The Roots of Poetry Lead to Music: An Interview with Joy Harjo

By Simmons B. Buntin

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Poet and Musician Joy Harjo

Joy HarjoJoy Harjo is a multi-talented artist of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. She is an internationally known poet, performer, writer, and musician. She has published seven books of acclaimed poetry. They include She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and her most recent How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001 from W.W. Norton. Her poetry awards include the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award, Oklahoma Book Awards, 2003; The American Indian Festival of Words Author Award from the Tulsa City County Library; the 2000 Western Literature Association Distinguished Achievement Award, 1998 Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, the 1997 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas; the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She co-edited an anthology of contemporary Native women’s writing: Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Native Women’s Writing of North America. It was pronounced one of the London Observer’s Best Books of 1997; and wrote the award-winning children’s book from Harcourt, The Good Luck Cat. She also contributed poetic prose to photographs by Stephen Strom in Secrets from the Center of the World. Forthcoming is a book of stories from W.W. Norton.

She Had Some Horses, by Joy HarjoHarjo’s first music CD, Letter from the End of the 20th Century was released by Silver Wave Records in 1997. Harjo co-produced the album and is featured as poet and saxophone player. The album was honored by the First Americans in the Arts for Outstanding Musical Achievement and called by Pulse Magazine the “best dub poetry album recorded in North America.” Her recently released second CD of original songs, Native Joy for Real, crosses over many genres and has been praised for its daring brilliance. Harjo has performed internationally, from the Arctic Circle in Norway at the Riddu Riddu Festival, to Madras, India, to the Ford Theater in Los Angeles. She has been featured on Bill Moyers, The Power of the Word series, and will be featured this spring on a new Garrison Keillor show. Harjo was also the narrator for the Turner The Native Americans series and the narrator for the Emmy award-winning show, Navajo Codetalkers, for National Geographic.

Harjo’s other accomplishments include co-producer and talent of the music video “Eagle Song,” nominated for best music video at the American Indian Film Festival 2002. The American Indian Film Festival awarded her the Eagle Spirit Achievement Award that year. She has served on the National Council on the Arts. She is the Joseph M. Russo Professor of Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico, and when not teaching and performing she lives in Honolulu, Hawai’i, where she is a member of the Hui Nalu Canoe Club.

Interview Barry Lopez recently said that critics, academics, and the media ask “questions about what I intended to do, to say, to achieve in my writing, as though the writing is intentional or purposive. They think that you sit down to write down what it is that you think about something. Writing does not work like this at all. I sit and write, and in the writing I am simply present—with the thought, the place, the idea. It arrives.” Does your writing work in the same way, or do you approach writing as a particular project, with something particularly to say? As an American Indian, a woman, a global citizen, is there a continuous message you must relay?

Joy Harjo: I am in agreement with Barry. I am part of a larger process. I don’t have control over it. I do have control (mostly) about being prepared, ready, and am willing to put in the time and commitment to crafting what is given. If I am going to give a message then I don’t do it as a writer, poet, or songwriter. Doesn’t mean that some message or sense isn’t made of it all. I am driven to explore the depths of creation and the depths of meaning. Being native, female, a global citizen in these times is the root, even the palette. I mean, look at the context: human spirit versus the spirits of the earth, sky, and universe. We are part of a much larger force of sense and knowledge. Western society is human-centric. We’re paying the price of foolish arrogance, of forgetfulness.

A Map to the Next World, by Joy While acknowledging that you have learned to respect various artistic genres and “those who have mastered them and brought them to another level of accomplishment,” you have also said that “the creative stream isn’t strictly bound by genres or expression.” Books like A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales, provide an excellent example—alternating poems and tales to create a four-part story. When you were writing the poems and tales of this book, were they created in largely the same order as they appear in the book, or were the poems written separately—grouped—from the tales? Or perhaps differently altogether? Is there a difference in the construction of a mixed-genre collection versus a single genre? Should writing programs encourage more mixed or cross-genre writing, promoting or at least accounting for the ebb and flow of the creative stream?

Joy Harjo: The poems were created separately and not in the order as they appear. The tales: some were created separately and most after I pulled together the shape of the book. What moved me to venture in that direction was to try for some kind of sense of orality in a written text. Written text is, to me, fixed orality. I tried this first in The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. Of course the poems can exist by themselves. They do not need explanations. The prose accompaniments are part of the overall performance. I expanded it in Map…. I am always aware of several voices and each has their own root of impulse and quality. The poetry voice exists in timelessness. When I try to force it to a contemporary arch tone—it fails me, though I did recently write a hip-hop type poem, still, the voice had the same overarching tone and voice, a voice that is wiser than me. Then there’s the more narrative voice—and it’s more contemporary. Often my poetry voice is like a voice coming from stones…. And so on. Each book is a different experiment or expression.

