to communicate; it emphasizes the utter inability of two cultures to do so.

As the poem continues, the chasm becomes further emphasized, and the fact that, from this description of the telephone pole on, all perceptions are beyond human recognition only highlights this dismal fact. It is "they," the horses, that "notice the smoking destruction" from the nearby plant (and has that word itself been chosen for its ironic value?). By the time they shake their heads (perfectly natural for the aware human onlooker, but since none is visible here, the action takes on more significance) we are ready with the speaker to condemn the "thoughtless humans"; yet the final image is intriguing in its ambiguity. How does the "vortex of circling sands" contain "a pattern for survival"? Sand is a most natural and changeable element, but who or what will create the "fiercely stated" pattern that must be read if we are to survive?

This notion of the human connection with the land is of course a stock literary idea, but Harjo deals with it in a very different fashion throughout the book. For example, rarely has the land been treated in such a way that it has profound superiority over our human activities and aspirations: "This land is a poem of ochre and burnt sand I could never write." The land may also possess a knowledge of history that makes our libraries of written knowledge insignificant by comparison: "These smoky bluffs are old traveling companions, making their way through millenia. Ask them if you want to know about the true turning of history." The book uses the world of the American Southwest to urge us to an examination of our own. Complex reverberations of the relationships between human and other life, between past and present, and the cosmic connections between an unimaginably distant past and an equally mysterious future all come together in this deceptively simple prose poem, one that captures the essentially meditative quality of this extraordinary book: "Moencopi Rise stuns me into perfect relationship, as I feed a skinny black dog the rest of my crackers, drink coffee, contemplate the frozen memory of stones. Nearby are the footprints of dinosaurs, climbing toward the next century."

Harjo's most recent volume of poetry, In Mad Love and War, shows the poet becoming more personal in her concerns. These poems also bring us to and from other worlds and invite us to hear recurring echoes of Native American ways of thinking. It is this double sense of landscape, the sharp reality that is so clear to the Native American seer and the ruined earthly paradise that is such a source of pain and bewilderment to the rest of the population, that is examined so ruthlessly and lovingly in the book's first poem, "Deer Dancer." The opening provides a sense of in medias res tinged with a deep feeling of lassitude.

Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the hardcore. It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but not us. Of course we noticed when she came in. We were Indian ruins. She was the end of beauty. No one knew her, the stranger whose tribe we recognized, her family related to deer, if that's who she was, a people accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts.

Significantly, the bar is nearly deserted, adding to the feeling of coldness that permeates the atmosphere. This may be a watering hole, but neither conviviality nor oblivion is achieved here. As in so much of Harjo's poetry, many of the images and settings that have become accepted as virtual Native American leitmotivs become as transformed as the landscape. Here the bar and the entire issue of alcohol become a backdrop to a much larger canvas. At the moment that the image of Beauty—clearly a visitor from another world—enters, all the "Indian ruins" recognize her for the vision she is. When a voice from the bar calls out, "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" the poetic speaker echoes the question for the reader's own broader ruminations: "That's what I'd like to know, what are we all doing in a place like this?"

As the vision takes off her clothes and begins to dance on a table, she is finally identified: "She was the myth slipped down through dreamtime. The promise of feast we all knew was coming." Here also we find many of the themes we have seen in Harjo's earlier poetry. There is, first of all, the landscape that has a clearly Native American identity but that soon becomes an everywhere and anytime, with humanity thrown together in the midst of a coldness that only intensifies the need for human connection. In "Deer Dancer" this connection is sadly missing, and it is only when the dancer herself disrobes and moves to the music of the jukebox that "the broken survivors" who see her are stirred to a vision beyond themselves.

In terms of setting, mood, and vision, Harjo's accomplishment in this poem reminds us of no less a visionary than William Butler Yeats. "Deer Dancer" may be seen as something of a Native American "Second Coming." The sterility of the landscape and the objective yet involved tone of Harjo's speaker both echo the Irish poet's famous prophecy, but "Deer Dancer" more directly invites the reader to share in the humanity of the "Indian ruins" sitting so desolately in our native landscape. Further, what comes into that landscape is not Yeats's fear that "things fall apart" and that something terrible is threatening to be born, but rather that unity can be recovered and that a vision of Beauty can lead to a positive recapturing of something lost—and that all this can come to all of us at the most unlikely time and in the most unpromising place. This is a recurring motif in a good deal of Harjo's poetry, and, placed as it is at the beginning of In Mad Love and War, "Deer Dancer" serves as a review of these concerns and as an important announcement of the book's intentions.

