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The Thirst for Artistic Brilliance

An Interview with Joy Harjo

By Pam Kingsbury


Joy Harjo belongs to the Muscogee Nation and is the author seven collections of poetry, most recently How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. She was named this year's winner of the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. The award recognizes a body of work contributing to Oklahoma's literary heritage.


Where did you grow up? At what age did you know that you wanted to be an writer/artist/musician?

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be an artist.  My first urges were to draw and sing.  My grandmother Naomi Harjo was a painter and we had her paintings in our house.  I found great refuge in the act of drawing--to move into that creative space engaged my spirit in a way nothing else did at that very young age.  I got in trouble for decorating the walls of the garage with chalk drawings.  I also covered the closet of the kidĻs bedroom with my art.  My mother was the singer, so we had music and her voice often holding our home together.  I loved listening, and loved singing--privately. When other girl children my age were making plans to be teachers, nurses and brides (yes brides) -- I was always the only one who wanted to be an artist. 

You have family connections in Alabama.

Yes, I have family connections in Alabama.  My great-great (and between two and three more greats) grandfather was Menawa, or Monahwee as we spell it in Oklahoma. He and the Redsticks fought Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  He was later removed to Oklahoma, despite his attempts to keep his people in their homelands in what is now known as Alabama and Georgia.  My cousin George Coser, Jr. says he's buried near Eufaula, Oklahoma, but recently I received an email from someone from Alabama, I believe, claiming descendency, who says Monahwee was buried in Kansas. Monahweeís story is a story I wish to pursue for a full length feature film..... This whole western hemisphere is Indian country.  There are amazing stories that form our history, but so much has been told by those who flatten and stereotype anything Indian.  Often those who stereotype are our own people. 

Let's talk about your time at IAIA (the Institute of American Indians Arts in Santa Fe, NM), UNM (University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, NM) and the Iowa Writer's Workshop?  How did you feel about the workshop? Have your feelings changed with distance? 

This question could be a book, in fact, some of it will be.  Iím currently working on a book of stories and many take place in those Indian school years, which was a time of great creative inspiration married with great despair.  IAIA was an Indian boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  In 1967 IAIA was a high school with a couple of years of postgraduate study.  Students came from all over the U.S. -- from Alaska, NY, Florida, everywhere.  Many of us were from Oklahoma. We were all art majors from many different disciplines. I was there because of my artwork and at that time (my mother reminded me recently) I was drawing fashions.  I had forgotten.  She remembers that many of my designs later appeared in the fashion world.  I had tapped into something.  Later I became a drama and dance major and toured with one of the first all native drama and dance troupes. I was one of the leads.  This was a time of a tremendous awareness of ourselves as native peoples with We questioned... came to the conclusion that our cultural knowledge and exploration and creativity was our strength, and eventually I came to the conclusion, as did many others, that the wars within ourselves--whatever their source: colonization, the pressure of acculturation, and the ensuing family problems were our ultimate strength, made us allies.

To be accepted into the Iowa Writers Workshop was quite a coup, and I went because it was considered the best writers workshop in the country.  I had applied to four graduate programs and all of them except Iowa had offered me some kind of assistance, including graduate assistantships, scholarships.  I basically drove into Iowa City with two children and all that we owned in the back of a small Japanese-made truck, and the promise of some assistance from the EOP programs.  We knew no one, and there was no visible Indian community.  I was torn away from the familiar and in a vulnerable position so Iím sure that set my lens. 

The first workshop the fall of 1976 was with a very well-known poet whose work I now admire.  Then I didnít know her poetry; my catalogue of knowledge consisted nearly entirely of western U.S., non-European American, African, and Latin American poets.   At UNM I was within eight hours of a BFA degree in Studio Art, painting and drawing. The poetry thing came later.  Because of her I considered quitting, walking away in the first month of the workshop, so did Sandra Cisneros, a Mexican-American poet from Chicago.  I was the only Indian.

Every week a worksheet of poems appeared in the English Department for each poetry workshop.  The poems on the sheet were chosen from submissions from the respective classes.  After nearly a month Sandra and I realized that neither of us had poems appear on the worksheet; we were the only ones in our class whose work had been ignored.  We decided to approach the poet teaching our workshop together.  We walked that sacred hall to her office, our sense of injustice making us brave.  We knocked and stood at the door.  At our appearance she flinched and made ready to run. We backed out.  The next week we had work on the worksheets. 

