Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Joy Harjo
The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Joy Harjo
Because you are Girl-Warrior you have chosen
A path of many tests. You will learn how to make
Right decisions by making wrong ones.
Suzi F. Garcia: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor Suzi F. Garcia. Today on the podcast, Joy Harjo. Where to begin. Harjo is the nation’s first Native American poet laureate, a playwright, a musician, an author, and an editor. Today, we talk about her early activism while a college student in the 1970s, how she came to write poetry and befriend Audre Lorde, her obsession with maps, and her new memoir, Poet Warrior. Harjo lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation. Poet Warrior celebrates the influences that shaped her poetry and reckons with the theft of her ancestral homeland. She writes about her sixth-generation grandfather, who survived the Trail of Tears, the nineteenth century forced march in which the US government moved Native people from their ancestral homeland in the Southeast to territory that later became Oklahoma. Not everyone knows that Harjo also started playing saxophone at the age of forty. Today, we have the pleasure of hearing from her new album, I Pray for My Enemies. Produced with Barrett Martin, the album features musicians from some of the biggest bands of the nineties grunge scene, including REM, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. We started the conversation with how Harjo found poetry.
Joy Harjo: Okay, I loved poetry, you know, coming up. I always loved poetry and read poetry. And of course, when I was young, my image of a poet was an old white-haired white man declaiming poetry in a trench coat. No, I don’t know how I got that image. Then there was Emily Dickinson and that—she was different. But I remember I was a student at the University of New Mexico and Ishmael Reed came through, and he was really one of the people up in the front of really questioning the American canon of literature and saying, wait a minute, who is America?
So, I came up in a time in which multiculturalism came about, was starting to come about, much, you know, much to the dismay of English departments all over the country.
Suzi F. Garcia: Right. (LAUGHS)
Joy Harjo: For me, it was hearing—I was working towards a BFA in studio art, and it was hearing contemporary Native poetry that really opened the door. I just started, I started writing.
(READ EXCERPT FROM Poet Warrior)
My favorite room exists now only in the imagination. That’s how I visit it these days. I turn left into the yard of the small adobe house and park near the corn patch, which is by the clothesline.
I look to see if the swallows nest is still on the porch. Then I check to see if beaks are bobbing out of the nest, as the babies look to see if someone is coming to feed them.
Joy Harjo: At that time, we were grappling with history. We were grappling with certainly history of Native people in this country. And as students at the University of New Mexico, we realized that our community wasn’t just the university, it was our, the Indigenous communities around the university, and that it was our responsibility to stand up against any kind of injustice going on. And so that, as students, we were often called by communities and assisted them and sat in meetings with coal companies, uranium companies, who were there to divide the people or to commit huge theft of resources, and were responsible for massive destruction. That’s where, partly where my poetry started, because I could hear the eloquence of many of those speakers who would—some of them spoke English and their language, or they would speak say, Navajo or Pueblo language and, and then translate it. And what eloquence. I mean, what do you do with despair when you know that, no matter the truth of what someone is saying, and no matter the ethics, it was not going to turn out good, the end result would be destructive. I came to poetry on that, because I thought maybe poetry is a way that would help me and maybe others navigate this impossible, sometimes impossible situation of being human in a sometimes evil world.
Suzi F. Garcia: Harjo recently published her second memoir, Poet Warrior. Near the end of the book, she writes that Audre Lorde taught her there’s no difference between being a poet, mother, or lover. They’re all warrior roles. I asked Harjo about meeting Lorde and what the warrior role means to her.
Joy Harjo: Of course I met Audre Lorde through her poetry. I was a student at the University of Iowa. And I’m a sun person. And I was in a kind of winter where it was 80 below wind chill factor, and classes were not canceled. And I remember going into the university bookstore, and there was Audre Lorde’s book, Coal. I think I stood there and read the whole book. And then I brought it home with me. And that’s how I first met Audre. A few years later, I survived the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was at the great—I always remember it as the Great Midwestern Book Fair, but I think it has a little bit slightly different name. And Audre was reading. And so I was so excited to go hear her read. And I know she read “A Litany for Survival.”
