Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Poet, Musician and Activist Joy Harjo Named the First Native American U.S. Poet Laureate


Joy Harjo, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and member of the Muscogee Creek Nation (or Mvskoke Nation), has maintained a multifaceted career as author, poet and performer since the 1970s. She has collected accolades both as a poet and musician, including the 1991 American Book Award, 2009 Best Female Native American Music Award and 2014 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and now has been named the next U.S. Poet Laureate.

Harjo's dual career in poetry and music makes all the more sense when you hear her read – even when pulling from the written word, she at times sings segments in melody. Her practice is centered on orality, hearkening back to the human tradition of passing down stories and poetry through spoken word and sung lyrics. She describes her process to NPR as "[hitting] words together with rhythm and sound quality and fierce playfulness."

In addition to a regular schedule of readings, she has performed her work on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" as well as toured with her band Arrow Dynamics, playing flute and saxophone as well as singing.

Her most recent collections of poetry are How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001 (2004) and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems (2015), which was shortlisted for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. This August, she will release her latest collection, An American Sunrise. Harjo also published the memoir Crazy Brave in 2012, which details her journey to becoming the internationally known poet and artist we know today.

As Poet Laureate, Harjo tells the Academy of American Poets that she wants to explore "how we sing the American story," tracing the country's poetic ancestry to construct a map of this cultural history starting from the "poetry of indigenous nations" and moving forward to trace the origins of the diverse modern poetic voices of the United States, which have roots "all over the Americas...and all over the world."

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