Harbour Winn: Joy, when I read your poetry I’m aware that dancing and movement seem so important to you. How does this image of dancing run through your words?
Joy Harjo: For me, dancing has always meant the ability to move about in the world without question. I was often the shyest and quietest person, until I got on the dance floor. I was expressive, even wild. Dancing was the one thing I could do and be absolutely myself without any restrictions. I’ve found a similar movement in the writing of poetry; I have found it in music. Writing poetry is a way of moving. How dancing works through all of my poetry, I’m not sure, but I know it’s there.
One of my best earlier poems is “There Was a Dance, Sweetheart.” The whole poem was an awareness of the dance of life, the dance of a particular relationship, from a meeting to a departure, from a sunrise to a sunset. We can either be dragged by circumstance or we find a way to dance. In A Map to the Next World I was reminded by my muse: If you’re going through hell, you might as well dance.
Elaine Smokewood: Following up on Harbour’s question, I was thinking about the poem “The Evening Song” and how it ends on the word “bury.” We have a word that’s strongly associated with ending, but the rhythm isn’t really letting the poem end. So often in your poetry I feel like I’m entering into a poem that really doesn’t have a beginning or ending. Is that something that you think about?
JH: Yes, I think there’s something to your statement. I feel that often poems aren’t so declarative in time and space; they are part of a larger narrative, lyric, or song. What we see on the page or hear in the air is just the earthly part of it. Poems aren’t always confined by the page or by air.
John McBride: Last night you said that you don’t have any illusions that the poem comes from you. My own experience with creative things is I just got lucky and was there when it arrived. Can you elaborate on that?
JH: I’ve had students who ask, “Do you just write when you get inspired?” and I tell them you can’t do that. If you just write when you’re inspired, you may write infrequently. You have to sit there and be open, ready, even as you are writing to discover. There are times nothing seems to happen, but I’ve learned that something is always happening. Maybe months later, what I thought wasn’t happening surfaces somewhere else. I realize that there were roots to that poem or story or song that go back before all the meandering around; but as to where they come from, who knows? Sometimes I feel like I’m just constructing little houses for the poems or songs. I’m making a place for them and if they like it, if they think it looks nice enough or they like the feel of it, a spirit will move into it and live there.
HW: Don’t you sometimes write about tricksters? When you’re in that place where voices come, are there tricksters that confound and fool you, too?
JH: Oh, yeah. I think there’s a purpose to tricksters and sometimes they’re like laughter and crying rolled together and they can startlingly open something up just as they can slam something shut. There’s always that duality to them. In our tribe, the Mvskoke [Muskogee] tribe, trickster is Rabbit. I remember Bob Thomas, the Cherokee culturalist and storyteller extraordinaire, telling me [that] the rabbit is not male or female, it’s both. It’s always walking that line between the sacred and the profane. The trickster is always about the duality between here and there, sun and moon, sky and earth.
Somebody has to patrol, I suppose, or be on that line, making sense of what really can’t be made sense of. Sometimes I think what I do as a poet or as a human being is walk that line.
ES: I was really struck last night, hearing you speak, for I thought you were one of the few public speakers that I have heard who was the least negative and the least judgmental and the kindest. I’m thinking it was not an accident that [you presented yourself] this way. What kind of energy do you see yourself putting out when you’re on a stage speaking or performing?
JH: We’re all putting energy out, whatever we’re doing. We’re in a constant stream of energy and we’re either singing or making noise. Sometimes a little wisdom breaks through; other times, it doesn’t. I lean towards compassion, but I struggle, like everyone else, with all my human complications.
ES: Do you see anger as having a positive value?
JH: Anger is anger and there’s going to be anger where there are human beings. Everything has two sides to it. We’ve all experienced the negative aspects of anger. There’s a Gandhi quote I never get quite right about anger. Anger is what he used to transform his country; it became a useful power.
I try the “standing on the moon rule,” which means, stand on the moon and look down at your problem, your country, your family, your heartache, your failure. Then it all makes sense. Practicing the arts is a means to transform or transmute anger into something useful.
ES: What you said this morning about war triggered my question. You were saying, There’s a war in me and I have be able to claim that, take responsibility for that, separate myself from it, even while condemning it.
JH: Yeah, it was difficult to recognize that war was in me. I have more than a fair share of pride. When I began to really examine this war within myself, I found a common link between myself and those I name my enemy. Maybe being born with the blood of two warring tribes has come to some good use—or I’m just fooling myself. The most difficult thing is to allow the contradictions to exist side by side; one always wants to swallow the other.
JM: Last night you said most poetry is not in a book. I want to hear more about that.
JH: Books are a relatively recent invention in human time. The roots of poetry are oral. I am not a researcher or scholar, but I imagine if you were to go back and look at the roots of all cultures in the world, most of the poetry that has been produced is probably born in song. Many songs are languishing and lonely for people to remember them and speak them. I consider poetry as song language, as soul talk. Many would disagree with me [and say] the page is civilized and poetry on the page is therefore civilized.
I’ll never forget what a new colleague said to me my first day on the job at a major American university. He ambled across the hall in a friendly manner as I unpacked books. He said, “There are two kinds of poets in the world, Jacob and Esau poets. The Jacob poets are the mannered and cultured poets; the Esaus live outside of society in the wilderness, they’re primitive. You’re an Esau poet.” That was the only thing he ever said to me. I translated it as, Strange, we’ve never seen an Indian poet in this department and I have no idea what you’re doing here in this civilized place.
JM: How do you define poetry?
JH: Soul talk, song language—that’s only one definition. There are as many ways to [define] poetry as there are to God. Say that to your poetry fundamentalist!
HW: The poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” is powerful, haunting, and sometimes I’ve had tears in my eyes when I’ve read it. I feel you were singing about anger having the possibility for [transformation]; maybe you were coming to the kitchen table to find what you needed to release, maybe you wondered—as Americans, you and me and all of us, as humans—what it is we need to come to the table to release. I don’t know if it’s a question or just a place to go into.
JH: That was one poem that practically wrote itself. The kitchen table is at the heart of the human world. It is also a metaphorical device. I had no idea what was going to happen once I stood there in the poetic field, the poetic house, and approached the writing of that poem.
HW: What do we need to release to each other in the world we find ourselves in?
JH: There’s probably nothing better than to sit down with people you care about—or friendly strangers when you’re exhausted and lonely and far away from home—and eat with each other and visit and laugh. I remember going to my cousin George’s the last time I was in Oklahoma. He’s very sharing, very giving, and he knows the old stories, the ones that few people remember. We talked about how those visits were our university seminars, our colleges. I used to drive my elderly aunt, Lois Harjo, around Creek country to visit her relatives, friends, and the old ones who still knew the stories. Genealogy is a web of stories about people, the tribe, and our combined journey from a mythical real past into the present. Within this web are retellings of historical events, philosophy, astronomy, origins of meaning, medicine—it’s all there. My cousin and I were bemoaning that we don’t have time anymore. Our communities have been blown apart by loneliness. No one knows who they are or where they belong.
JM: How much time do we look at that little hour glass on the screen?
JH: The computer is useful, and the Internet is a genuine storytelling space. It is yet another experience of time and place. Nothing replaces the direct experience of story or song. Many stories and songs carry life-giving forces, they have certain purposes. Email language tends to be much more curt or short. Text messaging is communication in its barest form. There’s no face, no history, just an ever present now in which we are too busy to craft a reply, no place for subtlety or connection.
ES: I want to ask you about the importance of myth. How does myth get transformed into pernicious ideologies? I think of the horrible things that have been done because people defend the myth of ourselves as God’s chosen people bringing enlightenment to the savages—conquest and imperialism and genocide and all kinds of terrible things done because people are connected to a myth in a kind of pernicious or poisonous or destructive way.
JH: I guess we need another word, because my translation of myth is root stories or the shifting, dynamic template of spirit from which a people or peoples emerge. It is not some imagined past; rather, the dreamworks of the communal self.
