U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo kicks off 2021 Big Read

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo joined Poet Laureate of Douglas Jack Ridl in a virtual conversation on Oct. 25 to kick off the NEA Big Read Lakeshore, a month-long community-wide program.

As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the first Native American to serve as the nation’s poet laureate, the conversation begins with Harjo reading her poem “Bless This Land” from the 2021 Big Read book choice, “American Sunrise.” “Bless us, these lands, said the rememberer. These lands aren't our / lands. These lands aren't your lands. We are this land.”
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo joins Poet Laureate of Douglas Jack Ridl in a virtual conversation.
When Ridl asks Harjo how she made the decision to accept the laureate position from a land that was stolen from her people, adding, “Is 'Native American' a paradox?” Harjo responds, “By the end of my life, I want people to see that natives are human beings. So I said yes.” 

She continues, “People don't really know anything. They say things like, 'Oh, you get your money from casinos.' We're many cultures and languages and we write poetry. I am part of this entity called 'America.' I felt I was taking on this honor for all native people. I've always tried, too, to champion all kinds of poetry.”

Ridl returns to Harjo's poem by repeating the line: “The heart is a poetry maker.” Then he asks, “What is not a poetry maker?”

“When I went to graduate school, the curriculum was hyper-focused on craft,” explains Harjo. While craft is important, she affirms, “(The heart) is the absolute stunning present.” Later, she adds, “I write from my soul. I write from the unknown. We need food for our bodies but we also need food for the spirit.” 

The importance of listening

In encouraging students in attendance, she continues, “You have to keep going. There's no Poetry Career Day. You never see the arts. Yet we absolutely need them.”

Ridl builds on the education aspect of Harjo's response and, because he has met with her at least two other times, recounts, “You put beautiful emphasis on listening. I know you sat in the back of the class and rarely said a word. I know you were participating. Can you speak to what listening is?”

Harjo responds, “Sometimes it's hard to hear, especially if you're always tuned to the internet. That's what studying is. It's really about paying attention and listening.” She adds, “Listening isn't just your ears. I'm a very visual listener. All my early poems were about one image.”

When asked after the event how it felt to meet with Harjo again, Ridl responds, “It felt like we picked up right where we left off, two old poets sitting in the park, one the laureate for millions, the other laureate for hundreds.”

Perhaps it was this kinship that allowed for authentic moments during the Big Read conversation such as this: “You know, when we were kids, we played cowboys and Indians, and you know who always won …” Ridl begins.

“Not in ours,” says Harjo.


2021 Big Read Lakeshore: How to participate

Read more articles by Kathleen Schenck.