"I was in my mid-20s. I didn't really have a choice at that time," wrote the American poet Joy Harjo. "I was walking the edge of life and death and I needed what poetry offered me. The offer was not a free gift. I have made sacrifices for poetry. We became inseparable."
Our email interview was carried out ahead of her visit to Israel as a guest of the Yael Levin Writer-In-Residence Program at Tel Aviv University. Previous guests of the program have included authors Michael Cunningham, Jamaica Kincaid, Sir Ronald Howard and Gary Shteyngart.
Yesterday Harjo gave a performance of poetry and music that was open to the public, while today her audience will consist of students at the university. "I will be reading," she wrote, "from my memoir 'Crazy Brave,' old and new poetry, and will be singing and playing saxophone."
Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951. Her mother's family is of French, Irish and Cherokee heritage. Her father's family is from the Muscogee, or Creek, nation, also spelled Mvskoke, which once lived along the banks of the Mississippi River in the south. She left home at the age of 16, after years of abuse by her stepfather, to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, a boarding school in Sante Fe, New Mexico. She studied drawing, painting and theater at the school; in addition to being an outstanding poet Harjo is a singer, composer, painter, playwright and screenwriter.
Harjo's memoir "Crazy Brave," which was published in July, "is the story of how Harjo survived abandonment and abuse, an oppressive evangelical church, the temptations of alcohol, and youthful struggles with failed marriages and single motherhood to become one of our most acclaimed Native American poets," wrote reviewer Rebecca Steinitz in The Boston Globe in the same month.
Harjo has published eight books of poetry that have received, among other honors, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award and the William Carlos Williams Award.
"I turn and return to Harjo's poetry," said the late poet Adrienne Rich, "for her breathtaking complex witness and for her world-remaking language: precise, unsentimental, miraculous." A reviewer in "Publishers Weekly" wrote that Harjo's works "show the remarkable progression of a writer determined to reconnect with her past and make sense of her present, drawing together the brutalities of contemporary reservation life with the beauty and sensibility of Native American culture and mythology."
Can you tell me what are the elements of the Muskogee Creek heritage that carry with you and how does it affect your life and poetry?
"Blood is the primal carrier of heritage. Within blood are all those DNA helixes of stories. Curled through time are migrations, volcanoes and oceans, poetry, music, dance, and the forced eviction from our homelands by the United States government. We are still dealing with the aftermath of a North American holocaust. It has been only seven generations. I prefer [to] count time by generation, a kind of ancestral count. I am seven generations from my grandparents' forced march from our homes. We existed and exist within a cultural, philosophical structural weave that still exists in the language and customs, in our arts and literature. It is within me and I am within it. Global, cultural overlap has changed us, and we are still recovering from the destruction. My words, sounds and creativity come up through that history."
Do you think your poetry has changed over the years and if so, how?
"Everything changes. My earliest poems balanced on single images. I was a single mother raising children, working and attending the university. As the children grew, so did the depth and lengths of my poetry. Earlier I went for the gut, for punch. I later backed off into longer, languid lines in which I could explore the unknown, now I'm headed in another direction. I do not know what it is, nor do I want to know while I am in the middle of discovering it. It's some combination of the above. Languid gut?"
What is the role of poetry in your life and in the general culture?
"As for the general culture of America, like indigenous peoples, poetry is disappeared as an active cultural participant. Poetry isn't considered culturally necessary. It's been lost in elementary and high school curriculum, but young people find it. Spoken word is the primary means of poetry for the younger generation. The need for poetry emerges in human transformational events, in any culture. My poems are often used at births, deaths and weddings."
Breath from the center of the earth
Who are the poets that you were influenced by, and what can you say about the poetry that is written in America these days?
"I have been influenced by many poets. The first was my mother. She was more of a lyricist. She wrote songs. She spoke the poetry of William Blake and the Bible to me. There was also the poetry of the King James Version of the Christian Bible. (I am no longer a Christian and haven't been since I was 13 years old. ) I still return to the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. There was Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Pablo Neruda, Audre Lorde, Okot p'Bitek, Adrienne Rich, Charles Bukowski, Simon Ortiz, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Mahmoud Darwish.
"America is an incredible experiment by a trickster God - it is truly multicultural. It was multicultural before the arrival of the Europeans. Indigenous people are many, many different cultures and languages. And now there are many, many immigrants and descendants of immigrant peoples. Each brought their poetry streams. Therefore the roots of poetry travel deep within the land, and far, far from North America. When multicultural literature emerged in the academic world it was decried as the death of 'American' literature. There was a swing back to an academic 'American' poetry in the 90s which came in around the time of the Bush family leadership. Now with Obama there's been a swing back, yet with much opposition from the right, much of it the Christian religious right. Chicano and indigenous literature has been outlawed in the state of Arizona. Books of Chicano and indigenous writers has been torn from the shelves of schools in Arizona.
Do you know any Hebrew poets?
"One of my favorite poets is Yehuda Amichai."
Harjo is also a professor of literature at UCLA and plays saxophone in her band, Poetic Justice. "The saxophone is so human," wrote Harjo in her blog. " Its tendency is to be rowdy, edgy, talk too loud, bump into people, say the wrong words at the wrong time, but then, you take a breath all the way from the center of the earth and blow. All that heartache is forgiven. All that love we humans carry makes a sweet, deep sound and we fly a little.
How do you see the connection between poetry and music?
"When I started to play saxophone when I was about 40 years old poetry became uneasy and didn't want to be replaced. When I reclaimed the place of poetry in my tribe, that is, a poetry that is not separate from music or dance, a poetry not likely found in bound books, then I began to move more easily with a poetry/lyric/music performance of poetry.
"I believe that music, poetry and dance came into the world together. When I went home to the tribe to look poetry it was not stacked on bookshelves. It was out at the ceremonial grounds, with dance and music."
You are known as a feminist. How is this expressed in your life and poetry, and what do you think about the status of women in society these days?
"Most of the time I speak from the soul, which is neither male nor female. Yet in this story, I am female. Being female makes a power differential in a culture/cultures in which to be female is to have less space or options. Fewer women are published, perform music, or who have plays produced in theater. They still have fewer opportunities. These figures haven't changed much despite feminism. I am very aware that in much of the world we are bound by cultural laws and practices that keep us tethered beneath the power of the patriarch. Yet, I see small shifts and movements. If one person is freed, we are all freed. Real change is not dramatic. It occurs in small, indiscernible movements."
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