Cotton Mather stands at the beginning of the mythic creation of [an] “American” in his drab, Puritan cloak, foaming with righteousness. Hence, Native peoples are evil. Who does this serve? We continue in an economy in which those on the side of God are the winners. I’m heading back to the moon to take another look. My sense of the mythic is a root that’s larger than each small cultural group. We’re all eventually related. When you look from the moon, we all look the same.
HW: Do you hear different voices, polarity [in the] Oklahoma state centennial celebration?
JH: Again, I climb back on the moon. Many have dreaded the celebration of the Sooner State centennial. I can understand the state wanting to celebrate its beginning, its incorporation, [but] not everyone in the state has cause to celebrate. The state as an entity represents land theft and second-class citizenship for many of us.
The [term] “The Sooner State” has always bothered me. “Sooner State” honors those who jumped the line for first dibs on land claims. They were the quicker thieves. Statehood is really more about gun power and the ability to take over and control. We have a state now that encompasses many communities, many times. There’s a genealogy of sorts, we’re all here.
At the center of Mvskoke philosophy is a term, vnvketcv, which is “compassion.” You look for the best in any situation and keep moving with grace, no matter the trial. We were uprooted from our homeland and moved to Indian Territory, were promised to be left alone, and then, here it is again, oil is discovered on our allotted lands. It doesn’t end. Now there are genetic patents on our plants, our medicines.
It seems to me that to celebrate the centennial means that we celebrating a takeover. The best possible outcome is perhaps a conversation between the citizens of Oklahoma. One day there will be that conversation, where everybody sits down at the table: Cotton Mather and his people, my people, the eagle, the stones, the plants, the winds, all of us. We will be equal and everyone’s voice will have a place.
JM: It’s interesting that you’re from here and the two states you live in, New Mexico and Hawaii, are more known for Native Americans.
JH: They’re the only two states in the U.S. with a nonEuropean majority. New Mexico [has] been home to me, to my art. Oklahoma is also an origin place for me. It’s where I was born, where I was raised until I escaped to Indian school, to New Mexico. When I return, I always return to a force field of contradiction, of love and hate; and yet, over the years, I return for family, tribal responsibilities, for the beauty, and to hammer and work it out. But that’s part of what I was given: the test, the puzzle. For me, Oklahoma’s one of those challenges, or should I say gift?
For me, Hawaii is a place of refuge and inspiration. I continue to learn from the water and I also learn from the Hula tradition. The stereotype of hula does not even touch the reality of this epic tradition. It’s an oral, poetic tradition that includes dance, genealogy, the ocean, and astronomy. At my ceremonial grounds there’s a story that links us with Hawaii. Sam Proctor tells of the time when seven canoes [came] up from Polynesia to the place we lived, before Oklahoma or Alabama and Georgia. We are related. That’s something you won’t find in books; although, I’ve been reading of archeological discoveries in the last few years that back it up. So there’s a Hawaiian-Mvskoke connection. It makes a poetic leap of sense.
ES: You have talked about Toni Morrison and Emily Dickinson as writers who had a significant impact on you. With Toni Morrison, I can remember reading her for the first time and feeling like I was reading English, but it kind of wasn’t English, and part of what she had [done] was create a new language. As a reader, I had to transform myself to be able to read the language, and that was what was so wonderful and exciting about it. I was wondering if you think of yourself as changing the language through the poetry you do, or creating a new language.
JH: I like the way you put that. I have never thought about Toni Morrison that way because I’ve always thought, “She’s just a poet.” Of course she has stories, but she’s very poetic and she’s very visionary and unique. She’s made her own world and it’s a compelling world, it’s exciting on so many levels.
I like to think, all artists like to think, that their work will help rejuvenate culture and the art form itself. I know I’ve been aware [of that] with poetry and with music and I’m starting to find how to put them all together. I’m aware that I’m doing something differently and I never wanted to copy or do everything like everyone else.
Edited by Harbour Winn and Carla Walker, Transcribed by Diana Silver and Ted Stoller | Originally Published in Humanities Interview, Winter 2008