Harjo's range of emotion and imagery in this volume is truly remarkable. She achieves intimacy and power in ways that send a reader to every part of the poetic spectrum for comparisons and for some frame of reference. For example, the opening of "Summer Night" is as filled with romantic delicacy as any sonnet from a nineteenth-century poet: "The moon is nearly full, / the humid air sweet like melon. / Flowers that have cupped the sun all day / dream of iridescent wings / under the long dark sleep." By contrast, how completely modern (and American) in tone is the exquisitely cadenced opening image of "Bird": "The moon plays horn, leaning on the shoulder of the dark universe to the infinite glitter of chance." We are also struck, again in a few opening lines, by Harjo's use of her poetic voice to take one of the humblest images from her culture to discuss the steady revolution Native American art is causing in the larger culture: "I am fragile, a piece of pottery smoked from fire / made of dung, / the design drawn from nightmares. I am an arrow, painted / with lightning / to seek the way to the name of the enemy, / but the arrow has now created / its own language" ("We Must Call a Meeting"). As in so many of the poems in the book, these images, ideas, and intentions achieve a unity that is as effective as it is rare. The volume represents a major artistic statement and, seen in the context of Harjo's past work, indicates a remarkable new direction for the poet.

It is also instructive to place Harjo's verse and prose in the context of the work of other Native American poets. When one compares her tone to that of, say, Paula Gunn Allen, there is a sense of greater immediacy and urgency to Harjo's voice; it grips the reader with an unmistakable intensity. If Allen can begin her "Soundings" with an almost easygoing sense of familiarity ("On such a day as this / Something unknown, familiar stirs—/ is it a thought? a breeze?"), Harjo can announce her theme in "For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash" by painting a scene that reveals the vibrant energy of the speaker as much as it makes us feel the underlying violence in nature.

       Beneath a sky blurred with mist and wind,
           I am amazed as I watch the violet
       heads of crocuses erupt from the stiff earth
           after dying for a season,
       as I have watched my own dark head
           appear each morning after entering
       the next world
           to come back to this one,
                    amazed.

This urgency of tone can also reach the point of near assault on the reader in its demand for attention. This raw directness is instantly apparent in the opening of "Legacy" from In Mad Love and War: "In Wheeling, West Virginia, inmates riot. / Two cut out the heart of a child rapist / and hold it steaming in a guard's face / because he will live / to tell the story."

If we consider the work of another fine poet, Wendy Rose, next to that of Joy Harjo, we also notice a distinct difference in tone. This is evident when, for example, both poets overlay monstrous urban landscapes on the spirit of ancient Native American experience. In "Leaving Port Authority for the St. Regis Rezz" Rose brings together the disparate vistas of Weehawken, New Jersey, and a distant, other setting: "I saw a mesa / between two buildings / a row of tall / thin hands on top." Harjo's opening vision in "Climbing the Streets of Worcester, Mass.," though similar in conception, proceeds in a very different direction: "Houses lean forward with their hands / on thin hips. / I walk past their eyes / of pigeon grey, hear someone playing horn, and there's the wind / trying to teach some trees / to fly." Rose's imagery should not be judged in terms of Harjo's intentions, but it is noteworthy that the surreal immediacy of Harjo's lines engages the reader in a way that makes her both distinctive and compelling. However, Harjo's artistry is so secure in itself and the growth of her thinking is so impressive in itself, that one does not linger long over comparisons.

There is one other Native American poet who, if she chose to devote herself more to poetry, could produce work that would be received with the greatest attention and might well invite the closest comparisons with Harjo's work. This is Louise Erdrich. As long as Erdrich continues in the direction of commercial fiction, however, it is not an exaggeration to say that Harjo clearly remains in the very forefront of that still comparatively small group of Native American poets writing today.

Although Harjo is only approaching the most productive stage of her career, she has already been fully accepted as an important poetic voice. In a very perceptive and extremely useful review of her work, published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement of 2 April 1991, Dan Bellm gave this succinct appreciation of Harjo's poetry:

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.

