Possibility and Ferocity

A conversation with United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

By Laureli Ivanoff
Photographs by Kevin Lange

Joy Harjo helps one to understand the concept that God, the Creator, should be feared.

Having the chance to talk with the three-term United States poet laureate was like a wannabe boxer meeting Muhammad Ali. A C-team basketball player meeting Dr. J. A tennis player stealing a moment with Serena. To momentarily have access to the internationally renowned writer and poet was one part wonderful and three parts terrifying. To have the opportunity to ask questions to the Native woman you respect most causes the chest to hurt, the stomach to buzz, the brain to scatter for the week and a half leading up to the appointment. It was lovely torture.

“I’ve never been so unworthy of such correspondence,” I said to one of my best friends after talking and sharing emails with Joy Harjo. “How does one person possess so much grace, love, courage, compassion, and ferocity?”

As a former radio reporter, interviewing inspiring people who make things happen remains one of my favorite things in life. The day I dialed the phone number to talk with Joy Harjo, my stomach held a large stone. My chest felt tight. There was a lot of deep breathing. She answered, and I didn’t even know how to introduce myself.

“Where are you?” she had to ask me.

My voice high and strange, I answered. “I’m in a little fishing town called Unalakleet. In Alaska,” I said. Unalakleet is a town of 750 on the western coast. With no roads connecting us to other communities, we’re an hour’s plane ride from Nome, the gold-rich town that brought the first wave of self-proclaimed “pioneers” to Alaska more than 120 years ago.

“I love Nome,” Harjo said, and I felt the rock in my belly turn into something just softer than stone. Hard mud? She said she had been to Nome twice and wrote a poem about the town I had lived in for sixteen years, where my career began.

Harjo wrote “Spirit Walking in the Tundra” for a friend and her son after visiting them. They’re people I know. “Mary Jane used to do healing work on me during a difficult time in my life,” I told Harjo. “She’s a mystic, which I was drawn to.”

“Mary Jane is amazing,” she said. “We always have the best time.”

And just like that, I was able to picture Joy Harjo driving around on those dusty streets and down the dirt road that follows the sandy, sparkling beach. She became human.

I don’t need to tell you she’s brilliant. Her words reach deep while simultaneously lighting up our minds. Her journey as an artist, as a Native person, as a woman, gives people like me courage. Her life and path show us we can push beyond expectations in our society and do so with our heads held high. What she showed me over the course of a week is that we can also do this while keeping our hearts soft.

Joy Harjo does what seems impossible.

I wanted to understand. How did a young Mvskoke woman from the Muscogee Creek Nation Reservation rise up in society and become an internationally renowned poet, all while lifting us up with her?

“When did you get an inkling that you could be a writer?” I ask.

 “I was never aware of a calling to be a writer or a poet,” she says of growing up with a grandmother and aunt who were painters, in a community where Native visual art characterized the Tulsa and greater Oklahoma culture. “Growing up, we had no models of poets and writers,” she says.

But in her aunt Lois, Harjo found someone in her family that understood her. “We had quite a time with each other,” Harjo says. “I would drive her around to visit the older relatives in our community, the ones who knew things. She was a painter, a lover and supporter of our Native arts and cultures, loved animals, and stories of mysterious events, just like me.” During the days she and her aunt would frequent a chicken and frybread establishment that’s no longer in Okmulgee, she understood that the arts gave her a way to express herself. She said back then, at Tulsa Public Schools, art was part of the education. She was in two art shows in sixth grade and was the understudy for a major role in an operetta.

Harjo was also often in school plays because a teacher told her once that her voice carried. Her voice is strong. Here in Unalakleet where we rely on the ice like a typical American relies on a grocery store, the east wind pushes thick sea ice with such strength it forces cracks to open, allowing rich ocean water to emerge. Joy Harjo’s voice is like that. With the power in her words, her voice moves. You feel it in your chest. But it didn’t start off that way.

“I never talked freely in the classroom until I went to Indian school,” she says. Which means she didn’t talk freely in the classroom until she was 16 years old. Such is the experience of many Native people who attend Western educational institutions throughout the country. We often feel we don’t fit in. And if we are just more than ignored, we use most of our energy to explain who we are.

“As a teenager my home life was treacherous,” she says. “I knew that in order to survive to adulthood I would need to leave. I told my mother I wanted to go to Indian school, because I would be around solely Native students.” Her mother brought her 50 miles away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Muskogee to sign her up for the following fall. “When she told the agent I was a good artist, I was directed to apply to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.”

She was accepted to what was then a high school based on her drawings.

The drawings were “mostly fashion,” she says. “My mother said that I used to draw original fashion ideas and images, then they would show up in magazines the next season.”