It became immediately obvious that I spoke a very different language, arrived in Iowa from a sensibility that was tribal, western, female and intuitive, a sensibility different than most of the other workshop participants.  I envied their excellent educations, their long study of poetry, their confidence in their knowledge, their art.  There was no place to comfortably fit in a literary canon that was male and white.  For sustenance several of us organized a Third World Writing Workshop.  It included Sandra Cisneros, Kambone Obayani, an African-American novelist and horn player; and Pam Durban, a southern white woman writer, and Ricardo from south Texas who was the only workshop participant who wasnít in the writing workshop.  He was a graduate student in the rhetoric program of the English Department.   I also occasionally took part in a feminist writing workshop at the universityís womenís center.  Other workshop students and faculty were inspiration and support, including Dennis Mathis, a brilliant fiction writer and painter, Jayne Anne Phillips, also in fiction, and Rosalyn Drexler a playwright, painter and novelist from New York who was one a visiting writer in the fiction program.  I also spent most of my time the first year with the writers who were part of the International Writing Program.  They included Leon Agusta, a poet from Indonesia and Danarto, a playwright also from Indonesia.  Being with them felt like home.

The workshop atmosphere was a struggle as I felt a stranger there.  Later I compared notes with those who felt so much at the center of the program, were outspoken, lauded.  I was surprised that they too expressed similar sentiments.  We were all there to be writers and the workshop was a crucible, a shop to forge writers for a competitive writing world.  We were linked in that struggle, that thirst for knowledge, for artistic brillianceÖ 

The last semester of my two years there four of us were chosen to read our work to possible private funders for the workshop program. There were two men and two women, evenly divided between poetry and fiction.  Jack Leggett introduced the writing program and then the student readers.  I distinctly remember him emphasize that the program was primarily for male writers. 

I am often asked by my writing students and by young writers around the country regarding my experience at Iowa because they are interested in attending.  I always tell them that the workshop was a useful technical school, probably the best.  I had to nourish my soul otherwise. 

Who are the writers who have influenced you? 

I would have to begin with singers first who drew attention to lyric bound to music.  They are Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole.  Also Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Jim Pepper. 

When I began writing it was first Simon Ortiz, the Acoma Pueblo poet, then Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, Leslie Silko, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, especially Audre Lorde, and some African writers including Okot bíPitek and Amos Tutuola.  Also, Galway Kinnell.  His The Book of Nightmares is brilliant and necessary.  There are many others, too.

How do you define yourself as a writer?

I take that to mean, am I of a particular school, a particular persuasion? 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 Mvskoke writer (etc) ---and Iím most definitely of the west, southwest, Oklahoma and now my path includes LA and 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 donít--

Do you have any particular discipline/writing routine?

Itís often difficult given my erratic schedule.  When I am on a deadline schedule I write in the morning, which will often lead into the afternoon. Otherwise itís usually morning, before the logical mind takes control, and then I work on music in the afternoon.  The music usually has to wait because a saxophone is loud and everywhere Iíve lived has assured me a live audience --so I practice music in the afternoon, when most people are at work.  Here in Honolulu I live on a slope that is dense with housesósound travels.  If I am too late getting to sax practice I assume that I am giving a concert, and will often pull out jazz standards and play a dinner show! The birds like it.

All this to say, that discipline is important.  I believe Colette said: ďDiscipline is the key to freedom.Ē

Talk about your publishing experiences--youĻve published chapbooks with small presses as well as an anthology with a major press...What are you currently working on? Do you have books in the pipeline?

My last three books were with Norton, a major publisher.  My first book, The Last Song was a chapbook from Puerto Del Sol Press, the next two: What Moon Drove Me to This? and She Had Some Horses were published by independent presses respectively, I. Reed Books (Ishmael Reed and Steve Cannonís imprint, no longer viable) and Thunderís Mouth Books (now a subsidiary of Avalon Books.) The next two were issued from university presses: Secrets From the Center of the World, the University of Arizona Press, and In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press. 

Iíve been lucky as all the publishers, from She Had Some Horses, on have kept the books in print.  I did try to first publish both Horses and Mad Love with Norton but both were rejected, rather eloquently.  The third I sent manuscript I sent them, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, was accepted.  I have been publishing with them ever since. How We Became Human, New and Selected Poems was published in July 2002.  A book of stories is forthcoming.  I am also working on two new CD projects.

How does teaching influence writing?

I've taught intermittently since I graduated from Iowa.  My first position was as an instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, which was a two-year fine arts school.  ItĻs first incarnation was as a BIA boarding school turned into a fine arts high school, and is where I obtained my high school degree. 

Later I did a few stints as adjunct, then positions at the University of Colorado, Boulder and University of Arizona where I was tenured.  Next I was a full tenured professor at the University of New Mexico, then left teaching for about six years.  I wanted to concentrate on my music, and managed to make a living performing and writing.  Winter quarter of 1998 I was a visiting writer at UCLA and in then I taught again at UCLA this most recent fall and spring quarter, as a visiting professor in American Indian Studies and English. 

