Volume 68, Number 2 · Spring 2019

Memory, a Living Being: A Conversation with Joy Harjo

Joy HarjoOn February 11, 2019, Joy Harjo visited Washington and Lee University as part of the Mudd Center’s exploration of The Ethics of Identity. Three Shenandoah interns—James Ricks, Mara Efimov, and Arthur Rodrigues—sat down to talk with her. The conversation was later edited and expanded into the version you see here.

Shenandoah: In reading Crazy Brave and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, I noticed some points of similarity. One was memory. Thinking about some other works by Native authors—Natalie Diaz comes to mind—this idea of remembering and the responsibility of remembering your family history really stands out. What effect has your storytelling had on your connection to that ancestry and to your family?

Joy Harjo: Memory is a living being that moves in many-layered streams. It is not static. It is not a backwards look. It moves forward, sideways, and in a spiral. And most likely in dimensions we do not have access to with our contemporary miles. Much of American history has been disappeared or suppressed, especially when it concerns indigenous peoples. There are more laws dealing with Native nations than there are any other kind of laws. With memory, rather, the memory-field, nothing is ever lost. But here in the “over-culture,” which is a culture of commercialization, we are taught to live in the now only, so we become perpetual adolescents. Memory is our storehouse. Poetry is one way to access memory, to hold memory. In this digital and cellular age, we don’t have to remember anything, not even our telephone numbers. You push a button, you click on a keyboard, touch a screen, it appears that all sorts of memory is available. You have access to libraries and to different collections, and you don’t have to remember anything. What do we give up? Is there a middle road? You won’t be able to hear your soul, or find the impetus to grow it. The stories, the people—what happens to memory and your relationship to memory, or rather the path of your own existence on a planet that is essentially you? What happens when our stories and our presence becomes reduced to sound bites and selfies?

Everything has two sides in this reality of duality. The connection between the two poles is the heart. And it is the heart that has the function and ability to make those kinds of connection. It’s about response and responsiveness. Poets have a very particular kind of work, which has to do with taking what is beyond language and making word art—the materials are reality, history, dreams, that which we know but cannot yet perceive. When I was younger, our minds were mostly earth. Our interactions were usually out of doors and we spoke with one another. We listened to music on the radio, record player, or stereo, or from living players. Now, we are so disconnected even while connected. We can hear any kind of music we want anytime—night or day. Everything is available anytime. We’re like Pinocchio let loose in the land of amusements. What happens to community and making a community and even family then? When all the children are on their devices and people will even sit at a table and look at their devices and not talk with each other, that shifts our relationship to everything, even literature. That shifts the story we tell ourselves or even what we know of story. Do our stories bear nourishment?

Shenandoah: How do we then keep that community alive? How do we work against these sort of barriers to connection?

Joy Harjo: We are experiencing the rise of poetry readings, of people getting together socially, for connection and for social change. We need to wean ourselves from our devices so we get back in touch with this many-layered universe, and how it accesses us through the earth. With the intuitive, you have access to everything, whereas with just the intellect you have access to restricted knowledge which is often repackaged thought constructions. What compelled me to write was the need to move into the mystery that is just beyond the ordinary sensory. There is everyday language and there is sacred language. When I started learning poetry, I was learning Navajo language. To be immersed in that study taught me that everyday language can have a preciseness and exactness that is more than we might consciously know, then ceremonial language that we use in ritual, in entreaty to the divine, reveals a higher thought, beyond the intellectual. That’s why I was intrigued and drawn to poetry. Memory as an active agent is a large part of it.

I think that all of us, every human being, is a memory keeper to some extent. But it is the writers, poets, performers, and artists who are usually the appointed memory keepers with the responsibility of staying true to what we are receiving, given to carry forth into earth human memory. This is one of the things that poetry has taught me. What I’m doing is not just about me sitting down as an individual human writing words, but there is something much larger behind what comes through. Then you start seeing people’s faces and the stories start coming to you in different ways. And it’s not just two-legged people but animals, plants, geometric forms. Perhaps one of your relatives gives you something or you dream something or you recall something, and you realize it’s not your memory, but it’s coming through from ancestral memory. Because DNA is a string of memories, it’s coming through to you. It’s a memory that belongs to a grandparent or a great-grandparent because it wants to be remembered. So, we become memory keepers of sorts, especially when we don’t see our stories in the predominant story streams that educate our children, that tell them who we are in this time, in this place.

Shenandoah: In Crazy Brave you talk about how some things are more difficult to reach.

Joy Harjo: Well, the biggest barrier is fear or a closed mind, or a system that doesn’t allow for poets or artists or thought other than prescribed doctrine, either governance or religion. Those things become barriers to creativity and to memory. We have lots of examples of that in this country, and the world.

