Harjo, Joy 1951–

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Harjo, Joy 1951–

PERSONAL: Born May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, OK; daughter of Allen W. and Wynema (Baker) Foster; children: Phil, Rainy Dawn. Education: University of New Mexico, B.A., 1976; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1978; attended Anthropology Film Center, Santa Fe, 1982. Hobbies and other interests: Performing on the saxophone with band Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice.

ADDRESSES: Home—1140-D, Alewa Dr., Honolulu, HI 96817. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, NM, instructor, 1978–79, 1983–84; Arizona State University, Tempe, lecturer in creative writing and poetry, 1980–81; University of Colorado, Boulder, assistant professor, 1985–88; University of Arizona, Tucson, associate professor, 1988–90; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, professor, 1991–97. Visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Montana, 1985, at University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2003. Writer and consultant for Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, National Indian Youth Council, and National Endowment for the Arts, all 1980–83. Member of steering committee of En'owkin Centre International School of Writing. Writer-in-residence at schools, including Navajo Community College, 1978; University of Alaska Prison Project, 1981; and Institute of Alaska Native Arts, 1984. Recordings with band, Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, include Furious Light, 1986, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1994, and Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, 1997.

MEMBER: PEN (member of advisory board), PEN New Mexico (member of advisory board).

AWARDS, HONORS: Academy of American Poetry Award and University of New Mexico first-place poetry award, both 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1978; named one of the Outstanding Young Women in America, 1978, 1984; first place in poetry, Santa Fe Festival for the Arts, 1980; Arizona Commission on the Arts Creative Writing fellow, 1989; American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award, 1990; Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature, PEN Oakland, William Carlos Williams award, Poetry Society of America, and American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, all 1991, for In Mad Love and War; Wittner Bynner Poetry fellowship, 1994; Lifetime Achievement award, Native Writers' Circle of the Americas, 1995; Oklahoma Book Arts award, 1995, for The Woman Who Fell from the Sky; Delmore Schwartz Memorial award, and Mountains and Plains Booksellers' award, both 1995, both for In Mad Love and War; Bravo Award, Albuquerque Arts Alliance, 1996; New Mexico Governor's Award for excellence in the arts, 1997; Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund Writers' Award, 1998; National Council on the Arts, presidential appointment, 1998; 1998 Outstanding Musical Achievement Award presented by The First Americans in the Arts Council; Honorary doctorate, St. Mary-in-the-Woods College, 1998; Charlotte Zolotow Award, Highly Commended Book, 2001, and Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Writer of the Year Award, both for The Good Luck Cat; Arrell Gibson Award for Lifetime Achievement, Oklahoma Center for the Book, 2003; Oklahoma Book Award, 2003, for How We Became Human.



The Last Song (chapbook; also see below), Puerto Del Sol Press (Las Cruces, NM), 1975.

What Moon Drove Me to This? (contains The Last Song), I. Reed Books (New York, NY), 1980.

She Had Some Horses, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1983.

Secrets from the Center of the World, illustrated by Steven Strom, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1989.

In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1990.

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.

A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.

How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975–2001, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.


(Editor with Gloria Bird) Reinventing the Enemy's Language: North American Native Women's Writing, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.

The Good Luck Cat (children's fiction), illustrated by Paul Lee, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2000.

Also author of the film script Origin of Apache Crown Dance, Silver Cloud Video, 1985; coauthor of the film script The Beginning, Native American Broadcasting Consortium; author of television plays, including We Are One, Uhonho, 1984, Maiden of Deception Pass, 1985, I Am Different from My Brother, 1986, and The Runaway, 1986. Contributor to numerous anthologies and to several literary journals, including Conditions, Beloit Poetry Journal, River Styx, Tyuoyi, and Y'Bird.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A collection of personal essays.

SIDELIGHTS: Strongly influenced by her Muskogee Creek heritage, feminist and social concerns, and her background in the arts, Joy Harjo frequently incorporates Native American myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry additionally emphasizes the Southwest landscape and the need for remembrance and transcendence. She once commented, "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." In answer to a question from Pam Kingsbury for the Southern Scribe, Harjo remarked, "I am most often defined by others as: Native American, feminist, western, southwestern, primarily. I define myself as a human writer, poet and musician, a Muskoke writer (etc.)—and I'm most definitely of the west, southwest, Oklahoma and now my path includes LA and Honolulu … it throws the definition, skews it. It would be easier to be seen, I believe, if I fit into an easy category, as in for instance: The New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beats—or even as in more recently, the slam poets. But I don't."

Harjo's work is largely autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and her preoccupation with survival and the limitations of language. Her first volume of poetry was published in 1975 as a nine-poem chapbook titled The Last Song. These early compositions, mainly set in Oklahoma and New Mexico, reveal Harjo's remarkable power and insight, especially as evident in the title poem, "The Last Song," and in "3 AM." Harjo wrote in "3 AM" about an exasperating airport experience: "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 our way back home." Commenting on "3 AM" in World Literature Today, John Scarry wrote that the poem "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…. 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."

