Joy Harjo: A Quest to Find a Map of the Soul

On Earth Day, 2020, we had the great honor and delight of listening to U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s online reading and discussion, sponsored by Engaging the Senses Foundation and UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center for the Poetry and the Senses initiative, which presciently identified this year’s theme as “emergency.” Joy Harjo is the first Native American to hold the U.S. Poet Laureate position. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she is an internationally known award-winning poet, writer, performer, and saxophone player of the Mvskoke people/Muscogee Creek Nation.  Joy is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. She directs For Girls Becom­ing, an arts men­tor­ship pro­gram for young Mvskoke women.

It was a deeply consoling and inspiring evening, and included an interactive feature in which members of the audience were invited to ask questions. Following are some excerpts from Joy’s responses to viewers’ questions as well as the post-reading discussion held between Joy and Beth Piatote, writer and associate professor of Native American Studies at UC Berkeley.  For the full, irreplaceable experience, you’ll be able to access the event here for through May 31st. For both those who were there and those who couldn’t attend, here is a sample of the wisdom and beauty she shared (shortened and lightly edited for clarity), which reveals why her voice is so urgently needed during this difficult moment in our collective experience.
About poetry and where it is found:
“I think poetry is always there. You’ll always find poetry emerging during emergencies. We’re in a transformational emergency. That means we are coming from a place and we’re going to a place; we’re going to be changed. We don’t know exactly how but we do have a sense of why this is happening. We’ve all had this sense that we’re just moving along too fast. We’re watching the denigration of the living space and our home, which is really us. We are the earth. We are essentially the earth itself. And we’ve been watching this happen. Now here we are emerging through an emergency. And poetry is always a place to experience this. It is a very human kind of art.”  (Here are excerpts from a new poem Joy has written during the current pandemic):
“Hello blows through the trees. This old creek town appears empty except for the trees. And the story of how wind will come to clean. … One day my grandfather used to sing, a fresh world will rise up to take the place of this society that didn’t love the earth. He would be standing in the kitchen. Now I’m standing in the kitchen… I can hear him singing. Sometimes it takes a while for us to hear. Pass on this love, he would say. Pass this love on. It knows how to bend and will never break. It is the only thing with a give and take. The more it is confused, the more it makes. That love is the bridge that will cross the river home. He would be standing in the dark with no one listening. How time blows steadily through the city and the trees. Sing to this earth, sing, he sang. Pass this love on, he would say. It knows how to bend and will never break. It is the only thing with the give and take. The more you choose, the more it makes. Pass this love on. Pass this love on.”
About poetry’s use and value:
“I don’t think of it as a cure-all or something that you go to. It gives you a place… a poem is an energetic construct made out of words. It is like an energetic pocket. It can hold different kinds of time. You can talk about anything in a poem. It will hold what you cannot hold. There’s no way to understand some of the things that happened to us and to our families. I mean there are things we cannot and there’s just the questions — how — why? We’ll never make sense of them. But we can put them in a poem. And the poem will hold that question. You know? To percolate while its holding the question there.”
How do songs and poetry and music move medicine (healing) towards the world? How do you understand your role in that process?
“There’s something about singing — it lifts. You taking the spoken word and add music and then it is like you can become part bird. It is transformative. Of course there’s movement. You know, poetry, music, and dance came into the world together. I don’t think they like to be separated. As much as I love books and being able to carry them around, these arts really belong together. And, you know, a song like a poem can heal. You go back to any tradition and healing is the main intent. I’m thinking of all of the incredible teachers that I’ve had who have been poets in the past, present, and future. They’ve been all different kinds of teachers. They’ve been water. They’ve been ocean. Just different kinds of teachers. They’ve all been healers.”

Not all books of poetry have maps in them. But all of yours do, whether it is a path through the massacre or an old trail now an interstate, or a physical map of the Trail of Tears as appeared in An American Sunrise, or a map to the next world. Why is mapping so central to your work?

“I didn’t realize it was until this last book. I’ve always loved maps. I love the layout and the physicality of real maps. The laying out the map and then touching towns and rivers and seeing how they connect. There’s something about learning what places mean and how they got those names. I just love that kind of mapping.  I guess I’ve been on a quest to find a map of the soul and realized that the only way I would find or be able to make it is in poetry.”

What can we do to make the change that we need? Especially now that we cannot gather to take direction action together?

“Well, there’s a reason, there are a lot of reasons for what’s happening right now. I think we will be able to come out of this stronger. We have to gather up our own inner resources. We’re cleaning our roots, so to speak. This is a time of cleaning our roots. And we are gathering. Just because there are walls between us doesn’t mean we’re not together. I mean, look at right now. I’m going to take a breath and feel everyone. It’s like a kind of listening, but it’s feeling and it tells us we are in this space together right now. We are.”