Shenandoah: You mentioned earlier your home in Tulsa. Has your return to Oklahoma changed or influenced your work recently?

Joy Harjo: I am watching that play out. I fled from Tulsa to go to an Indian boarding school that was transforming into a Native art school of mostly high school students. It saved my life literally, to be in the company of young Native creative artists who were battling similar histories, carried similar stories on their backs, and had a need to express themselves artistically. I returned to Oklahoma as a teenage mother, fresh from a Native theater tour, then within a year moved back to New Mexico. I was away for years and lived most of those years in the Southwest and some in Hawaii. I returned in August 2011 to help my mother who had lung cancer. She passed in October 2011 and by November 2011 I had moved back to Oklahoma. I could not go against my spirit, who told me it was time to go back. We all have that inner guidance. For years my dream had always been to get a little house in Oklahoma and then to be back every summer when all the dances and tribal social events are going on. The Southwest had become so much a part of me, but it was time to return. And to return has made all the sense in the world.

I have a legacy that is rooted there, but belongs to the world. I don’t think of it as “my” legacy, rather, a kind of taking care of what I was given to do, that was passed to me by my family, tribe, and by these lands. I had to return to make peace with my mother. We had our time and fulfilled what we were given to do with each other. I was living in my mother’s sewing room when I finished the last edits of Crazy Brave. I would edit at night as my mother slept, and I thought how interesting that my mother is leaving and I’m finishing this book, a book that embodied the telling of why I had to flee to remember who I was, who I am, before I could come home. It’s funny how exact the timing works.

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings could only have happened with my return. It could only happen with being immersed in our traditional culture, with my people. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings came with the commitment to my home and people, which meant returning home to live, which is a very different thing from coming and going. There are always challenges whatever the path.

Shenandoah: Like what?

Joy Harjo: Conflict Resolution came back with embracing—really embracing—home and my difficult history with home. I knew that I had work to do. Even though I loved New Mexico and I’d lived there for years and always miss the ’aina of O’ahu where I became part of the outrigger canoe culture, I knew that my work was back in Oklahoma. When I was living in the Pacific, I knew I was going to have to return home, but didn’t want to know. One night my spirit confronted me. Literally. It came to me when I was working alone in my room and told me it was time to go. I argued that I didn’t want to leave. I wanted more time. But I’ve learned that it does no good to argue, because your spirit helper knows more than you. It has the long view, the view of centuries of understanding beyond the small mind of immediate wants and needs. It showed me what would happen if I stayed, and hinted at the possibilities of what could happen if I returned. I knew I had to go home. It broke my heart to leave the island. I still often travel there in memory by winds. But what I have gained by returning is worth more than I could have imagined. And all of it is still unfolding. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings embodies part of it. So does my newest forthcoming collection of poetry, An American Sunrise. That collection could have only happened from a return, actually, more of a kind of double-return. Our tribal nation is not originally from Oklahoma. Our lands are located in the Southeast. We are descended from the mound-builder peoples. Three years ago, after returning to Oklahoma, I accepted a Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee. It is located on original Mvskoke lands. My husband and I wanted to roam the area and visit our original homelands. We were forcibly removed by Andrew Jackson and his forces, in a very similar political time as this one we are in today, characterized by the outspoken platform of white supremacy in the White House.

Shenandoah: It sounds like there’s some elements of protest in the book as well?

Joy Harjo: Well, yes, I suppose the whole collection could be called protest, or maybe anything we do as Natives is considered protest. I’m just telling the story. I’m writing, singing, and telling stories. The collection includes testimony of what has happened from Trail of Tears survivors. One quote from James Scott, a survivor of the Trail of Tears, reminds us: “They killed all the babies.” When writing I was despairing about history, and watching indigenous people coming up from Mexico for refuge against terrorists, and witnessing the separation of the children from their parents. There is PTSD all over again for Native people. What shameful behavior in the name of all of us! We are watching it happen all over again. Surely we want a different legacy for the U.S., or maybe we are doomed because the pattern has been set, since the founding. We are witnessing another ugly part of American history done in our name. All of our names. And by the way, that’s a false border there. There are indigenous trails there that have been there for centuries. No border will stop it. No wall will stop it. Read Leslie Silko’s novel, An Almanac of the Dead. She predicted this.

Shenandoah: Some of these divisions that we strike up are certainly manmade and created out of hatred. The one that stands out in my mind is the viral video that was very controversial recently of the boys in the MAGA hats confronting the Native elder in Washington, D.C. What’s your take is on that?

