Muscogee (Creek) poet Joy Harjo is the first ever Native to win the prestigious Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, which bestows the honor annually “to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.”
Harjo’s most recent collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, comes out this month from W.W. Norton. Her memoir, Crazy Brave (W.W. Norton, 2012), won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction.
The spiritual connection that Harjo brings to her work fed into her being chosen for this award, the Academy of American Poets noted.
“Throughout her extraordinary career as poet, storyteller, musician, memoirist, playwright and activist, Joy Harjo has worked to expand our American language, culture, and soul,” said Academy of American Poets Chancellor Alicia Ostriker in a statement about the lifetime achievement award, which comes with a $100,000 stipend.
“A Creek Indian and student of First Nation history, Harjo is rooted simultaneously in the natural world, in earth—especially the landscape of the American Southwest—and in the spirit world,” Ostriker said. “Aided by these redemptive forces of nature and spirit, incorporating Native traditions of prayer and myth into a powerfully contemporary idiom, her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”
The poet, author, activist and performer, also a professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On the day the prizes were announced, Harjo spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about being chosen. Though she had known of her nomination for a few months, she told ICTMN, she was stunned to learn she had won.
You’re home in Oklahoma. What’s it like right now, how do you feel?
I had no idea. Never in a million years. I am deeply, deeply moved … and honored. I feel like it’s a doorway for Native writers, poets and women. Not many women have won this award and no Natives. I am stunned. It’s still not fixed… in my thinking.
This must be a special moment for you and your family. What does all this mean to you right now?
It’s for my Mom, my teachers, it’s for the kids coming up, for the Native poets, and it’s for ALL the young writers coming up. Everything is poetry. It’s all poetry, it’s all in the words, in songs, in lyrics. My Mom used to write songs. Poetry is like singing to me. Even on paper.
You speak of the power of poetry but you also thought you would be a painter, some kind of artist … when did poetry start to grab ahold of you?
I did do art. I paint and I draw. I had to, to get accepted into the BIA Indian School [the Institute of American Indian Arts. Oh, I did bad poems and songs, acid rock songs. They said I was the shyest kid at IAIA…and that’s saying a lot. It wasn’t until I was a UNM [University of New Mexico] student, and heard Simon [Ortiz] read. It was like, I had never really heard a Native person reading with that immediacy of our politics and our lives. It was like the spirit of poetry needed me, to learn how to listen and then how to speak.
At that time, there was a Native Political Consciousness that was just happening. It was going on, but I was just hearing it and just listening. Even stories from my family that they had listened to and talked to Tecumseh and the Redsticks. These Indians who were faced with overwhelming power, they did not stop, they stood up. We don’t come into this world by ourselves.
We needed to just speak about our lives, what’s going on in our lives. Natives and Women, like the poet Ai [a poet and teacher who described herself as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche.] She carried all of this, like we all do. At that time, women and multicultural poets like Ishmael Reed were reading their stories. I needed to learn, to listen, and to write. To me it was about justice, at some level. You had to follow your heart.
This was all around me, it was in my first chapbook, The Last Song, then What Moon Drove Me to This, and then She Had Some Horses, my first big book. There’s something about this now. Generations coming together. Ideas we can thrive on, culturally, spiritually. It’s for the next generation, we are food to grow the next generation. It’s for the spirits.
I came to realize that as poets we just write songs. So, we have to take it all on, these stages of life, every seven years, create community, be creative, and make art. You have to open up, accept frailty, failure, there’s really no failure, you’re learning, it’s like sketches. You are giving back, like breathing, like life, like death, you take that place in the circle, part of the gift is to give back. And you are really giving forward.
This award.… It’s an Acknowledgement.… It’s a Doorway…. It’s a Possibility.
I’d like to announce that Ken Johnson, Sandy Wilson are forming a Mvskoke Arts Association to support Arts in the Muskogean Community, we’ll have programs coming up by next year. Now I’m getting excited. Yeah, we did some shows at Indian Market in Santa Fe, it’s always stressful at first but it was fun, and now we’ll be back in Albuquerque for GLOBAL-QUERQUE on September 25.
“Harjo” means “so brave you’re crazy.” When she won, her sentiments all came pouring out into a Facebook post. The following comes from the statement she posted on September 10, which she gave ICTMN permission to excerpt.
I’ve learned that poetry could heal the broken heart…. It can assist in healing humans, creatures, plants and countries. It speaks unspeakable truths. Poetry is almost always present at those major transitions in our lives: birth, marriage, death, and…. love. It assists in healing my tribal nation. It’s poetry being sung at the ceremonial grounds or in the Creek churches, and because of it we feel ourselves moving together into a greater understanding despite the struggles, the battles. It is one of the toughest teachers. It teaches us how to listen, to even the most difficult truths.
I will accept this honor on behalf of those who follow. My newest collection opens with the poetry of two granddaughters, Haleigh Sara Bush and Desiray Chee. Generations of young poets are following who fearlessly sing and speak that which we need to hear to keep moving into understandings that will grow the human soul.
And, by the way, don’t worry about what a poem means. Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen.