She was named the United States Poet Laureate in June 2019 and is the first Native American Poet Laureate in the history of the position — she is Poet Joy Harjo.
Harjo will be the featured speaker in Central Lakes College’s ninth year of its visiting poet program Verse Like Water. Typically poets travel to the Brainerd campus for the program, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic the program will be streamed live at noon Thursday, Nov. 12. Harjo will do the program from the comforts of her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Anyone can tune in and listen to the free program via YouTube by visiting https://bit.ly/3eBgKcE.
The program is a collaboration between CLC, Riverland Community College in Austin and the Olseth Family Foundation.
Jeff Johnson, CLC instructor and director of Verse Like Water who has loved poetry reading since he was a boy, said he is excited to have Harjo, a major voice in American literature who also is an activist, musician, and writer of memoirs and essays, as Verse Like Water’s next poet. What is even more exciting to Johnson is this poetry program will reach high school students across the state, as the Olseth Family Foundation is sending out 1,250 copies of Harjo’s latest book, “An American Sunrise” to indigenous students throughout Minnesota.
“I'll be sitting on the hood of my GMC truck peddling poetry in a pandemic," Johnson said prior to distributing Harjo’s hardcover poetry books at noon Friday, Nov. 6, in the east CLC parking lot. His truck was filled with about 450 poetry books and he had three signs about social distancing and two others about poetry.
When Johnson began teaching at CLC 11 years ago, he wanted to start up a poetry series similar to one he had when he previously taught at Saint John’s Preparatory School and Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Johnson, who has been in teaching for 34 years, talked with his dean at CLC about starting a poetry series.
“I asked him if I would step on any toes if I started a poetry series,” Johnson said of his conversation with the dean. “And he said, ‘Absolutely not, knock yourself out.’ He said we've never been able to get more than 30 people here at any literary reading. He told me that they had had Will Weaver come and only 30 people came.”
Johnson came to the Brainerd campus with the experience of booking poets and getting people to come, and he wanted to promote literacy and poetry in the lakes area. And Johnson didn’t bring just any poets to the series — he brought top tier poets who have won Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards and are MacArthur Genius Fellows. In the past nine years, Johnson has brought more than 20 poets to the Verse Like Water program including Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Richard Blanco, Marie Howe, Terrance Hayes, Mark Conway, Matt Rasmussen, Tracy. K. Smith, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, Billy Collins, Mary Szybist, Major Jackson, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Osama Olamar, Kaveh Akbar, Peter Balakian, Vijay Seshadri, Luis J. Rodriguez, Juan Felipe Herrera and Nick Flynn.
Johnson said the poetry series benefited the entire community and also has reached many high school students through the years. Schools bus students to the poetry events and CLC provides them with food.
“We wanted to make them feel special,” Johnson said.
The poetry series has been made possible through regional grants, with a bulk from the Five Wings Arts Council. Johnson thought he was going to lose grant money this year because of the pandemic, but learned he was going to be able to keep it so began planning the virtual event with Harjo.
The difference with this coming event with Harjo compared to the previous poetry events is Johnson has help.
“I’m usually a one-man show,” Johnson said. “Like I do everything. I write the grants. I pick up the poets at the airport. I put them in the guest house here in Stearns County where I live and I make them a big feast. But this time around, I'm collaborating with two other entities ... Riverland Community College in Austin and the Olseth Family Foundation.”
Johnson said one thing he wants people to know about the upcoming poetry event is that Harjo is not only a poet.
“There's music in every poem. There are musical notes in the human hearts and imaginations of every single poet, but I see more music in Joy Harjo than I do in any average poet,” Johnson said. “And this is partly because she is a musician. She picked up a saxophone at the age of 45 because her grandma played a saxophone. There's a poem about it in that book ... so you're going to hear her sing. She won't just read poetry and perform the poetry; you’re going to hear her sing the poetry.”
More about Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo was appointed the new United States Poet Laureate in June 2019, and is the first Native American Poet Laureate in the history of the position. Born May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv, according to poets.org/poet/joy-harjo. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of New Mexico before earning a master's degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1978.
Harjo is a poet, musician and playwright. She is the author of several books of poetry, including “An American Sunrise” in 2019; “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” in 1994, which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; and “In Mad Love and War” in 1990, which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. Her memoir “Crazy Brave” in 2012 won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary award for creative nonfiction. Harjo also published collections of interviews and conversations, children's books and collaborative art texts.
In 2015, she received the Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry from the Academy of American Poets, the website stated. She also is a performer, playing the saxophone and flute solo and with the Arrow Dynamics Band, and previously with the band Poetic Justice. She has appeared on HBO's “Def Poetry Jam” in venues across the U.S. and internationally and released four award-winning albums. In 2009, she won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year.
In 2015, Harjo gave The Blaney Lecture on contemporary poetry and poetics, which is offered annually in New York City by a prominent poet, called “Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets.” Her other honors include the 2019 Jackson Poetry Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award and The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize among many others.
In 2019, Harjo was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In addition to serving as U.S. Poet Laureate, Harjo directs For Girls Becoming, an arts mentorship program for young Mvskoke women, and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.
Harjo’s 2018 poem: “Once the World Was Perfect”
“Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.”