Joy Harjo Biography

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(Survey of American Culture: American Ethnic Writers)

Article abstract: Joy Harjo has published poetry, written screenplays, lectured, and taught in creative writing programs; she is also a jazz musician and artist.

Joy Harjo's collections of poetry express a close relationship to the environment and the particularities of the Native American and white cultures from which she is descended. She is an enrolled member of the Creek tribe, the mother of two children (a son, Phil, and a daughter, Rainy Dawn), and a grandmother. Various forms of art were always a part of her life, even in childhood. Her grandmother and aunt were painters. In high school, she trained as a dancer and toured as a dancer and actress with one of the first Indian dance troupes in the country. When her tour ended, she returned to Oklahoma, where her son was born when she was seventeen years old. She left her son's father to move to New Mexico, enrolling at the university as a premed student. After one semester, she decided that her interest in art was compelling enough to engage in its formal study.

Educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she later worked as an instructor, Harjo received a bachelor's degree from the University of New Mexico and a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa. She was a professor of English at both the University of Arizona and the University of New Mexico.

Harjo has received numerous awards for her writing, including the William Carlos Williams award from the Poetry Society of America, the Delmore Schwartz Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, and two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Harjo's poetry has been increasingly influenced by her interest in music, especially jazz. She plays the saxophone in a band, Poetic Justice, that combines the musical influences of jazz and reggae with her poetry. Many of her poems are tributes to the various musicians who have influenced her work, including saxophonists John Coltrane and Jim Pepper.

The history and mythology of her people and the current state of their oppression also are prominent themes in her work. As she states in the explanation of her poem “Witness,” “The Indian wars never ended in this country . . . we were hated for our difference by our enemies.”

In Mad Love and War (1990) is composed of two sections of poems expressing the conflicts and joys of Harjo's experiences as a Native American woman living in contemporary American culture. The poems draw on a wealth of experiences, including those relating to tribal tradition and sacredness of the land. Such positive experiences are compared with the sometimes grim realities inherent in the modern society in which Harjo lives. Many of the poems in “The Wars” are political in nature, containing stark images of violence and deprivation, most notably her poem dedicated to Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a member of the American Indian Movement whose murdered body was found on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994), Harjo's seventh collection of poetry, consists primarily of prose poems. The collection is divided into two sections, “Tribal Memory” and “The World Ends Here,” which express the lore of Harjo's Native American ancestry and her observations of contemporary life. These poems show a concern for content over style. The poetry is presented without conventions of patterned rhyme or meter; the imagery is stark and unadorned.

Each poem is followed by an explanation that contextualizes the piece by offering a brief history of the genesis of the poem or commenting on themes elucidated by the writing. The majority of the book's poems are narrative, developing stories that explain the destinies of Native American characters who retain identity despite the onslaught of European culture, which strips away their language, lore, and religion. The poems create a universe of oppositions: darkness and light, violence and peace. Other...

(The entire section is 2,399 words.)