Just as important, the poet herself is already a living resource for an entire generation of younger writers, Native American and otherwise. Although many of her literary models are firmly in her own culture, we cannot ignore some of her relatives in the craft, as distant in era and place as some of them may seem. In his introduction to Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry Brian Swann quotes Richard Hugo's 1975 comments on the then quickly emerging Native American literary movement. Hugo emphasized that Native American poets were very similar to such major twentieth-century poets as Eliot and Yeats, "who felt we inherited ruined worlds that, before they were ruined, gave man a sense of self-esteem, social unity, spiritual certainty and being at home on the earth." We have sensed, more than once, this world view in Harjo's poetry. More specifically, we have noted some similarities between "Deer Dancer" and "The Second Coming" of Yeats. More broadly, the cultural, artistic, and spiritual connections between Anglo-Irishman and Native American are quite striking. Both are dreamers and seekers after the visionary, and both work in cultures that often prove to be alien lands indeed. Nevertheless, Harjo, as much as Yeats, is able to survive in the larger culture while still breathing deeply of her native air. In a hostile place that has denied her dreams and often done its best to destroy the dreamer, she has responded by giving back to the larger culture values and insights it never realized it had lost.

When Yeats, at the conclusion of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," shows his poetic self standing on a London street and thinking of his native land, the resulting image serves as a metaphor for the very isolation of the poet's insight: "I will arise and go now, for always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; / While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, / I hear it in the deep heart's core." From her own points of exile and isolation, in bars on dusty highways or on foggy New England streets, in ancient museums or modern airports, Joy Harjo shares with us the deepest parts of her own sensibility. She also reveals those parts of the human psyche shared by us all: the deep heart's core.

John Scarry, "Representing Real Worlds: The Evolving Poetry of Joy Harjo," in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 286-91.

Kathleene West (review date Summer 1992)

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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, which is
          not a
       flip side of the Western time chain, but a form
          of
       music staggered in the ongoing event of earth
       calesthentics, the past and the future are the same tug-of-war.
                                  ("Original Memory")

Think how important time is to music: we keep time, mark time, beat time, measure our rhythms in three-quarter, half or full time, and the best timekeeper we have is in the beat of our heart, literally and metaphorically: "ghosts of time in tilted hats are ushered / by our heartbeats into the living room" ("We Encounter Nat King Cole as We Invent the Future") and "whatever world we are entering or leaving we are still looking for love" ("Original Memory").

One of the things poetry can do is to convey the power of this music:

        I know you can turn a poem into something else.
          This
        poem could be a bear treading the far northern
          tundra,
        smelling the air for sweet alive meat. Or a piece
          of
        seawood stumbling in the sea. Or a blackbird,
        laughing. What I mean is that hatred can be
          turned
        into something else if you have the right words,
          the
        right meanings.
                                  ("Transformations")

When the poem/song/music coincides then one discovers, "There is more to this world that I have ever let on / to you, or anyone" ("Deer Ghost").

In "Climbing the Streets of Worcester, Mass." the narrator hears wind, someone playing horn and

                           three crows laugh
       kick up the neighbor's trash.
       Telling jokes
                           they recreate the world.

Recreating the world means one has to be prepared to accept the results. In "Song for the Deer and Myself to Return On" the narrator sings

       the song Louis taught me:
       a song to call the deer in Creek, when hunting,
       and I am certainly hunting something as magic
         as deer
                           .....
       It works, of course, and deer came into this
         room
       and wondered at finding themselves
       in a house near downtown Denver.

With love and the power of music come responsibility: "I should be writing poems to change the / world. They would appear as a sacrifice of deer for the starving. Or poems / of difficulty to place my name in the Book of Poets. I should get on with it" ("Crossing Water"). Getting on with it means the poems of "furious love" "the dazzling whirlwind of our anger," the poems where "Nothing can be forgotten, only left behind." If there are "no damned words to make violence fit neatly," then let the poet write roughly and gasping for breath. Witness the title of a poem for a young woman murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation: "For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit Is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars (for we remember the story and must tell it again so we may all live)."

