In her new memoir, Joy Harjo recounts how her early years — a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father and abusive stepfather, and the hardships of teen motherhood — caused her to suppress her artistic gifts and nearly brought her to her breaking point. "It was the spirit of poetry," she writes in Crazy Brave, "who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love."
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Harjo, now an acclaimed poet, performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, about the dreams, visions and heartache that led her to find her voice as a poet and musician.
On how trauma in her early years acted as roadblocks to creativity
"Sometimes, I think, in order to get to something that we really want or we really love or something that needs to be realized, that we're tested. I mean, I think if you look at any stories all over the world, they are usually set up as, OK, here's where I start, here is where I want to go, and here are the tests.
"And they were pretty intense tests ... I failed a lot of them, or you find a way around. And maybe there is no such thing as failure ... that's kind of what I've had to come to. Yes, I mean, there's times ... when we fail. But it's a useful thing.
"At least I've had to come to that in my life, to realize that this stuff called failure, this stuff, this debris of historical trauma, family trauma, you know, stuff that can kill your spirit, is actually raw material to make things with and to build a bridge. You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you."
On the importance of music in her life
"I think music is what attracted me to this world. I could hear my mother singing, and I thought OK, that's a pathway I can follow. And it was that moment — there was kind of a trans-cosmic consciousness, transcendental moment came when I was standing in — this is before seat belts — in my parents' car. And I think it was Miles Davis, his horn came on.
Winding Through the Milky Way.
Joy Harjo has won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year for her album
Joy Harjo has won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year for her album Winding Through the Milky Way. Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie
"Of course I didn't know Miles Davis or horn, and ... that music opened an incredible door, and I was out there, and I could almost see the shape of my whole life. And I have a great love of jazz, and actually it's close to my Muscogee tribal people.
"I'm working on a story now that proves that — that includes us in the story of American music. Most people don't know that Congo Square was originally a Muscogee ceremonial ground ... in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz."
On how to get your artistic voice back, if you've lost it
"I [had] felt like I had lost my voice, too. And sometimes, to find it ... what I've learned is it needs to be lost for a while. And when it wants to be found, you'll find it.
"But I would say is that you just put yourself in the place of poetry. You just go where poetry is, whether it's in your heart or your mind or in books or in places where there's live poetry or recordings.
"And, you know, it's like looking for love. You can't look for love, or it will run away from you. But, you know, don't look for it. Don't look for it. Just go where it is and appreciate it, and, you know, it will find you."