Photo by Stephen Strom
“Mudhills, Beautiful Valley,” a photograph by Stephen Strom appearing in Secrets from the Center for the World.
Photo by Stephen E. Strom.

Secrets from the Center of the World was my first mixed-genre book. Photographs by Stephen Strom and my poetic prose pieces were together in response to the landscape near the Four Corners area.

As far as writing programs teaching cross-genre—some encourage experimentation and some discourage any leaning past the middle line of form. It’s up to each writer to find and follow his or her own direction. You will either have support, or you won’t have support. And your vision might coincide with taste and it might not. Taste and movements come and go. In the “classics” of modern American poetry, and often in the teaching of poetry, poetry as literature is separate from music, both lyrics and composition. While there is a certain music to poetry, and poetry derives from the spoken word, the general conclusion has been: poetry is not music and music is not poetry. Your work with your band Poetic Justice, where you bring your poetry to music or alternatively music to your poetry, suggests otherwise (for example, “She Had Some Horses” in the book of the same name is also a song on the album Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century). What is the relationship between music and poetry, generally and in your work? Does the heritage of music in American Indian culture provide for a bridge between the two genres in your work, as opposed to the historical separation of music and poetry in modern Western verse?

Joy Harjo: The roots of poetry lead to music. Music will often be found yearning for singers. Poetry is a sound art. I happened on the direct relationship between poetry and music when I realized that most of the poetry in my tribe, and with most peoples of the world isn’t found in books, it’s oral. Then I began to consider how to make that bridge—I didn’t do so with a direct plan—it was a natural outgrowth of being a contemporary Mvskoke poet who had picked up a saxophone. Poetic Justice was just a start. I collaborated first with Susan M. Williams on the music for “For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash.” Then we added her brother John to the band, a bass player, to round it out. Then it developed from there. For that configuration I read my poems, performed sax and helped create the songs. We had to find a crossing between song structures and my poems. My poems don’t usually behave and conform to known structures—many are conscious hybrids. The same goes with music.

Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice albumThen after Poetic Justice (I disbanded Poetic Justice to go out on my own with a band), I began singing and this demanded a different shape to the poem. Some of my poems lend themselves to singing, like “Grace” (featured on my last music album, Native Joy for Real), and others to a mix of singing, speaking and even a form of chant-singing. I have written some songs as lyrics. There is a difference. I’ve transformed some poems to lyrics. The singing voice demands a difference in rhythm, pacing, beginning and end sounds. Right now I am working on translating some of my poems into the Mvskoke language, then into songs for singing. This is an ongoing process of discovery. You have said, and many artists have echoed, that we are “within a dominant culture that doesn’t value the artist.” Indeed, public funding for art of all types continues to come under fire on a regular basis. Is it the artist’s responsibility to work to change our culture so it does value the artist? Is the artist responsible for more even than that: for bearing witness, making public, and demanding action to resolve the inequalities of our world: social, economic, environmental, and otherwise? How do artists engender compassion, or even overarching compassion, as in the Mvskoke word, onvkckv?

Native Joy for Real, by Joy HarjoJoy Harjo: In this current political climate, the individual, or the artist, is looked upon with suspicion. If you don’t fit squarely into “Christian”, “family” or any other certified “safe” category (that is not white, not identifiably male, female, married, straight, and so on) then you are in danger and you can be subject to great scrutiny and judgment. As I re-read what I have written I ask myself if I have exaggerated, but I don’t believe I have—Suspicion and fear has grown in direct correspondence with the atrocities and human rights violations inflicted by those in apparent power in the government, a government hand-in-hand with Christian fundamentalists. I am often in Oklahoma, my birthplace, for family and tribal events. I have noticed a definite spike in the climate of fear, marked by fundamentalist Christians who believe their way is the only way. They’ve always believed this way but are increasingly self-righteous and secure in their power.

So how doe we engender compassion in the middle of all this? Compassion doesn’t depend on the reaction or response of others. It is, in its own right. I believe compassion gives the most overarching vision. Then, everything can fit, somehow. I’m trying to figure it out like everyone else. Art is a way to contribute to the figuring out. The artist bears witness, and can bring fresh vision into the world through art, to regenerate culture, to demand an accounting. I think of the recent exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts by Hawaiian artist Kaili Chun. Her installation Nau Ka Wae, or The Choice Belongs to You, was a groundbreaking and award-winning meditation on compassion—native stones, which are living and considered to have their own voices in Hawaiian (and other native traditions) and appeared in the installation as a sort of conscious. You migrate back and forth between New Mexico and Hawai’i. As residences and as havens, what does each mean to you? Is there sustenance or power in the migration itself?

Installation by artist Kaili Chun
Nau Ka Wae or The Choice Belongs to You by Hawaiian artist Kaili Chun.
Photo courtesy Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Joy Harjo: There has to be power or sustenance in migration or the world would be without humans, most plants and animals. I have to find meaning in whatever I do—or even make meaning of meaninglessness. Not everything fits. Most things or ideas in this place don’t fit seamlessly.

Both New Mexico and Hawai’i were and are havens for me. I fled Oklahoma as a teenager. New Mexico gave me back my voice and continues to provide ongoing vision. My great-aunt Lois Harjo, who I was especially close to, also spent much time there as a painter, inspired by the New Mexico Indian art scene. I followed behind her in this, and in my love for the arts. Hawai’i has given me the gift of water and I am continually inspired and challenged by the spirit of the Hawaiian people and land. We are painfully witnessing the destruction of this paradise. Actually, the Hawaiians and Mvskoke people are related. We each have stories that link us with each other. You have stated that as an American Indian it is your responsibility—and indeed any American Indian’s responsibility—to “pass on culture and to pass on hope.” You have also noted that your primary audience is Indian country. Yet you also have a large non-Native following. Have you found resistance to you or your work from other American Indians because of its wide readership beyond those in Indian country? Alternatively, does resistance come from non-Natives because of your origins or your primary audience? If so, how do you respond—or is a response appropriate?

Joy Harjo: My audience does cross over.

There is always resistance to anyone who is out there doing anything that crosses boundaries: of genre, culture, country, language, etc. That’s just how it is. And there are always those who embrace you. I trust the work will find its way, just as I have to trust the process.

Most of the resistance has come from those who find me not Indian enough… or too Indian. Or those who dislike women who speak out. Or those who find anyone carrying a saxophone and dirtying the precious water of verse dangerous.

Is any response necessary?

The Amaicha del Valle, Tucumán, Argentina.
Photo by Jose Lazarte. Have you had the opportunity to perform or work with native peoples in other regions—Central or South America, for example? Is there an increasing global context to the preservation of indigenous peoples and places—manifested either in literature and music and other arts, or in other contexts altogether?

Joy Harjo: Last year I performed in Argentina. That experience was mixed, except for the meeting with native people in the village Amaicha. There were and are many points of connection. At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Austin conference’s Joy Harjo tribute in March 2006, you read poetry, played saxophone, chanted, and sang. Do you have a favorite “genre” of performance? Reading/singing against live music, as with Poetic Justice, for example? Or, like much of your work, is the total of these performance types together greater than the sum of their individual parts? Do you envision incorporating filmed scenes into your live performances, given your film-making experience, as well?

Joy Harjo: I prefer a live band behind me. (And again, for the record, I no longer perform with Poetic Justice, though I might revive the name again for my new configuration.) There’s also something fulfilling in the solo, naked performance. Yes, actually, I’m working on intersecting film and image with music and performance… right now. You have maintained a blog for three years now—a fairly long time for the medium. What made you decide to start blogging, and is the impetus the same three years later? Has your other writing, or who you read, changed because of your blog? Do you sense any change in literature overall because of blogging, or perhaps/rather because of the expansion of the Internet in general?

Joy Harjo: I have kept an ongoing journal over the years. The blog is an expansion of it—with some editing. I don’t know that my writing has changed because of it—it’s what I’ve always done. The difference is that I am more aware of an audience, of readers—

Joy Harjo on stageOverall there’s an expanded awareness of the global.

Before I went to school my world was vast because I lived for the most part in my imagination. It was a live thing, with as much texture and viability as what is called “real”. My spirit traveled all over the world. Songs and stories happened in the home, via humans, and sometimes books.

Then my world became the school classroom and the discipline and rules, the path from the school to my home, then after that a job, or a family. Anything that happened anywhere else happened in books, and sometimes in the news. My imagination then was bound in books, in reading.

Then movies ushered in the next level of reality, of expressive art. Videos followed.

Then computers and the internet, which came with an expanded awareness of the global. And with all this: less reading, fewer readers. Is this attributable to the internet? Or, to the lack of ability to hear or believe the spoken voice? Or to engage the human voice and person intimately? What’s next for Joy Harjo?

Joy Harjo: More poetry, more music, a book of stories, performance—and some wisdom, knowledge, and peace for all of us.



Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at

Header photo of old colored door, gate, and wall in Santa Fe by David Neely, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.