What Moon Drove Me to This?, Harjo's first full-length volume of poetry, appeared four years later and includes the entire contents of The Last Song. "With this collection," C. Renee Field wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Harjo continued to refine her ability to find and voice the deep spiritual truths underneath everyday experiences, especially for the Native American." In an interview with Laura Coltelli in Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, Harjo shares the creative process behind her poetry: "I begin with the seed of an emotion, a place, and then move from there…. 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."

The search for freedom and self-actualization considered central to Harjo's work, is particularly noted in her third book of poetry, She Had Some Horses, in which she frequently incorporates prayer-chants and animal imagery. For example, in "The Black Room," a poem about childhood rape, Harjo repeats the mantric line "She thought she woke up." In the title poem, "She Had Some Horses," one of Harjo's most highly regarded and anthologized poems, she describes the "horses" within a woman who struggles to reconcile contradictory personal feelings and experiences to achieve a sense of oneness. The poem concludes: "She had some horses she loved. / She had some horses she hated. / These were the same horse." As Field observed, "The horses are spirits, neither male nor female, and, through them, clear truths can be articulated." As Scarry noted, "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."

Nature is central to Harjo's works, as evident in her 1989 prose poetry collection Secrets from the Center of the World. Each poem in this volume is accompanied by a color photograph of the Southwest landscape, which, as Margaret Randall noted in Women's Review of Books, works to "create an evocative little gem, intensely personal, hauntingly universal." Offering praise for the volume in the Village Voice, Dan Bellm wrote, "Secrets is a rather unlikely experiment that turned into a satisfying and beautiful book…. As Harjo notes, the pictures 'emphasize the "not-separate" that is within and that moves harmoniously upon the landscape.'" According to Randall, "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." Bellm similarly added, "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."

Her best-known volume, the multiaward-winning In Mad Love and War, 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 the murder of an Indian leader as well as others' attempts to deny Harjo her heritage, Harjo explores the difficulties many Native Americans face in modern American society: "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." The second half of the book frequently emphasizes personal relationships and change.

"Harjo's range of emotion and imagery in this volume is truly remarkable," wrote Scarry. "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." In the poem "Autobiography," a mother describes to her daughter how God created humans to inhabit the earth. In another, "Javelina," Harjo invokes the strong voice of "one born of a blood who wrestled the whites for freedom, and I have since lived dangerously in a diminished system." Leslie Ullman noted in the Kenyon Review, "Like a 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." Commenting on "Javelina," Ullman added that Harjo's "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." Praising the volume in the Prairie Schooner, Kathleen West wrote, "In Mad Love and War has the power of beauty and 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."

In 1994, Harjo followed In Mad Love and War with The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, another book of prose poetry. The title is based on an Iroquois myth about the descent of a female creator. As Frank Allen noted in Library Journal, Harjo is concerned with the vying forces of creation and destruction in contemporary society, embodied in such symbolism as wolves and northern lights contrasted with alcoholism and the Vietnam War. Booklist reviewer Pat Monaghan praised the poems as "stunning, mature, wholehearted, musical," and the collection together as a "brilliant, unforgettable book."

A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales includes a long introduction and much commentary with the poems. As a Publishers Weekly reviewer described, "A facing-page dialogue between poetry and prose, the absorbing long poem 'Returning from the Enemy,' attempts to reconcile memories of the poet's absent father with memories of her own children, of ancestors and of 'each trigger of grass:' 'We want to know if it's possible to separate and come back together, as the river licking the dock merges with the sea a few blocks away. / Long-legged birds negotiate the shore for food. / I am not as graceful as these souls.'"

How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975–2001, in the words of a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "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." Including poems from every previous collection, How We Became Human, according to Pam Kingsbury of the Library Journal, "explores the role of the artist in society, the quest for love, the links among the arts, what constitutes family, and what it means to be human. Using the chant/myth/storytelling forms of her ancestors, she draws the reader into the awareness that 'one people is related to another.'" The same Publishers Weekly critic remarked that Harjo "contends that poetry is not only a way to save the sanity of those who have been oppressed to the point of madness, but that it is a tool to rebuild communities and, ultimately, change the world: 'All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.' Alive with compassion, pain and love, this book is unquestionably an act of kindness." Harjo is currently writing a book of stories that is half-memoir, half-fiction and working on a book project with Laguna Pueblo photographer Lee Marmon.

Harjo has also branched out into children's fiction with The Good Luck Cat. School Library Journal reviewer Joy Fleischhacker recommended the story of a cat that has outlived eight of its nine lives: "Harjo's text presents some striking images while still maintaining a be-lievably childlike tone. The realistic acrylic paintings beautifully convey both action scenes (Woogie falling from a tree) and quiet moments (the hopeful girl placing her missing pet's bowl and toys on the back step). Lee has a knack for capturing the cat's agility and suppleness. Details woven into the story and pictures provide a glimpse of the protagonist's Native American heritage." A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed, "Harjo combines a childlike voice with a command of detail and imagery ('When I pet her she purrs as if she has a drum near her heart')."

