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Joy Harjo is a poet, scriptwriter, and musician. Strongly influenced by her Muskogee Creek heritage, feminist ideology, and background in the arts, 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.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Rural Oklahoma Beginning
Joy Harjo was born on May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Allen W. and Wynema Baker Foster. She is of French, Irish, and Cherokee descent on her mother’s side, and Muscogee (Creek) on her father’s. Harjo, who is a registered member of her father’s tribe, the Muscogee Creeks, credits her great-aunt, Lois Harjo Ball, with teaching her about her Indian identity.
Harjo’s interest in writing reflects the influence of both of her parents. Her mother composed unpublished country songs, while her father came from a long line of tribal speakers and leaders. In ”Writing with the Sun,” an autobiographical essay, Harjo says that her interest in poetry was stirred when her mother gave her a Louis Untermeyer anthology as an eighth birthday present. She also credits her interest in poetry to predawn walks outdoors around her family home, explaining that she sang with the dawn chorus of birds and insects to guide the sunrise. ”That combination of voices,” she says, ”was poetry, and therein was my first understanding of poetry.”
A Painter Becomes a Poet
Harjo knew from an early age that she wanted to be involved in the arts. Initially, however, she wanted to follow in the steps of her grandmother and great-aunt and become a painter. Painting, rather than poetry, was her first artistic love.
At age sixteen, Harjo attended boarding school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here, her talents as an artist were encouraged. A year later, Harjo had a son, Phil Dayn. After graduation, the young mother moved back to Oklahoma, joined a Native American dance troupe, and worked a series of odd jobs before pursuing a college education.
It was when she was in her early twenties that Harjo first began to consider herself a writer. She was enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico and raising two small children. (Her daughter, Rainy Dawn, was born in 1973). Upon hearing American poet Galway Kinnell and Native American writers Simon Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko read from their works, Harjo was inspired to change her major from painting to poetry.
Inspired by the Southwest
As an undergraduate, Harjo completed her first poetry collection, a nine-poem chapbook titled The Last Song (1975). Most of the poems are set in either Oklahoma or New Mexico and are often linked to the landscape and to the idea of survival. Though the poems have a definite modern feel, their roots in the red-dirt country of Oklahoma are obvious. The poems reflect her strong connection to the landscape, history, and native people of the Southwest.
In 1976, Harjo completed her degree in English at the University of New Mexico, and two years later she earned a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Iowa. In 1978 she also won the first of two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. In her introduction to How We Became Human, Harjo says that during these years she read the work of many American and international poets, including Richard Hugo, Audre Lorde, Okot p’Bitek, and Pablo Neruda. She attended multicultural poetry readings in New York City and in Amsterdam, expanding her awareness and knowledge of world poetry.
Travel and Other Ventures
The late 1970s and early 1980s was a busy time for Harjo. She published her first full-length book of poetry, What Moon Drove Me to This? in 1979. She also served on the editorial staff of several literary magazines, among them Contact II and High Plains Literary Review. Furthermore, she branched out into a new form of writing: scriptwriting. She wrote scripts for television shows and a movie called Origin of Apache Crown Dance (1985). In addition to her writing projects, Harjo traveled abroad and met other indigenous poets.
In 1989 Harjo collaborated with Stephen Strom on the critically acclaimed Secrets from the Center of the World. In this volume, Strom’s striking photographs of Navajo country in the Four Corners area are accompanied by Harjo’s prose poetry. A year later, Harjo published In Mad Love and War (1990), which won many accolades and prizes, including the American Book Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and the Del-more Schwartz Memorial Award, all in 1991. The book’s success solidified her position as a major Native American poet and as an important figure in American poetry.
More Art, More Praise
Harjo continued to receive critical recognition with her next collection, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994). The poems in this collection focus on music, storytelling, the land, and human spirit.
During this time, Harjo’s involvement with the arts expanded into new areas. An avid saxophone player, Harjo experimented with setting her poems to music. She eventually formed her own band, Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, in which she plays saxophone and also recites and sings versions of her poems. With Poetic Justice, Harjo’s poems are set into a mixture of traditional Native American drumming and jazz saxophone that Harjo has called “tribal-jazz-reggae.”
By 1998, Harjo’s many artistic accomplishments had earned her the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. Sponsored by a 1998 grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, Harjo worked with Atlatl, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to literature in Native American communities.
Harjo eventually traveled to Hawaii where she currently resides. She maintains a faculty appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is currently listed as a professor in the English department. Harjo continues to write poetry, travel with her two bands, Poetic Justice and Real Revolution, and present her poetry around the world.