Joy Harjo: I did watch the videos. The whole story is in the smirk of the boy wearing the “Make America Great Again” cap. What is so disturbing is how the story got twisted in the media by white privilege. The authority of the story was given to a child wearing a hat that signified hatred and division. He disrespected and confronted an elder, when every human culture that I’ve ever studied or encountered embodies a respect for older people. You respect older people—they might be wrong and they’re not perfect, but there’s respect given. Instead, this petulant child was given power to wield the story because the man was Native, and the elder Native man was made out to be the transgressor. This makes for an upside-down world. Does anything ever change? Is this always how it’s going to be in America? Will America always accept the white male point of view as the authority when there is tremendous diversity of human thought, when spiritually there can exist no hierarchy of value related to skin color or monetary worth? It still bothers me very deeply. It reopens that deep wounding that is at the root, that’s at the heart of what’s going on in this country and it does go back to Muskogee people in the south and how the hatred rooted us out. The American holocaust took a population that was nearly 100 percent indigenous and brought us to less than one half of 1 percent of the population.

It’s all out in the open with this presidency. The argument’s been made that if all the racial hatred is out in the open, we can see it and know how to deal with it. It’s always been there, repressed by false civility, and now we can see it. How do we speak so that there’s an illumination and a compassion that is able to burn through? When you’re dealing with a wound, it needs to be lanced to heal. But only then can you find the healing.

Shenandoah: How does that form of expression interact with your writing and to what extent do you see those two working together?

Joy Harjo: Well, I came to write through poetry because of my mother who wrote song lyrics. So I went looking for poetry as a child, and continued to find it in music, books, and in oral human expression. I love the musical elements of poetry and how poetry is able to move through heartbreak. A poetic line can be a cry, like a saxophone playing a line, riffing on…heartache. And then, holding it up, keeping everything coherent, is the rhythm section, is…always rhythm. And there’s the heart again. It’s all about rhythm. The first project I did involving music was in the early 1980s. There was a taped reading series from the Watershed Foundation out of Washington, DC. They asked me to record an album. I asked some of the best jazz musicians in Denver, where I was living then, to add to it. My first album with a band, my band Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, was Letter From the End of the Twentieth Century. I learned to play saxophone on that album. The next album I learned how to sing. The one after that I learned Native flute. I’m working on a musical play now, We Were There When Jazz Was Invented. Indigenous peoples of the Southeast have been left out of the origin story of blues and jazz, and we were part of it.

Shenandoah: I know there’s an anthology that you’re working on as well. How is that coming along?

Joy Harjo: I’ve been working with a team on When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Found Their Way Through: a Norton Anthology of Indigenous Nations Poetry. It is a historic collection, including the earliest writings in English down to the most contemporary Native poets. The editors are all Native, except for the assistant editors. They were all students from the University of Tennessee. I was given permission to teach a class which was basically: how to put together a Norton anthology. They got hands-on experience and took part in all the tasks required to edit such an anthology. The anthology is divided into five geographical regions. We have contributing editors for each of the areas. The students then had to research and write up their own anthology proposals. They developed some serious and publishable projects.

Shenandoah: What do you find yourself reading these days?

Joy Harjo: I’ve been reading a lot of poetry including Jericho Brown’s newest collection, The Tradition. I was reading Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, which is a memoir. I’m also reading Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. I’ve been reading all of Tracy K. Smith’s work to prepare for a Lannan event with her. And then Tommy Orange’s There, There.

Shenandoah: Our theme this year for the Mudd Center’s speaker series has been identity. I’m hearing you just now talk about memory. It seems like that might be a more helpful word when it comes to organizing a group of people to talk about who they are and what they’re trying to do with language. Is identity a useful word to you or do you think it’s sort of obsolete and dated?

Joy Harjo: The root of identity is belief system. And where do those beliefs and belief systems originate and are they regenerative for society, for the earth? What kind of world are we making? A healthy system is defined by diversity, which translates to diversity of color, beliefs, identities. An isolationist society that Trump is herding us toward is closed off and defies diversity. Stereotypes are perverted identity. Identity is a hot topic in Indian Country. (Yes, I say “Indian,” not Native American.) Are we identified by our communities and families or by government numbering? And what of all those who claim false identity? Who defines who is Native and who is not and who constructs that identity on the books? How does it play out in reality in the community? The trees know exactly who they are. They know about interdependence. They do not have to shout or force their treeness on others. Nor do they say that there is only one kind of tree allowed, and war against other trees because they are different. They are exactly who they are—

Joy Harjo’s eight books of poetry include Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, and She Had Some Horses. Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave won several awards, including the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction and the American Book Award. She is the recipient of the Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation for Lifetime Achievement, the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets for proven mastery in the art of poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the United States Artist Fellowship. In 2014 she was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame. A renowned musician, Harjo performs with her saxophone nationally and internationally, solo and with her band, the Arrow Dynamics. She has five award-winning CDs of music including the award-winning album Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears and Winding Through the Milky Way, which won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2009. Forthcoming in the fall of 2019 is a book of poetry from Norton, An American Sunrise. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.