Joy Harjo: Ancestor of a Poem
The acclaimed Native American artist, poet, and musician reflects on tapping into the creative source, bearing the pain of cultural appropriation, and learning to embrace fear.
Photo Credit: Karen Kuehn
With Joy Harjo named the poet laureate, we're reposting an article from 2014.
It’s not easy to catch up with Muscogee Creek artist Joy Harjo. First she’s at a poetry festival in Edmonton, Alberta. Then she’s off to New York for a ceremony celebrating her award of a Guggenheim fellowship. Known primarily as a poet, Joy is also a saxophone player, playwright, actor, and painter, and she has toured nationally in her one-woman show Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light. In fact, it’s hard to find an art form that she hasn’t worked in. She dances, writes children’s books, and has written screenplays for several movies. Yet she started her career in college as a visual artist and came to words only after seeing a television show about a shaman who used poetry as a powerful tool for healing.
Her recent memoir, Crazy Brave, chronicles her tumultuous coming-of-age with the rise of the American Indian Movement, and her own growing awareness of an inner knowing, an “intelligent light” that guided her footsteps away from the brink of danger on several key occasions and rescued her from domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and a life of poverty, setting her feet instead on the road of inner and outer freedom.
In Crazy Brave I was really struck that you were coming out as a mystic. I wondered how you negotiate going back and forth between the kind of “intelligent light” guidance that you receive and then having a very busy life as a writer, teacher, and performer in the regular world as well.
Most poets, artists, and musicians tend toward mysticism. We surface in this world, but the undergirding is not in this world. To go back and forth and in between can be a struggle. My mother said that I would always make little places around the house in which to hide. The bedroom closet in the children’s room became my headquarters. And there were places outside, behind bushes, under trees.
These were places in which to communicate with the spiritual realms, to try and begin to comprehend what I was doing in the life in which I had found myself, a young Native girl in Oklahoma with questions and experiences larger than my vocabulary.
You’ve written and spoken many times about the power of the word. What is a powerful word for you these days?
In cultures that remain deeply rooted in oral traditions, words are respected. They are seen as living beings, much like cells are living beings. The word dignity has resonated with me recently. If we act with dignity of thought and being, then we resonate with a compassionate field.
You’ve been very vocal about the artist and performer Christina Fallin and her disrespect for Native People by posing in a fake Indian headdress in March 2014. [Her mother, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin, later issued a statement criticizing her actions.]
I don’t know where to start because the issue is immense—it is a raw wound the size of this country. Indigenous people have been literally disappeared in the face of America. We usually only surface in westerns or are seen only in popular culture if we are wearing our ceremonial clothes.
Oklahoma is a state with one of the largest populations of Native peoples. Christina Fallin knows better. Her response to the outcry at her blatant desecration was to do a fake war dance onstage, wearing a shawl decorated with sheep. The sheep, she told the press, represented Native people.
My ongoing question and concern is how to handle such assaults in a manner that will result in dignity and understanding for all. Indigenous peoples have been basically disappeared from the culture except for stereotypes. The truth of history has been suppressed from general knowledge. You have to dig for the stories. We are now about one-half of 1 percent of the whole population. That small figure bears the reality of an immense holocaust over which America’s schools and churches are built.
For indigenous people it’s taken its toll, and it’s no wonder we have some of the highest suicide rates. We were charged with taking care of the respective lands on which we live. This is a deeply spiritual and absolutely necessary responsibility. When peoples have been torn away, you find the most ecological damage. This is one of the whys of climate change, superstorms, and other environmental disruptions. The caretakers were disappeared or destroyed.
The destruction has been so vast that to speak of medicine seems small, and yet you have dedicated your life to becoming medicine for these problems, especially through art.
We are all either healing or destroying by what we speak and do. Creation of art puts us in direct communication with the source of all creation, with that vast, unimaginable creative field. Art is how we know ourselves as dignified human beings.
Anyone who’s ever sat in front of a blank page, held an instrument, or is getting ready to craft or carve something out of air always eventually ponders, where does this come from, and where does it go, and what’s behind it? Some of it’s connected to ancestors. Some of it’s connected to the particular landscape or even to descendants because time is not linear. A spiral. Creativity is the alignment with the unknowable.
How does a poem start for you, or a piece of art? Do you have any rituals that you do beforehand to clear the space or to open yourself up to that energy?
I always ask for help. There’s a lot of power in asking for help. I’ve noticed that it’s important that you make a certain time commitment and keep that commitment. When you do, your help knows that you’re serious.
Do you have a time of day or a special place?
I often work at the kitchen table. Early in the morning is best for me, very early in the morning. Sometimes I work late at night. When I was a student and an art major at the University of New Mexico, I used to stay up all night to do any creative work. I had small children, and I would stay up much of the night when I painted or wrote. My daughter said recently in an interview about me, that she loved the sound of me typing poetry at night. Late night or early morning are when the airwaves are clear. When you hit eight o’clock on a weekday, you know things are gonna be jangling!
But, again, you can make space. I mean, there’s always a way to make space. I’ve learned to make space on an airplane though the plane was packed with disgruntled passengers and crying children.
