Joy Harjo Named U.S. Poet Laureate, Becoming First Native American In That Role A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, the 68-year-old poet and musician says she bears "the honor on behalf of the people and my ancestors" and aims to serve as an "ambassador" of the art form.
NPR logo

Joy Harjo Becomes The 1st Native American U.S. Poet Laureate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/733727917/734165484" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Joy Harjo Becomes The 1st Native American U.S. Poet Laureate

Joy Harjo Becomes The 1st Native American U.S. Poet Laureate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/733727917/734165484" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United States has a new poet laureate. She is Joy Harjo, the first Native American to hold the position. In making the announcement, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden called Harjo a champion of the art of poetry whose, quote, "inventive lyricism helps us reimagine who we are." Harjo, who is also a musician and a memoirist - what doesn't she do? Well, what she did was speak with NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Being named poet laureate was exciting but completely unexpected, says Joy Harjo.

JOY HARJO: I think the first thing that comes to mind is that it's such an honoring for Native people in this country when we've been so disappeared and disregarded. And yet we're the root cultures.

NEARY: Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, has always drawn on Native American myths and stories in her work. She says that's because her culture is just part of who she is. And poetry draws her closer to it.

HARJO: So it doesn't necessarily become a self-conscious thing. It's just there. You have your culture and you're in it, but you're also in this American culture, and that's another layer. So there's always all of these imprints, but, of course, the primal imprint - the primal imprint for all of us is being a human being on Earth.

NEARY: As a Native American woman, Harjo says it's inevitable that she would be innately political, but she doesn't view the position of poet laureate as political. She says she's always been an ambassador for poetry and wants to continue in that role. But she's also aware that she's taking on a prominent national position at a time of great division in our country. She believes poetry has the power to heal.

HARJO: Poetry has been one of my fiercest teachers with language, with sound, shot through the heart. It becomes a way to communicate. So we're all part of a large poem, a large story. And if you look with perspective, the story all fits together. And one way to find those connections is with poetry.

NEARY: This excerpt from the poem "The Fight" reflects Joy Harjo's desire to find common ground.

HARJO: (Reading) I grow tired of the heartache of every small and large war passed from generation to generation. But it is not in me to give up. I was taught to give honor to the house of the warriors, which cannot exist without the house of the peacemakers.

NEARY: Harjo is the author of eight books of poetry, with a new collection due out in August. She has also written a memoir, and at the age of 40, she took up the saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARJO: (Playing saxophone).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

NEARY: Now when Harjo performs, she often sets her own poetry to music and includes Native American instruments and musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARJO: I think of the lush stillness of the end of a world sung into place by singers and the rattle of turtles in the dark morning.

NEARY: Harjo doesn't yet know exactly what she wants to do as poet laureate, but she's got some ideas.

HARJO: One thing I've always wanted to do is have cowboys and Indians poetry reading (laughter). Just there's a lot of Indian cowboys and vice versa, I'm sure. So I really believe if people sat, you know, together and hear their deepest feelings and thoughts beyond any political divisiveness, it makes connections.

NEARY: Joy Harjo takes over as poet laureate in the fall, succeeding Tracy K. Smith, who held the post for two years. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.