In addition to her fictional works, Harjo has done much to popularize other Native American women writers. An interview with Laura Coltelli, published as Spiral of Memory: Interviews: Joy Harjo, appeared in 1997 and offers additional insight into the writer's background, art, and views on poetry. And in Reinventing the Enemy's Language: North American Native Women's Writing, Harjo presents a collection of stories that act to spur readers to social and political activism. The works, from such authors as Louise Erdrich and diarist Mary Brave Bird, present a new genre, according to Progressive contributor Mark Anthony Rolo, but rather than faddish, it is "a new sphere of storytelling, part of a larger hidden culture. These writers immunize us against the plague of marginalization. Their growing acceptance is a shift away from the Western literary canon. Perhaps this is the kind of politics Harjo and Bird should lobby for in the second volume of North American native women's writings."

Consistently praised for the depth and thematic concerns in her writings, Harjo has emerged as a major figure in contemporary American poetry. Sometimes, for taking a position on numerous political, social, economic, and humanitarian issues, she has received criticism for being overly "politically correct." But, as Field noted, "She does not tell her reader how to feel but simply tells the truth she sees. Harjo's poetry is not so much about 'correctness' as it is about continuance and survival." 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. Bellm asserted: "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." According to Field, "To read the poetry of Joy Harjo is to hear the voice of the earth, to see the landscape of time and timelessness, and, most important, to get a glimpse of people who struggle to understand, to know themselves, and to survive."

Paula Gunn Allen in The Sacred Hoop stated that Harjo's "thrust, in her work … is toward reconciliation of the polarities into an order that is harmonious, balanced, and whole." Harjo "articulates her certain understanding of the spherical unity of the universe, its essential 'spiritness,'… in her poetry" and, quoting her: "I have this image. It's not a generator, it's not a power plant. But it's like they have these different points in between. So it's a place, it's a poem, like a globular, like a circle with center points all over. And poems are like that. They have circuits."

Commenting on her writing as a means of survival, Harjo told Coltelli, "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." Field noted, "As Harjo has continued to refine her craft, her poems have become visions, answers to age-old questions, keys to understanding the complex nature of twentieth-century American life, and guides to the past and the future."

Harjo told CA: "I agree with Gide that most of what is created is beyond us, is from that source of utter creation, the Creator, or God. We are technicians here on Earth, but also co-creators. I'm still amazed. And I still say, after writing poetry for all this time, and now music, that ultimately humans have a small hand in it. We serve it. We have to put ourselves in the way of it, and get out of the way of ourselves. And we have to hone our craft so that the form in which we hold our poems, our songs in attracts the best.

"My particular road is not about taking established forms and developing them. I admire a finely constructed sonnet but I do not wish to work in that Euro-classical form. I honor that direction, but I am working to find my own place and one who is multicultural, multiracial. I am influenced by Muscogean forms, European and African forms, as well as others that have deeply moved me, say for instance, Navajo. When I began writing poetry as a painting major at the University of New Mexico, I was learning Navajo language. It influenced me deeply because intimate to the language were the shapes of the landscape, the history. I became aware of layers of meaning marked by sandhills, by the gestures of the earth.

"African-American influences in poetry and music have been critical to my development as a writer and musician. This is not something new. There is history and a relationship between Africans and Muscogean peoples begun in the southeastern U.S. We've influenced each other, yet this influence is rarely talked about. I can hear the African influence in our stomp dance music, and can hear Muscogean influence in jazz, the blues, and rock. It's all there.

"I have also taken up saxophone and perform professionally with my band. I am asked often about how music has informed my poetry, changed it. It's difficult to say exactly, except to acknowledge that of course it has all along. The first poetry I heard and recognized as pure poetry was the improvised line of a trumpet player on a jazz tune on the radio when I was four years old. That was it. I've been trying to get it right ever since. Sometimes I hear the origin of that line when I'm at the stomp grounds. One of these days I'll be able to sing it, write it." Harjo's interest in music has taken the form of combining poetry and song, poetry and saxophone, and she tours with her band, Poetic Justice.



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Harjo, Joy, She Had Some Horses, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1983.

Harjo, Joy, In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

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PAL: Perspectives in American Literature—A Research and Reference Guide, http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap10/harjo.html/ (March 10, 2004).

Poetry Magazine, http://www.poetrymagazine.com/ (March 3, 2003).

Southern Scribe, http://www.southernscribe.com/ (March 3, 2003), interview with Harjo.


The Power of the Word (video), with Bill Moyers, PBS Video (Alexandria, VA), 1989.