Teaching can feed the writing; it can also be detrimental.  What feeds me is the research for each class, each course and the interaction with students. Discipline and intuition walk together and can even engender flight. Detriment can occur with department and university-wide politics, with large classes and huge numbers of pages to read, with balancing the needs of teaching with your own work.  Most of us who are teaching artists are always in the middle of creative projects, which is why we are hired in the first place. 

The fall quarter begins in a few weeks.  I just picked out the students for my workshop, based on their submitted manuscripts.  Because the set of a boxed book with CD I wanted is not available and I didnít find out until last week I will now have to rethink the syllabus--actually, I think it will work out better.  Having read the students' poems I can better surmise what each ones needs, the poetsí work that will challenge, resonate for each one... 

In my workshops I stress the importance of reading and studying poetry, as well as the need for the practice of the art.  Half the workshop is in discussion of the assigned readings.  The other half discussion of studentsí own poetry.  Technical development is crucial but isnít everything.  If there's no soul, there's no poetry..... 

Talk about making the move from writing into music. 

Poetry and music belong together--they came into the world together, they will leave together.  If you want to get technical, then dance belongs as part of the equation.  Every culture has a traditional base configured of poetry-music-dance, some of it secular, much of it sacred.  Mvskoke philosophy can be gleaned from that base of such expression as can Greek,

other European, African, all cultures--At the Iowa Workshop the prevailing rule was that to embellish a poem or poetry with emotive expression was to tarnish the expression of it, to get in the way of the words.  This has metamorphed into the text-without-human-connection mode of thinking about poetry, about the making of literature. Sad, I think.  It must be a lonely world, that world. 

Adding saxophone is another thing--and I took up saxophone in my very late thirties.  Like writing it's a demanding discipline.  Demands practice, study and more practice.  And faith, maybe faith is the prevalent force. And a love for the music, for the poetry, for the complexity of this strange and terrible place. 

In 1989 I started with Keith Stoutenburg in Tucson.  We put together a little combo.  He was on guitar, keyboard and voice, I played horn and spoke.  We used the poems as a jumping off place.  Later I hooked up with Susan Williams, we brought in Zimbabwe Nkenya to play bass.  Zimbabwe is a way out, on the edge outside jazz player.  With him we performed the first version of Anna Mae for a national NPR program.  Then Susanís brother John moved to Albuquerque and we began Poetic Justice.  Sometimes weíd work the music around the poems.  Other times Iíd bend the poems around the music, rewrite, add choruses, or a bridge.  Since then Iíve written poems to go with particular vamps or melodies.  Since, too, Iíve started another band, tentatively called, The Real Revolution. 

What books do you recommend for young/novice writers? 

I recommend that they read and hear poetry, from contemporary back through ancient times.  That they listen to poetry, too, the poetry read from books, poetry performed, poetry that never finds its way in books.  Most literature of the world isnít in books. 

What books do you recommend for readers who may be unfamiliar with Native American writers/writing? 

Where do I start?  For fiction there's Leslie Silko, everything from her stories in the collection Storyteller to Ceremony to her latest, Garden in the Dunes; Greg Sarris, Grand Avenue and Watermelon Nights,  James Welch's novels, Louise Erdrich, especially Love Medicine and her most recent novel and there are more that I will wish had come to me on this late Monday afternoon...  For poetry, one of my favorite poets is Ray Young Bear, a Meskwaki poet; Simon Ortiz; thereís Sherman Alexie who is a good poet, a better poet than fiction writer or screenwriter; I like Elizabeth Cook-Lynnís most recent book of poetry---thatís a start. ..Roberta Whiteman is excellent, too. 

Where do you see your career in ten years? Twenty years? 

I feel like Iím just beginning to find my way to my best work.  Itís about process. 

You've written ďpoetry is synonymous with truth telling,Ē would you care to elaborate?

The artists: the poets, musicians, painters, dancers make art from truth. Art that forges new paths, new insight, inspiration comes from the raw stuff floating in the connections between humans, animals, plants, stars, all life.  Poets are the talk-singers, we find our art in the space between the words.  There is where the truth lies. 

I also consider the African griots, those whose poetry is shaped particularly to tell the truth, whatever the cost. 

Youíve been described as a mystic ....

The poet, too, can be a mystic, and I consider a mystic as one who sees beyond the obvious world, and moves accordingly.  That is where my poetry has taken me and continues to lead me. 

What do you believe/feel/know lies at the heart of your body of work? 

Compassion.  Joy.

Joy Harjo Official Web Site


Selected Works of Joy Harjo

How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001. W.W. Norton, 2002. ISBN: 0393051013

A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales. W.W. Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393320960

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: Poems. W.W. Norton, 1996. ISBN: 039331362X

In Mad Love and War. Wesleyan University Press, 1990. ISBN: 081951182X


© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved