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A Poet’s Words From the Heart of Her Heritage

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

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And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.

Like eagle that Sunday morning

Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky

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In wind, swept our hearts clean

With sacred wings.

--Joy Harjo

Born in Tulsa, the first child of a Creek father and a Cherokee-French mother, Joy Harjo spent her earliest years in a troubled and impoverished household. She doesn’t want to talk very much about that time, when she was “so insecure and so shy . . . a child who was afraid to speak.”

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Harjo’s writing is often dark. Her poetry draws on American Indian history and contemporary problems as well as on Indian mythology and her own life and imagination.

Harjo’s heritage is extremely important to her, and she’s sensitive about discussing problems that can arise from her ethnic background. She also knows that, being light-skinned, “I can pass (for white) easily, and sometimes I think, you know, this is too hard. It would be easier to not be Indian at all. It’s hard enough to be one or the other, and it’s harder to be both” white and Indian.

Being Indian is “very tiring and painful and frustrating and sad and angering, given the history,” she says. Yet “I’m not trying to bitch and whine and groan, because the other side of that is a lot of incredible beauty and insight.”

The positive side of being Indian, Harjo says, is the knowledge of a rich cultural heritage, a sense of community and connection to the land. “This is our land, it’s the homeland,” she says. “The homeland affects you directly, it affects your body, it affects the collective mind, and the collective heart and the collective spirit. And so we (Indians) feel it, because there’s no separation.”

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Yet, she adds, “I don’t like this romanticization of Indian people in which Indian people are looked at as spiritual saviors, as people who have always taken care of the land. We’re human beings. But I think different cultures have developed different aspects of humanness.”

Harjo lives in a pink building on the outskirts of Tucson, in a unit also inhabited by a wistful yellow cat named Custer, two gerbils, a black rabbit, three fish and her 20-year-old son, Phil. Her 15-year-old daughter, Rainy Dawn, goes to boarding school in New Mexico.

The author of three books of poetry, Harjo, 37, moved here last fall from Colorado, where she’d taught for three years at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She’s now a tenured associate professor of English at the University of Arizona.

“I’ve always loved the desert,” she says. “I’ve spent most of my life in the Southwest. It’s certainly influenced my work. I used to dream about it when I was young,” growing up in Oklahoma.

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“I don’t see the desert as barren at all, I see it as full and ripe. It doesn’t need to be flattered with rain. It certainly needs rain, but it does with what it has, and creates amazing beauty,” she says.

The same could be said for Harjo, who has taken the material of a difficult life and created poetry of great power. (She will read some of that work on Feb. 18 in the Laguna Poets Winter Poetry Festival, at 2:30 p.m. at the Forum Theater in Laguna Beach.)

Harjo lost her shyness on stage in school plays, and early in life she demonstrated talent in drawing. At 16, she began attending a New Mexico boarding school, the competitive-admission Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. “I was lucky to end up going to school there. In a way it saved me. I think if it hadn’t intervened, I probably wouldn’t have lived very long,” she says. “I mean, it’s hard being an adolescent anyway, but I had a lot of wars going on” at home.

She graduated at 17 after participating in one of the first all-Indian drama and dance troupes in the U.S. Briefly married, she had her son Phil soon after graduation. “Then I spent three years working in a hospital, cleaning rooms, working in a health spa, pumping gas in a mini-skirt in Santa Fe, all those kind of jobs. And I decided I wanted something more,” she says.

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With a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and student loans, she attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, starting out as a pre-med student and quickly switching to art “because I couldn’t keep away from that.” At 22, she began writing poetry, and in her last year of school she changed her major to creative writing.

During this time she also married the well-known American Indian poet Simon Ortiz, with whom she had her daughter, Rainy Dawn. The marriage lasted only about two years, but Harjo and Ortiz are still close friends.

She raised her two children while supporting herself, attending school (she later earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop) and learning to be a writer.

In the early 1970s, she took part in “a lot of protests and marches for Indian rights,” including demonstrations on behalf of the Indians who occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. This political awakening would infuse her writing.

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I have a memory.

It swims deep in blood,

a delta in the skin. It swims out of Oklahoma,

deep the Mississippi River. It carries my

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feet to these places: the French Quarter,

stale rooms, the sun behind thick and moist

clouds, and I hear boats hauling themselves up

and down the river.

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My spirit comes here to drink.

My spirit comes here to drink.

Blood is the undercurrent . . . .

--(from “New Orleans,” by Joy

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Harjo, in “She Had Some Horses,”

Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1983)

Harjo is more than a little leery of the written word, because “there’s a lot of leeway for lying, because when you have something written down you can’t look at the person, you’re not looking at the person’s eyes, you’re not in the person’s presence,” she says.