Our own lives, individual, private, and small, are terribly important. In "The Real Revolution is Love," men and women gather in the pre-dawn hours of Managua, Nicaragua, "the land of revolution." Gradually, their language alters like Pedro as he moves "to the place inside her / ear where he isn't speaking revolution." But the woman who is the object of his affection thinks instead of "a man / who keeps his political secrets to himself / in favor of love," and the narrator decides to "do what I want, and take my revolution to bed with / me, alone." Her dreams are of ancestral stories "of the very beginning" and of Columbus landing "over and over again." She knows "This is not a foreign country, but the land of our dreams."

Dreams, the ancestral past, and the power of a passionate imagination unite to create a vision of a future that is, as yet, only found in poetry:

       We will make a river,
       flood this city built of passion
       with fire,
       with a revolutionary fire.
                       ("City of Fire")

It is in Joy Harjo's poetry that the promise of poetry is more than keen metaphor:

       We are all in the belly of a laughing god
       swimming the heavens, in this whirling circle.
       What we haven't imagined will one day
       spit us out
       magnificent and simple
                     ("Fury of Rain")

In Mad Love and War has the power and beauty of prophecy and all the hope of love poised at its passionate beginning. It allows us to enter the place "we haven't imagined" and allows us to imagine what we will do when we are there.

Kathleene West, in a review of "In Mad Love and War," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 66, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 128-32.

Joy Harjo with Marilyn Kallett (interview date Summer 1993)

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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 work with language, yet I approach the art as a visual artist. From childhood my perceptions were through the eye of a painter. I feel any writer serves many aspects of culture, including language, but you also serve history, you serve the mythic structure that you're part of, the people, the earth, and so on—and none of these are separate.

It seems like almost any question we ask about your writing, about your cultural background, is going to lead us in the same paths of discussion about your family life, your tribal life, and your life as a writer.

Well, they are not separate, really. Though the way I've come to things is very different from say, Beth Cuthand, who is a Cree writer from Saskatchewan, or Leslie Silko from Laguna. There's a tendency in this country to find one writer of a particular ethnicity and expect her to speak for everyone and expect her experience to be representative of all Native women and all Native people. My experience is very different from Silko's and Cuthand's, although it's similar in the sense of a generational thing, of certain influences on us and influences we have on each other. But my experience has been predominantly urban. I did not grow up on a reservation—we don't even have a reservation. There are more rural areas where the people are. I'm not a full-blood, and yet I am a full member of my (Muscogee) tribe, and I have been a full member of my tribe since my birth into the tribe. I find some people have preconceived ideas—I was talking to this guy on the plane and he says, "Well, you don't fit my idea of an Indian." What does that mean? I think for most people in this country, it means to be a Hollywood version of a Plains tribe, as falsely-imagined 100 or 150 years ago. Most people in this country have learned all they know about Indian people from movies and television….

Certain books have helped to popularize Plains culture. Black Elk Speaks is taught most often at the university….

And even then it's a perversion of what it means to be an Indian in this country—how do you translate context? Within my tribe you have people who are very grounded in the traditions, and are very close to the land. Then you have people who are heavily involved in church; some are involved in both; some live in Tulsa, which is where I grew up; others live all over but are still close to that place which is home. It is more than land—but of the land—a tradition of mythologies, of ongoing history … it forms us.

What is there specifically in the Muscogee culture that lends itself to poetry?

That's like asking what is it in life that lends itself to poetry … it's the collective myth balanced with history.

When you talk about particulars of individuals and tribes, you are continually breaking down conventions and stereotypes. Does that become tiresome for you?

Yes, it does. I find that wherever I speak I always get asked more questions having to do with culture than with writing.

You must feel like a cultural missionary sometimes….

Right. I feel like I'm having to explain something that's not really easily explainable.

Among your friends, and among the other writers you mentioned, surely you don't have to keep explaining.

No. There's no need. Culture just is. Certainly I'm always asking myself questions about how we came to be, and how we're becoming, and who we are in this world….

In terms of your own background, were there people in your family who loved words? Where does your love of language come from?

Probably from both sides. I have a grandfather, my father's grandfather, who is a full-blooded Creek Baptist minister. I often feel him and I know much of what I am comes from him (including my stubbornness!) I know that he had a love for words and he spoke both Muscogee and English. My mother used to compose songs on an old typewriter. I think she loved the music more than the words, she wasn't particularly a wordsmith, but could translate heartache. From her I learned Patsy Cline, and other "heartbreak country."