Works in Literary Context
Harjo’s work is largely autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and preoccupation with transcendence, survival, and the limitations of language. The search for freedom, self-actualization, and nature are central to her poetry.
Imagery and Symbolism
Harjo’s work is replete with symbolic images, especially animals such as horses and crows. The collection She Had Some Horses (1983) is filled with horses: prehistoric horses, black horses, blue horses, running horses, drowning horses, and ice horses. These different kinds of horses represent types of people, from those who willingly serve others to those who are aloof and self-centered. Harjo has said the horses represent ”different aspects of probably any person.” In her poems, horses also serve as mediators between external and internal forces, since, in the words of Harjo, ”they make swift connections between wind and blood.”
Another Native American symbol Harjo incorporates in her work is the crow. Harjo says in her notes in How We Became Human that she considers crows to be ”the chorus, outlining and commenting on the unfolding drama of this world.” In ”Watching Crow, Looking South Toward the Manzano Mountains,” for example, the crow is an ambiguous, open figure, revealing edges while at the same time expanding the reader’s perspective. Crows appear throughout ”There Was a Dance, Sweetheart,” mostly as watchful, interested, yet uninvolved presences. In some of Harjo’s work, crows may be seen as an influence responsible for shaping the relationship between two characters.
Works in Critical Context
Harjo has been consistently praised for the thematic concerns of her writing, and her poetry has been included in several anthologies of Native American poetry. Southwestern imagery is dominant in her work, and she uses it to emphasize the plight of the individual and to communicate Creek values, myths, and beliefs. Though her focus is on Native Americans, critics have said that overall, her work has universal relevance. As poet Dan Bellm has put it, ”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.” While some critics have chided Harjo for being too political and for carrying a banner for too many causes at once—Harjo writes of war, peace, native concerns, economics, crime, poverty, love, hate, revolution, and death— readers have expressed fondness for her consideration of some of the most important issues of our time. Harjo’s fans also enjoy her powerful voice and clear vision, and they appreciate that she does not tell her reader how to feel but simply shares the truth as she sees it.
What Moon Drove Me to This?
What Moon Drove Me to This? includes poems filled with imagery that paints women as earth, people as horses, and wind as mother. The poems also demonstrate Harjo’s ongoing interest in Navajo horse songs. Critics praised this collection, saying it shows Harjo’s continued ability to find and voice the deep spiritual truths underlying everyday experiences, especially for Native Americans. The poems are also praised for capturing the search for freedom and self-actualization. In the poem, ”Looking Back,” for example, the full moon acts as a spirit or guide, a beacon to higher meaning and experience. Or, as critic Jim Ruppert calls it, an entrance into ”mythic space.”
In Mad Love and War
The poems in this multi-award-winning collection are rich and varied, drawing on many different areas. Harjo’s Native American voice is very present and is expressed through images of deer, laughing birds, lizards, storms, crows, and rabbits. But Harjo moves beyond these symbols and traditions to detail the lives and deaths of dreamers who failed because of circumstances or violence. The result is a collection of poetry that is appreciated by readers and critics for its passion and overt concern with politics, tradition, remembrance, and the transformational aspects of poetry.
In World Literature Today, John Scarry writes ”Harjo’s range of emotion and imagery in this volume is truly remarkable. 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.” For example, in the poem ”Autobiography,” a mother describes how God created humans to inhabit the earth. Reviewer Leslie Ullman from the Kenyon Review writes of this poem, ”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 the poem ”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.
More praise for the volume is found in the Prairie Schooner, where reviewer Kathleen West writes, “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.”
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- Bloom, Harold. Native American Women Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998.
- Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poet/Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.
- Swann, Brian, and Arnold Kurpat, eds. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
- Wilson, Norma C. The Nature of Native American Poetry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
- Byson, J. Scott. ”Finding the Way Back: Place and Space in the Poetry of Joy Harjo.” MELUS 27 (Fall 2002): 169-196.
- Lang, Nancy. ”Twin Gods Bending Over: Joy Harjo and Poetic Memory.” MELUS 18 (Fall 1993):
- Leen, Mary. ”An Art of Saving: Joy Harjo’s Poetry and the Survival of Storytelling.” American Indian Quarterly 19 (Winter 1995): 1-16.
- ”Joy Harjo.” Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http:// www.miracosta.cc.ca.us/home/gfloren/harjo.htm. Last updated on October 20, 2007.
- ”Joy Harjo.” Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http:// www.joyharjo.com/JoyHarjoHome.html. Last updated October 2008.
- ”Joy Harjo.” Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/harjo_ joy.html. Last updated on May 17, 2007.
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