 Do you think the chaos is necessary in order for radical, positive change?
“Well, it seems to be for humans if you look at history. Chaos has a place. It is that place that we get to and have to go through in the process. It is part of the birth process. I remember giving birth twice. I helped at births. And there’s a point in the birthing process called transition and it is chaos. That’s when you’ll hear the mother screaming “get the hell out of here!” You know? It’s chaos and then birth. Or there’s the process when you are working on something. You’re going towards something and then you feel chaos. It might be necessary. I noticed a lot of my best stuff comes at a time when I start feeling this kind of chaotic emotions and energy.”

In one of your dedications you write “for my allies and for my enemies”. Which I thought was a very profound and powerful gesture. I wondered if you could say more about how you take those moments, you know, enemy moments — how you learn from those as well. How you turn them into teachers.

“Well, your enemies are often the most profound teachers. Sometimes the enemies are your fears. Someone asked me earlier today, “how is it going in your confinement?” Well, you get to know your demons. That’s what it comes down to. You are sitting there and you get to know your demons. You are sitting at the kitchen table, and you either sit there and make friends or keep fighting. That’s something that we all have to learn.”

Can you talk about how you conceptualize time and how it relates to the poetry and music?

We have a linear time concept. But actually time moves backwards and forwards. I have examples of that. It’s like in An American Sunrise where I see my grandfather on his horse. And he showed me how he bent time. He showed it to me. I knew he had that gift. I had been told about it. And then I saw him do it, bending time in and out of itself.  Poetry is a kind of time weaving too. It is a kind of playing in which you can hold time, and hold different kinds of time.”

(From An American Sunrise):

Then I heard the rhythm sound of a running horse coming up behind me. I smelled the sweat of human and horse, and as the breathy team caught up I saw my grandfather astride the horse. What a rider he was, just as I had been told in all the stories. I remembered that my aunt Lois Harjo told me how Monahwee could bend time. He could arrive at a destination on horseback long before it was physically possible. And as quickly as he’d come, he was gone, and I saw a traffic sign “30 miles to Atlanta.” I’d only been on that road for a few minutes. My grandfather had come back to show me how he folded time. The Old Ones will always tell you, your ancestors keep watch over you. Listen to them.

When did you know that poetry is the perfect vessel to transmit your important messages to listeners, those messages that go so far beyond the mere words?

“I don’t know that I go about it for messages. I’m aware that messages probably come through. But If I want to write a message, I’ll go to an essay or something. Think about what it takes to make any work of art. The artist has to be quiet in order to catch things. Some of these poems I wrote years ago when I was just so lost. Sometimes I still get lost. And the poems help me find a way. They are helpers. And that’s when I know they are given to me to share. It is about discovery and what I hear. I try to listen and hear who is there”.

One of my favorite poems by you is “Fire” from How We Become Human. As an indigenous woman, what advice would you have for other young indigenous woman like myself for finding our voice and using it?

“Well, that works directly into a new poem. It’s called The Life of Beauty. It is going to turn into a song. It is about the empowerment of women. You know, when we were talking earlier about how really the impetus behind poetry and songs has always been healing? Well, the earth is in the process of healing. Which means we’re in the process of healing. And her energy is feminine. We need a healing. Because what kind of world is it when none of the power figures are female? What does that mean? Or when you go into a governing body and the women’s circle has no place? You know, the women. So thank you for that question. It segues perfectly into this:”

“The sung blessing of creation
Led her into the human story.
That was the first beauty.

Next beauty was the sound of her mother’s voice
Rippling the waters beneath the drumming skin
Of her birthing cocoon.

Next beauty the father with kindness in his hands
As he held the newborn against his breathing.

Next beauty the moon through the dark window
It was a rocking horse, a wish.

There were many beauties in this age
For everything was immensely itself:
Green greener than the impossibility of green,
the taste of wind after its slide through dew grass at dawn,
Or language running through a tangle of wordlessness in her

She ate well of the next beauty.

Next beauty planted itself urgently beneath the warrior shrines.

Next was beauty beaded by her mother and pinned neatly
To hold back her hair.

Then how tendrils of fire longing grew into her, beautiful the flower
Between her legs as she became herself.

Do not forget this beauty she was told.

The story took her far away from beauty. In the tests of her living,
Beauty was often long from the reach of her mind and spirit.
When she forgot beauty, all was brutal.
But beauty always came to lift her up to stand again.

When it was beautiful all around and within,
She knew herself to be corn plant, moon, and sunrise.
Death is beautiful, she sang, as she left this story behind her.

Even her bones, said time.
Were tuned to beauty.”

Engaging the Senses Foundation would like to thank the following partners at UC Berkeley who created this stellar event, and the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation for continuing support.