Do you remember what made you write that first poetry in your twenties?

Yes, very distinctly. The urge was the same urge I had to make music. Around that time was the first time I heard music in poetry, heard Native writers like Leslie Silko, and Simon Ortiz read their work. I also heard Galway Kinnell for the first time, his was one of the first poetry readings I ever attended. I became friends with Leo Romero whose dedication to poetry impressed me. He was always writing and reading his work to me. I witnessed process and began writing my own pieces. Of course, the first attempts were rather weak. Like newborn colts trying to stand just after birth….

You attended the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. Was that helpful to you?

Well, I have to take into consideration my age when I went—I was in my mid-twenties. I was a single mother. I arrived at this strange country with two small children—my daughter was three years old. I knew no one, did not know the place, or the people. About the university setting—I felt like I had walked into a strange land in which I had to learn another language. This comes from being of Native background, from the West, but it also comes from being a woman in that institution. I heard the Director say once to a group of possible funders—I was one of the people they chose to perform for them in the workshop—he told them that the place was actually geared for teaching male writers, which is honest; it was true, but I was shocked. I remember Jayne Ann Phillips and I looking at each other, like "can you believe this? Then why are we sitting here?" Certainly I think I learned a lot about technique. I also learned that what was most important in a poem had nothing to do in some ways with what I thought was most important. I felt like the art of poetry had broken down into sterile exercises. And yet, I know I admire some of the work of those people who taught me. But the system had separated itself from the community, from myth, from humanhood.

But you saw it through?

I did see it through. I wanted to walk away. One way I made it through was through the help of people like Sandra Cisneros—through close ties to the Indian and Chicano communities, to the African-American community, to women's groups.

Have you been able to bring back some of the technical skill you learned to what you consider fundamental?

Yes. You can have the commitment to writing, the fire, but you can write crummy poems. Certainly you need technique. I guess what I'm saying is that I felt values were out of balance.

What was missing?

Heart. And yet some of the poets who taught me there had heart in their poems. But sometimes I felt like what was more important was the facade of being a poet. It became more of an academic pursuit than a pursuit of what it means to live. Granted I was young and I had a lot of misconceptions to work through.

Could you say more about your true teachers of poetry, those who have influenced your work?

I feel like Galway Kinnell has been a teacher, even though I have never met him. I love his work. I think that what he has is a beautiful balance between technique and music. He is such a poet. He's a poet's poet with the music … and that's important to me. Of course James Wright. Richard Hugo. Adrienne Rich. I admire her sheer audacity. In the face of everything she learned from the fathers, given the time when she grew up and her own father's admonitions, still she became herself.

I see that in your work, too. I don't know if you are aware of how daring your work is, and how dangerous!

I'd better be! I love the work of Audre Lorde; she has also been one of my teachers.

In the dedication to In Mad Love and War you affirm that "the erotic belongs in the poetry, as in the self." Can you elaborate?

It has taken me years to divest myself of Christian guilt, the Puritan cloud that provides the base for culture in this country … or at least to recognize the twists and turns of that illogic in my own sensibility. In that framework the body is seen as an evil thing and is separate from spirit. The body and spirit are not separate. Nor is that construct any different in the place from which I write poetry. There is no separation. See Audre Lorde's "Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power" (Sister Outsider, 1984) for a viable definition of the erotic. Again, there is no separation.

Feminist writings and lesbian feminist writings have been very important to you, your work?

Yes, they have.

Are there other writers who have been important to you that we should know about?

Yes. I can think of a lot of writers who are important to me—Leslie Silko, for instance, whom I met shortly after I started writing. I actually took a fiction class from her at UNM as an undergraduate…. I especially liked our wine breaks in our office, the stories as we listened to Fleetwood Mac, watched for rain…. There are a lot of people … Beth Brant, Louis Oliver, June Jordan….

You dedicated the poem"Hieroglyphics" (from In Mad Love and War) to June Jordan. Why did she get that one?

Well, it's a long story.

It's a wonderful poem. It moves across time and space, defying boundaries. Maybe June Jordan has a mythic imagination that can comprehend those leaps?

Yeah. I mean she is somebody you can talk to like that and you can't talk to everyone that way. Sometimes in a poem you assume you can.