Indians come from an oral rather than a written tradition, Harjo points out. “The knowledge was kept by remembering. And that’s one of my theories about alcoholism among Indian people, that we’re basically coming out of an oral culture, where you’re taught to remember everything. And it can be hard to forget” yet painful to remember stories of that culture.

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Being a writer who thinks writing things down is dangerous is a little quixotic, Harjo admits, but she says: “There’s an irony in being a human being. There’s an irony in writing. I feel that all the time. Maybe that’s why I’ve been trying to play a lot more music. I get so frustrated with words, and their limitations.” For the last four years, Harjo has been learning to play the saxophone, which she would eventually like to incorporate into her poetry readings.

Scripts Are Produced

Since 1980, Harjo has also written six screenplays, dramatic stories centered on American Indian characters. Half those scripts have been produced by small film companies and state agencies. In addition, Harjo has written the text to accompany the photographs of an astronomer, Stephen Strom, for a book called “Secrets From the Center Of the World,” to be published by the University of Arizona Press this fall, and she is gathering work together for an anthology of North American and South American women’s writing and starting to write short stories.

In her most recent work, Harjo is apt to mix surreal images, as in this prose poem from her new manuscript, “In Mad Love And War,” to be published by Wesleyan University Press in 1990:

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The wind blows lilacs out of the east. And it isn’t lilac season. And I am walking the street in front of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, from Denver. Oh, and it’s a few years earlier and more. That’s how you tell real time. It is here, it is there. The lilacs have taken over everything: the sky, the narrow streets, my shoulders, my lips. I talk lilac. And there is nothing else until a woman the size of a fox breaks through the bushes, breaks the purple web. She is tall and black and gorgeous . . . .

--From “Santa Fe” by Joy Harjo

She likes to be “surprised” by images while writing, Harjo says. “The world is not necessarily a logical progression, and the way your mind works is not linear. The dream world is not linear. The real world is not linear.”

Her poetry is not strictly autobiographical, she adds. “Of course there’s always autobiographical elements, but I elaborate, I make things up, I expand the truth.” She also incorporates details from her dreams, which she feels are not just night-time imaginings.

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“I have a dream life in which there are certainly more possibilities” than in waking life, Harjo says. “Creation in it is much swifter. It’s much more elastic. And I can see better in this world. You can call it dream world, but I don’t mean it’s a world that’s just dreaming, like you go to sleep and there it is. It’s also a world that’s simultaneous to this world.”

She believes in poetry’s transformative power, Harjo says. “I want my work to be regenerative. I want it in some way to be a praising, and I want it to give back. One of the principles of the universe is that if something is not regenerative, if it does not give back life, then it dies. So if you look at what’s going on with human beings, I really wonder what will happen.

“Human beings are a very young species and probably won’t last that long, either. I think we’re near the end of it. Because in order to be a viable species you have to be giving something back to the ecosystem. And we’re not doing that.” With her own work, Harjo wonders, “Am I going to leave something, not necessarily important, but something? Or am I going to add to the confusion? I don’t want to add to the confusion.”

Reluctant to Talk

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Discussing such things--like talking about elements of her past--isn’t easy, Harjo says, because Indians believe “you just don’t tell people everything. It’s like, too, with the Indian people, with their history, there are things that probably you don’t want said, because you don’t want to call them (the events) back. You don’t want them to appear again. And then of course there’s also things you aren’t supposed to reveal, there’s certain tribal secrets, they’re not written down, they’re meant to be kept within the people.”

Yet when she writes, Harjo says, she draws on her own “secret” places: “There’s a sort of ecstatic sadness. It’s not always sadness, but there’s a point of letting go at which I know I can do what I want, and it feels good, and I’m playing, I’m touching language, and I’m touching places I haven’t touched before. It doesn’t work if I know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.

“I think a poem has to have a huge amount of risk, and it has to have some danger, because there’s danger in the universe.”

SONG FOR THE DEER AND MYSELF TO RETURN ON

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BY JOY HARJO

This morning when I looked out the roof window before dawn and a few stars were still caught in the fragile weft of ebony night I was overwhelmed. I sang the song Louis taught me: a song to call the deer in Creek, as in hunting and I am certainly hunting something as velvet as deer in this city far from the hammock of my mother’s belly. It works, of course, and deer came into this room and wondered at finding themselves in a house near downtown Denver. Now the deer and I are trying to figure out a song to get them back, to get all of us back because if it works I’m going with them. And it’s too early to call Louis And nearly too late to go home. (for Louis Oliver)


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