Today IAIA is a tribal college with undergraduate and master’s programs with more than 600 students enrolled. In 1967 and ’68, when she attended, there were roughly 200 students and twenty art faculty members. Native students attended from throughout the country to study arts of all kinds. “It was a new school with a groundbreaking arts curriculum. We had the best art teachers in the country, predominantly Native.”

While there were writing classes and a literary publication that came out every spring, and she enjoyed reading poetry, her interests were not yet in that direction. At IAIA she enjoyed drawing, dance, and drama. Along with being immersed in art and studying with teachers like Daystar Rosalie Jones and Fritz Scholder, she also found healing. Maybe it was experiencing acceptance. Maybe safety. Maybe in discovery.

Some of it was place.

“The landscape and light captured me and allowed my imagination to find lift,” she says. “There’s no place like New Mexico.”

I ask how her time in New Mexico fed into who she is as a poet. “The answer could be a whole book,” she says.

When Harjo initially attended the University of New Mexico, she was a studio arts major. During that time, she met many of the up-and-coming Native writers, including Simon J. Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, and James Welch. “They became my models,” she says. “Because of them I realized for the first time that we Native nations people write and express in our own distinct manner. That freed me and I began writing poetry.”

“Something just took over when I wrote poetry, and it seemed a very unlikely goal for a single mother with two children to take on. I didn’t understand it,” she says. “I still don’t—but writing became compelling, and I had to follow it.”

Following what compelled her, Harjo’s steps opened the world for poets, writers, and artists everywhere, and especially Native writers who know, from her example, that not only can we express ourselves through art, but we can strive for excellence. In a world that suddenly seems interested in our experience and our voices and perspective, writers everywhere stand firmly knowing they can use their voices.                 

But no one can do it alone.

Harjo says while we may work singularly, an artist must connect with others on a similar track. She says after she started playing the saxophone, she was given advice to play music with those who were better than her, and they indeed made her better. “When I started out writing poetry I was with the best,” she says. “They helped me refine my craft, thought field, and inspired me.”

What I have not told you is that when I dialed the phone number to interview Joy Harjo, I was an hour late. And she told me so. I blame what could be the biggest mishap in my career on the norovirus my body was still shedding. Or perhaps my strange relationship with numbers, time, and the resulting difficulty with time zones. But, in the moment she said, “You were supposed to call me an hour ago,” none of that mattered.

I messed up.

The first Native U.S. poet laureate, the visual artist, the seamstress, saxophone player, and what I’d learn and experience to be a compassionate human being, remained on the phone with me for fifteen minutes—fourteen minutes longer than she needed to. In that time, I heard her strong voice, felt her commanding presence while 3,250 miles away, and experienced her grace. Grace a majority of us have not practiced during this chaotic time in our history. 

Harjo said her laureateship has taken place during an unusual time, not only because much of it was done through Zoom and on social media, but “because of all the political division, the pandemic, and climate change we are witnessing,” she said. It’s why her grace and compassion felt all the more undeserved. With intention and purpose, she manifests goodness unseen. However, she says, “because of the times we are in, people have been turning to poetry for what poetry gives us. A way to speak and to think and to dream outside of linear thought.”

And I was reminded from the poem she wrote about Nome that she is someone who, while looking down at the sea ice, sees the sky. She looks at what is and beyond at what can be. With intention and purpose, she manifests the impossible.

With the laureateship nearing completion, Harjo remains persistent in finding projects that compel her. She has a book coming out, Catching the Light, which will be published in November by Yale University Press. This summer she will join the new Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, leading a six-year residency as its first artist-in-residence. She says the residency honors creativity, especially Bob Dylan’s creative life. Her work is “to help support those who are coming up in the story field, who create music and poetry, who wish to make change to benefit their generation, this world,” she says. “I will be advising and will help in the vision.”

And I wondered, “How?” How does an artist and creative in today’s harsh and difficult world match strength and ferocity with such compassion, grace, and love? 

She offered this answer from her forthcoming book about writing and creativity:

It is the singers, poets, and storytellers who are captured by the expression of this eternal human drama, and with language, metaphor, timing, and melody turn despair and hopelessness into meaningful shape. What is repetitive and ordinary becomes flowers blooming in a blizzard. A doorway appears where a door was not possible, and through it runs a white rabbit with a watch, or a white buffalo who is a promise made by mythic female power. We are terrified or delighted and with poetry, music, and story we are given a way to speak it, to understand it. We find a way through even when there appears to be no light.

She continues: “To write is to open up doorways to the impossible.” 

Laureli Ivanoff is an Inupiaq writer in Unalakleet, Alaska, where she cuts fish and makes seal oil. She’s working on a memoir and is currently an MFA student at the Institute of American Indian Arts’ low-residency creative writing program.