Joy Harjo Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How does Joy Harjo’s juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary challenge the Western perspective of what is and what is not real?

Harjo was a painter before she became a poet. How do her word choices and images reflect her experience as a visual artist?

In what ways do Harjo’s use of myth reconcile and harmonize opposing forces such as male versus female, European versus indigenous culture, the powerful versus the impotent, and love versus hate?

How does Harjo’s love of music influence and enhance her poetry?

Harjo’s poetry is often inspired by her surroundings. How does sense of place function in her work?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Joy Harjo is best known as a poet, but some of her work in this form can best be described as prose poetry, so the difference between the two genres tends to blur in her books. In both the poetry and the prose, Harjo frequently uses Native American spiritual myths and symbols and southwestern settings (Oklahoma and New Mexico). She has also edited (with Gloria Bird) Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writing of North America (1997).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Joy Harjo’s two poetry collections published in the 1990’s—In Mad Love and War (1990) and The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994)—won numerous awards. Harjo was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in 1978, an Arizona Commission on the Arts Creative Writing fellow in 1989, and she won an American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award, in 1990. Through her several volumes of poetry, Harjo has become one of the leading Native American poetic voices.

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Joy Harjo (HAHR-jow) has published mainly volumes of poetry, though she also has written many essays. She edited, with Gloria Bird, Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writing of North America (1997). She also wrote a screenplay, Origin of Apache Crow Dance (1985). In 2000, Harjo published her first children’s book, The Good Luck Cat, illustrated by Paul Lee. She has published a play Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light (pr., pb. 2009), and her musical interests combine with poetry in several musical albums, including Winding Through the Milky Way (2009).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Joy Harjo is known for her use of American Indian mythology in her work and for her heritage as a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation. She has earned many honors and awards, including the American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award (1990), the William Carlos Williams Award (1991), the Josephine Miles Award (1991), the American Book Award for In Mad Love and War (1991), Oklahoma Book Awards for The Woman Who Fell from the Sky and How We Became Human (1995 and 2003, respectively), the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (1997), the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award (1997), the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center (2003), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas. She was named Writer of the Year in Poetry by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers (2003-2004) for How We Became Human. She has received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1978, 1992), a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Green Mountain College (1993), a Witter Brynner Poetry Fellowship (1994), and a United States Artists Rasumson Fellowship (2008). Benedectine College conferred an honorary doctorate on her in 1992.

Besides being a talented poet, Harjo plays the saxophone and performs her poetry along with her band. In 1997, her album Letters from the End of the Century won the Musical Artists of the Year award from the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Andrews, Jennifer. “In the Belly of a Laughing God: Reading Humor and Irony in the Poetry of Joy Harjo.” American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 2 (2000): 200-218. Analyzes humor in Harjo’s poetry, an important characteristic that the author claims is seriously ignored in studies of Native American literature.

Clark, C. B. “Joy Harjo (Creek).” In The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter et al. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Clark’s brief introduction to selections of Harjo’s poetry (including the prose poem “Deer Dancer”) in this anthology delineates several of the most important qualities of her writing.

Coltelli, Laura, ed. The Spiral of Memory: Interviews, Joy Harjo. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. These interviews with the poet offer insights into her method of working as well as the continuing concerns of her writing.

Donovan, Kathleen. Feminist Readings of Native American Literature. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998. Donovan’s last chapter, “Dark Continent/Dark Woman,” is a consideration of Joy Harjo in company with the French literary critic Helene Cixous. Both writers “struggle to reconcile their sense of multiple identities that arise from the displacements of history and family background,” Donovan argues, and “by embracing their multiple identities and places...

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