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'An Echo of Something Not Finished': Poet Laureate On These Turbulent Times

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(Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Joy Harjo speaks at the Governors Awards on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, at the Dolby Ballroom in Los Angeles.

Joy Harjo has been busy. The Muscogee Native was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2019, the same year her most recent collection of poetry, "An American Sunrise," was published.

She also edited Norton's recent anthology of Native Nations poetry, "When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through."

In Harjo's honor, local nonprofits Poetry Promise and the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, with the help of Clark County, organized a series of events called Let There Be No Regrets. It begins Wednesday, September 23.

In advance of that, Harjo talked with State of Nevada about how art and poetry help make sense of tumultuous times.

“It’s a strange time, but for artists and poets who need a lot of time… it’s given me time that I would not have had,” she said.

She said if the pandemic hadn't hit when it did she would have been traveling every week, starting in March. But the extra time to work on her art has helped her to cope.

“We always turn to the arts and poetry and music when we’re confronted with those transformative moments whether they’re birth, death, or marriage with a family or within a country,” she said.

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Harjo believes her appointment as poet laureate has helped open people's minds to what native people can do, but it is has been a long and often frustrating journey to this point.

She said Native Americans often remain invisible in "the ongoing and continuing American story, where we’re still practically invisible even though we’re the root peoples and cultures of these lands of this country."

Harjo hopes the Norton anthology of native poets helps make indigenous people more visible.

“I want them to know that this collection represents over 160 poets, many, many tribal nations that each of us comes from, cultures that are as deeply present and varied and accomplished as, say, cultures in Europe or China or any other place,” she said.

Harjo grew up in the late 60s and 70s, another time of great civil unrest in the country. She sees the current unrest as "an echo of something that is not finished."

“There is certainly so much that has been undone in this country in the last few years and a wound that is open and running that we all need to attend to," she said, "a wound that is around certainly injustice, around racial injustice, economic injustice and injustice for the earth and all the earth’s creatures."

And while now is a time of great reckoning, it is also a time of creativity, Harjo believes.

The poet laureate sees her life's work as transformative. 

“Every poet, just like every artist and every human being, has themes or a theme," she said. "And I don’t think we consciously think, ‘This is going to be my theme,’ but it’s something innate and natural that comes out of I think the character and the family story, and then the human soul story. And mine has been transformation."

That transformation comes in a variety of ways from her long work in social justice and Native American rights, working to transform hatred into love.

Harjo believes the country is in the midst of a great transformation. She said there two ways the country could go: one way is into a dictatorship and another is into what democracy was supposed to be.

Besides poetry, the poet laureate also just finished an album of music and will be releasing a memoir next year.

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Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate

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