Maybe you assume that because you need to make the poems accessible. You want people to feel like you are talking to them. In Mad Love and War is a breakthrough in terms of form and content. How do you feel about being formally inventive?

I don't know. I don't really know what I'm doing.

You lean into the unknown in those lines and see what happens?

Yes, I do, I don't analyze. I mean certainly analysis is also part of the process of writing poetry, but it's not primary. It comes later in the process.

In part it's probably discipline that lets you explore. Discipline from the habit of years of writing. Do you write daily?

I don't. I try to! (laughter) Well, do you?

No, of course not! We were talking before about having families and having lives, and here you are in Knoxville. I mean, how are you supposed to write every day? Though William Stafford writes every day, even when he's traveling.

Writing is a craft and there's something to doing it or you lose it. I used to paint and draw, and was quite a good artist, but I can't do it at the same level anymore. It's not that I've lost it but I'd have to get my chops together, so to speak, practice.

Do you regret the decision to give up painting?

I don't know that I regret it, but I certainly miss painting. That particular language was more familiar to me than the literary world….

What can you do in poetry that painting could not achieve?

Speak directly in a language that was meant to destroy us.

You have focused on your writing and on your music.

Yes. If I'm not writing I'm thinking about it, or looking at things—I feel this infuses my vision. I'm listening for stories and listening to how words are put together and so on.

Living a "writer's life"?

Yes.

The theme of music gets into your poetry when you dedicate poems to Billie Holiday or make reference to Coltrane. But I also sense the influence of jazz on your forms.

Well, that wasn't conscious. I think it's coming out of playing the saxophone. I realized recently that I took it up exactly when I entered academe. I don't feel like I've become an academic but if you're going to be in that place, certainly it's going to rub off on you. (laughter)

So you needed some way back to the body?

Yes. Anyway, it was a time when I started teaching at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I had run from teaching in universities. I remember applying once years ago for the University of Texas, El Paso, and then I couldn't make it to MLA because I had no money. I preferred to keep my own hours, worked free lance, doing screenplay writing and readings and workshops—somehow the money always came in—but it's a tough existence, you have to have a lot of faith. I got a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I wrote "We Must Call a Meeting" right after I started teaching there because I was afraid that in that atmosphere, in that place, I was going to lose my poetry. That was around the time I started playing tenor sax. I play tenor and soprano now, but I realize that in a way it was a way to keep that poetry and keep that place.

Keep your sanity, keep your juice!

Yeah. I mean you pick up the saxophone again, I suppose it's like writing poetry, you are picking up the history of that. Playing saxophone is like honoring a succession of myths…. I never thought of this before but: the myth of saxophone and here comes Billie Holiday and there's Coltrane. I love his work dearly, especially "A Love Supreme." That song has fed me. And all of that becomes. When you play you're a part of that, you have to recognize those people.

There's a very strong sense of community in your work, community of musicians you address; community of other writers, community of women…. I want to ask you about your great-aunt, to whom you dedicated She Had Some Horses.

She's the relative I was closest to, and my life in some ways has uncannily paralleled hers. I miss her dearly. I always felt like I dropped into an alien family almost—maybe most people do—but when she and I got together, then I felt akin. She was very interested in art—she was a painter and was very supportive of the Creek Nation Museum in Okmulgee, and donated most of her paintings to them. She traveled. We followed the same routes. Like her, I left Oklahoma for New Mexico—I was sent to an Indian boarding school in Santa Fe. It was a school for the arts, very innovative in its time, sort of like an Indian Fame school. When I left Oklahoma to go to high school there, in a way it saved my life…. In my travels I often met relatives of people that she knew. I have a necklace that Maria Martinez gave her—Maria, the potter from San Ildefonso. (My great-aunt) was someone who was married for six months and didn't like it and got a divorce, and spent a lot of time driving—she liked traveling Indian country—and also opened a jewelry shop.

So there's movement, dynamism, in your family, and that restlessness….

Yes. Through her and her life I understand myself more clearly, and I love her dearly and miss her.

Did she live long enough to see the book dedicated to her?

No. She died before my father … in '82.

But she knew you were a poet?

Oh yes. She was real proud of that.

What's new in your work that you feel comfortable talking about?

