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Meet Joy Harjo, The 1st Native American U.S. Poet Laureate


The United States has its first Native American poet laureate. This week, the Library of Congress awarded that honor to Joy Harjo.


Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She grew up in Oklahoma and has been writing poetry since the 1970s. She's also an author and a musician. Noel talked with Harjo about her work and her life.


Congratulations on your appointment.

JOY HARJO: Thank you. It was quite a surprise, and it's been quite a shock and a shift. But it's very exciting because it highlights, certainly, poetry. And it highlights natives in this country and the accomplishments of natives and native poets.

KING: Let me start by asking you how you came to be the poet laureate of America. Did you grow up in a household where you could say things like, I want to be a poet when I grow up?

HARJO: I didn't know any poets. And we didn't have poets in our neighborhoods. And the careers for girls were limited. You could be a secretary, a teacher, a nurse or a bride. Yet, you know, in my household, I grew up with music. My mother wrote songs. And we often had musicians in our home, so I saw that, definitely, as a possibility. And I also had the art of my grandmother, Naomi Harjo, a Muscogee Creek woman, and my aunt, Lois Harjo. And also, my grandmother played saxophone in Indian territory before Oklahoma was a state, so I knew from very early on. I would say, I want to be an artist.

KING: Where in Oklahoma did you grow up?

HARJO: In Tulsa.

KING: In Tulsa. And when did you start writing poetry?

HARJO: I think the very first poem I wrote I - was because an eighth-grade teacher wanted all of us to write something so she could submit them to a statewide journal. So she came into the classroom and said, everybody write a poem. But we said, we don't know how to write a poem. How do you write a poem? And she just said, just write one. She didn't really say much.

KING: Huh.

HARJO: And my poem disappeared into obscurity. And - although, I did get honorable mention for a story. And I don't even remember what that was about. But it wasn't until I was actually a student at Indian School, which was the Institute of American Indian Arts, which at that time, in the late '60s, was a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. And in one of my classrooms, we still had the stoves that were used the generation before to teach female students apartment living so they could clean for people in town.

KING: No kidding.

HARJO: Yeah, and there was still the dairy - parts of a dairy barn out back, where they taught the boys dairy farming. But when I went there, there was a kind of a renaissance of contemporary native art. That generation I was in shifted the whole narrative of native art in this country, so it was a very exciting time to be there. But, no, I didn't write poetry there. I wound up in one of the first all-native drama and dance troupes. But I wrote terrible, terrible songs for an all-native acid rock band. They were...

KING: Acid rock.

HARJO: Yes. And then later, after I went home back to Oklahoma - to Tahlequah, actually - had a son as a teenage mother and then moved back to New Mexico and went to the University of New Mexico. And there, for the first time, in the early '70s, I heard native poets.

KING: For a listener who hasn't read your work before, what do you think makes you distinct?

HARJO: That's always one of the hardest questions that I will - yeah. So I guess I can say what motivates me. And a sense of justice has always motivated me; that indigenous people were the original peoples, and yet, often, we're not present at the table or our voices are not heard. And the other thing that motivates me utterly is the need for healing.

KING: You're 68 now.

HARJO: I think so.


HARJO: Somewhere in that neighborhood, yeah.

KING: Does it get easier to write as you get older?

HARJO: I don't think so. I remember asking the poet Audre Lorde that question as I so looked up to her. And I said, Audre, does it get any easier? And I was hoping that she would say, yes. And she said in her very low voice - it was like, no, honey.


HARJO: No, it doesn't. In fact, it gets more complex because of the different layers - how history piles upon history and piles upon history and the intricacies of human beings and the art form and all of that.

KING: Joy Harjo, the new United States poet laureate and the first Native American to receive that honor.

Joy, thank you so much for talking to us today. It's been a pleasure.

HARJO: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.