"Don't worry about what a poem means.
Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen."
-- Joy Harjo
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Writer, musician, and current Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. An American Sunrise — her eighth collection of poems — revisits the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act. To open Joy Harjo's An American Sunrise (W.W. Norton, 2019) is to be immersed in the power of nature, spirituality, memory, violence, and the splintered history of America's indigenous peoples. To read her poetry is to be drawn into the rhythms, sounds, and stories of Harjo's Creek heritage.
In this collection, she returns to Okfuskee, near present-day Dadeville, Alabama, where her ancestors were forcibly removed by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. "It came directly out of standing and looking out into the woods of what had been our homelands in the Southeast before Andrew Jackson removed us to Indian Territory," said Harjo in an interview with TIME. "I stood there and looked out, and I heard, 'What did you learn here?'"
The collection is prefaced with a short prologue about her ancestors' removal and a map of the Trail of Tears, the difficult series of trails over 1,000 miles long, taken by foot during their forced relocation. Several thousand indigenous people died as a result of this journey. According to its caption, the map depicts just one of many trails the Muscogee Creek Nation took to "Indian Territory" — now Oklahoma — "just as there were [many trails] for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and many other tribal nations."
"We were forced to leave behind houses, printing presses, stores, cattle, schools, pianos, ceremonial grounds, tribal towns, churches," noted Harjo in the prefatory prose. "We witnessed immigrants... taking what had been ours, as we were surrounded by soldiers and driven away like livestock at gunpoint." Woven throughout the collection are passages of prose written by Harjo, as well as excerpts, lyrics, and quotes from outside sources that help paint the complex backdrop to her poems and add a chorus of voices to the collection as a whole. Harjo's grandfather from several generations back, Monahwee (also spelled Menawa) is a recurring figure in the prose. According to these passages, Monahwee was second chief of the Creeks, one of the chiefs of the Red Sticks, a group that worked to preserve traditional indigenous culture. He fought Andrew Jackson's forces in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend, opposing American expansion.
Many poems open a dialogue with Harjo's ancestors and tribal history. In other poems, Harjo's personal life is at the forefront. In "Washing My Mother's Body," Harjo's speaker imagines bathing her mother's body one last time after her mother's death, something she didn't get a chance to do.
The poems in An American Sunrise are at once praise and song and facts plainly spoken, "from a deep and timeless source of compassion for all — but also from a very specific and justified well of anger" (NPR). They open many doors, into personal and historical heartache and survival, joy and tears, stolen land and the celebration of nature and loved ones. They offer a "stark reminder of what poetry is for and what it can do: how it can hold contradictory truths in mind, how it keeps the things we ought not to forget alive and present" (NPR).
Writer, musician, and current Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo — her surname means "so brave you're crazy" — was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Mvskoke (also spelled Muscogee) Creek Nation. One of her earliest memories is a sense of awakening when she first heard Miles Davis' horn on the radio in her parents' car. "That music opened an incredible door," she told NPR. "I could almost see the shape of my whole life."
In Harjo's early years, she would often hear her mother singing, or find her writing a song at the kitchen table. Of Cherokee, Irish, French, and German descent, her mother loved lyric poetry. She was like fire, Harjo says — always full of inspiration. Unable to afford books, and with just one dress to wear, her mother dropped out of school in eighth grade.
Harjo's father, who worked as an airline mechanic, descended from Muscogee Creek tribal leadership. Among his ancestors was Monahwee (also known as Menawa), a Red Stick leader who fought Andrew Jackson's forces in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend, opposing American expansion. When the Red Sticks were defeated, it set the stage for the removal of the Muscogee people from their homelands.
Harjo describes her father as a mystery, relying on anger and alcohol to cope with his sensitive nature. When he left the family, Harjo was 8 years old. Her mother remarried a man who was physically and emotionally abusive and forbade singing in their home.
Like her innate connection to music, Harjo loved words, and loved drawing as a child — it was an experience she likened to dreaming on paper, and it was a passion she shared with her grandmother and her aunt, both of whom were talented visual artists. In first grade, she drew a picture of ghosts and colored them green, scandalizing the other students who asserted that ghosts could only be white. She would never forget the vehemence of their reaction.
At 16, Harjo escaped her difficult home life to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. Early in her adult life, she experienced two rough marriages, single motherhood, and battles with alcohol, self-abuse, and panic attacks.
When she discovered poetry, she said, it was a revelation that changed her life. After receiving her BA from the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque, Harjo was accepted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received an MFA in creative writing.
"A lot of my poetry is inspired by injustice, love, the move for balance, and compassion," she told Sampsonia Way. "This debris of historical trauma, family trauma... stuff that can kill your spirit, is actually raw material to make things with and to build a bridge ... over that which would destroy you" (NPR).
Among her influences are the poets June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Charles Bukowski, Rubén Darío, Mahmoud Darwish, and Pablo Neruda, as well as John Coltrane and Kaw-Muscogee jazz musician Jim Pepper. Stand-up comedy, too, has been an inspiration: "In both poetry and song, you're writing concise pieces with a snap to them. Stand-up comedy is similar in that way, except they get laughs" (Sampsonia Way).
For more information about Joy Harjo, see https://www.arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/an-american-sunrise.
NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.
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