The music, what I've been actively involved in to the tune of two or three hours a night (that's a lot of time!) is working with my band Poetic Justice. We're working on a show, putting together performances of my poems.

Earlier you mentioned that you were frustrated about your music—why?

I want to be farther along than I am. The music is still not as far along as the poetry. I fooled around with the sax for about seven years; I've played really seriously for only two years…. I want to play more and spend more time with it.

What has the audience response been like?

Our first gig we played in Santa Rosa, California, as part of a show of Indian performers called Indian Airobics, and most recently in Minneapolis. There we were brought in by The Loft. The audiences loved us. We're still rather raw in actual practice, we've very recently come together, but there's something we make as a band with the music and poetry that is rather exciting.

I recently read a selection of autobiographical prose that you did, called"Family Album" (The Progressive, March 1992). Are you still working on the autobiographical writing?

I'm working on a manuscript of autobiographical writings. I call it: "A Love Supreme; Stories, Poems, and Parables." There's much interest in it.

So it's a mixture of several genres. The"Family Album"piece has passages of poetry in it.

Yes, I think it's all one. I work within that assumption.

You mentioned once before that you were putting together a book called "Reinventing the Enemy's Language." Are you still working on that?

Yes. It's an anthology of Native women's writings. The original concept was to include writings from North and South America. We have one piece from a Native woman from El Salvador. We also received some prose from Rigoberta Menchu as well as from Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief. We have work in it from Canada—it's quite wide-ranging, and includes many genres.

What else is going on with your work? How far did you get with your essay on poetry and jazz?

Oh, it's getting there. I have rewriting, rethinking to do. Some of the pieces are meant particularly for music. We're rearranging and performing two tunes of Jim Pepper's. Jim was a friend of mine, a fine jazz saxophone player who integrated jazz and tribal forms with music. He's the same tribe, Muscogee (or Creek) as well as Kaw Indian from Oklahoma. He died recently and I wanted to play a tribute for him. So we decided on "Witchi Tia To," for which he is most famous, and "Lakota Song"—which isn't an original tune but his arrangement is unique of this Lakota woman's love song. I "sing" the women's part on tenor sax. For "Witchi Tia To" I read a poem as a tribute to him, "The Place the Musician Became a Bear on the Streets of a City Meant to Kill Him."

It's an intimate cosmic dance! You're doing so many things—we haven't touched on all of them—you're active in tribal life, you've been traveling to various tribal ceremonies, you teach, give workshops and readings. How do you find time to do it all? How do you make time for your writing?

I was blessed with energy. I also try to integrate each aspect of my life. The poetry I mix with the music. And so on … though sometimes I just lose it. Then get back up again. I get excited about the possibilities and permutations of sound, about the color blue, for instance.

I want to ask you whether there is a connection between poetry and politics, and poetry and prayer? Are these intermingled?

Of course.

In the back of In Mad Love and War, there's a poem based on a Native traditional form….

Which comes out of the Beauty Way Chant. I used to speak Navajo fairly well. I know that it's influenced my writing.

I've been told that it's a very difficult language.

It's a beautiful language. I love the way that you can say things in that language. So that's been a powerful influence.

How did you learn Navajo?

When I was a student at UNM I took Navajo Language for a year and a half. I had a wonderful teacher the first year, Roseanne Willink, a Navajo from western New Mexico. We had a great time in there. I remember making up jokes and then starting dreaming in Navajo. I don't know my own language, and wish to learn.

Was your family bilingual?

No, my father's mother had died when he was young. His father married a white woman. He had a lot of difficulties as a child. He was beaten a lot by his dad, and sent to a military school in Ponca City, Oklahoma. I think being Creek—which he was proud of—became a very painful thing for him.

No wonder he had such a hard time coping. You spoke earlier about his alcoholism. He had so much to contend with as such a young person.

Yes, he did. But anyway, back to your earlier question—for me there's always a definite link between poetry and prayer. I think that you can say that a poem is always a prayer for whomever you're speaking of. "Eagle Poem" at the end (of In Mad Love and War) is most obviously a prayer. You could look at all poems as being a prayer for our continuance. I mean even the act of writing, to be creative, has everything to do with our continuance as peoples.

Joy Harjo with Marilyn Kallet, in an interview in The Kenyon Review, n.s. Vol. XV, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 57-66.

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