You had stopped playing music when you were a child because your band teacher in junior high said girls couldn’t play sax. What was it like to pick up your instrument again at age 40 after so many years of not playing?
The music road for me has been a challenging road. I picked up a sax at a friend’s house and she showed me the G blues scale. I didn’t really start playing until a few years later, when I moved back to New Mexico and put together the band Poetic Justice. The first song I wrote was “For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit Is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars.”
I had always heard music accompanying my poetry. [But] when I took up horn in a big way, I faced much opposition from the poetry purists and from mentors who were trying to steer me in the “right” direction, away from saxophone. The saxophone is a rowdy instrument. Some thought I’d be distracted, said that my true gift is poetry. Eventually, some of these detractors became some of my greatest music fans.
Many of us want to break out of the boxes that we’ve got going at midlife.
I think that was the hardest part, was working through those crystalized societal thoughts about age and about women and saxophones. But you know, I saw Sonny Rollins is onstage at 70, and he’s still moving, singing, and making fresh improvisation! It’s important to keep you and your body moving. And stay open. And if you have a yearning for something, do it. I have found that what I’m afraid of often points me in the direction I should be headed.
Can you give an example of that?
I admired horns and horn players like Coltrane, Garbarek, Davis, and would watch and listen from a distance, as if I were watching one of those mountain waves crash the north shore of O‘ahu with surfers on them, and the surfers are the horn players. And they are in a sense, riding incredible music with their improvisations. These players are like that.
I wanted to play, but to play seemed insurmountable. I take it note by note, phrase by phrase, day by day. There are breakthroughs. I used to have terrible stage fright when I was just learning sax, and I pushed myself to perform probably before I was ready. I was performing a music/poetry show at the Tucson Poetry Festival, and I was terrified, and in the middle of the show, I stopped playing. Backstage after the show I was so humiliated I shook in shame. I had failed and humiliated myself in front of everyone.
And then my wise self emerged and said, OK, you don’t have to play saxophone, you don’t have to play at all, it’s up to you. You want to play? And I said, Yes, I do, and my spirit said, OK, then you find out a way to do it. So I started playing my saxophone at every gig, even if I played two notes.
During that whole process of learning the stage, I watched a woman who was a wonderful singer. I watched how she was with the audience. She wasn’t perfect, she was off-pitch sometimes, but she was absolutely enjoying every moment of her performance. She wasn’t analyzing every note as it went out. She was into sharing.
I’ve learned that when you just listen to the music, it will carry you. You will want to play with it. And it’s not just you. It’s a combination of the audience, the other band members, the spirit of the house, the ancestors, the spirit of the horn itself, or your voice. It’s a live creative process. It’s like flying. I’ve also learned that stage fright is really energy. It’s here to help you, to give you what you need for the transaction that goes on between an audience and a performer. So now I welcome it, because I know it’s part of the support, and I try to remember to say thank you.
I’ve noticed that a lot of times in the gigs that are gonna go great, I’ve got the most nerves. You know? You can call it nervousness, but it’s energy. The ancestors live in that energy. We all have ancestors who are speaking to us if we would only listen.
I’ve required that my students write about who are your poetry ancestors, who are your mystic ancestors, who are your bass ancestors or saxophone ancestors. And you know, that’s a way of study. Who are the ancestors of a C sharp suspended chord? You know? Who’s in that chord that I’m singing? It’s like that.
And that reminds me of your poem “I Give You Back,” where you end up embracing your fear before releasing it.
I’ve learned to try to do this every day, but I first learned it through the stage fright process. I learned to make the stage my heart. Then I learned to extend that out to the whole room, the whole building, and be grounded in the earth and to make those connections before a performance. Sometimes I have the luxury of walking the whole perimeter [before a gig], and other times I get there late because of delayed flights and almost have to be pushed right out onstage. But still, it helps me to see that it is my heart.
And the other practice is—and I think this works for everything—I just listen to the music. If I listen to the music, I’m fine. And during the day, also, just taking time to listen to the day itself. Listen to your spirit and listen to the trees. Listen to the earth. We all have ancestors who are speaking to us if we would only listen.
A Map to the Next World
BY JOY HARJO
for Desiray Kierra Chee
In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map for those who would climb through the hole in the sky.
My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens.
For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.
The map must be of sand and can’t be read by ordinary light. It must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.
In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.
Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace.
Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our children while we sleep.
Flowers of rage spring up in the depression. Monsters are born there of nuclear anger.
Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to disappear.
We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to them by their personal names.
Once we knew everything in this lush promise.
What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the map. Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us, leaving a trail of paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.
An imperfect map will have to do, little one.
The place of entry is the sea of your mother’s blood, your father’s small death as he longs to know himself in another.
There is no exit.
The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—a spiral on the road of knowledge.
You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.
They have never left us; we abandoned them for science.
And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world there will be no X, no guidebook with words you can carry.
You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song she is singing.
Fresh courage glimmers from planets.
And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.
When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us.
You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.
A white deer will greet you when the last human climbs from the destruction.
Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our tribal grounds.
We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.
We might make them again, she said.
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.
Poem from A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales by Joy Harjo. Norton, 2000. Reprinted with permission.