(RECORDING OF Audre Lorde READING EXCERPT FROM “A Litany for Survival” PLAYS)
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
(RECORDING FADES OUT)
Joy Harjo: And that is an ancestor poem for two of my poems: “I Give You Back,” and also the poem “Anchorage.” But she read and this one poem she read was just so, it was so sensual. And I yelled, I yelled—I’m not a person who generally yells in poetry readings, but I did! (LAUGHS)
Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)
Joy Harjo: I said, “Read it again.” And she did.
Suzi F. Garcia: Wow.
Joy Harjo: And so I stood in line like everyone else. And then we said hello, and we went to get a bite to eat in the cafeteria. And that started our friendship. She was such a—yeah, I would call her a warrior. And what makes a warrior? I see the qualities of a warrior, really a warrior will, if you have to go to war, it’s usually, if you have to pull out a weapon for destruction, then it’s gone too far. Being a warrior is about contemplation. It’s about compassion, about listening. And about standing up when sometimes you’re the only person standing up. And I think Audre was one of those kinds of persons, you know, in those times of her coming of age. You know, standing up, you know, exploring who she was as a poet in a very different and unique manner, and exploring who she was as a sensual human being, and naming herself as a Black lesbian poet. People didn’t do that in those days. You know, I admired, of course, her poetry. Poetry is sort of the essence of a person and of a time in history and a place, but it was, I admired her human beingness, and her bravery.
(RECORDING OF JOY HARJO SINGING PLAYS)
This morning, I pray for my enemies. And whom do I call my enemy? An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
Suzi F. Garcia: Do you think that it’s possible to be a poet without being a poet warrior?
Joy Harjo: Maybe not. That’s a good question. I mean, I’m throwing out an answer here. I think it’s in the nature of being an artist. I mean, what is—a warrior stands in front of the people, because we’re bringing something back. It might be for a particular community, might be nourishment, it could be mental, spiritual, even physical nourishment for a particular community that does demand a kind of bravery, because artists, true artists are out there bare in everything they are, and it is not an easy position to be in.
Suzi F. Garcia: You mentioned the roles mother and lover as warrior roles. And I think there’s something about a sensitivity and a compassion too to those roles that make a warrior that oftentimes goes unseen, or is an unexpected part of being a warrior. I guess I think a little bit also of Adrienne Rich’s quote, about “there must be those among whom we can weep and still be counted as warriors.” Do you find some sort of connection to those ideas as well?
Joy Harjo: Oh, of course. And that’s where often when I saw Audre, Adrienne was right there also. And the two of them were, you know, they weren’t always walking exactly in step. (LAUGHS)
Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)
Joy Harjo: But they, they might look across a fence now and then at each other, but they had a great, you know, Adrienne was another warrior, and they had a great respect for each other. And, you know, it was not easy—I know a little of what Adrienne went through, and Audre also. And it puts you in the firing line, for one. It’s almost like, if you use a military term, it’s almost like walking point.
Suzi F. Garcia: Hmm, I’m not familiar with that term.
Joy Harjo: Yes, it’s the person who goes out ahead of everyone else and walks—
Suzi F. Garcia: Oh, my gosh.
Joy Harjo: Walks ahead. And you know, you check if there are mines, you know, who’s there, you know, and then you come back. If you survive, you come back and report, but you’re out walking ahead, and artists are like that. It doesn’t matter whether it’s poetry or painting or dance or whatever, we go out ahead to scout, in a way, to see what’s going on.
Suzi F. Garcia: Mm-hmm.
Joy Harjo: And it’s not always apparent. And sometimes what you bring back is not what everyone wants to hear, nor, if you’re, you know, working with particular kinds of forms or the way Adrienne, blew open—blew past—the patriarchal verse forms, you know, as she looked for forms that could hold precisely the voices, you know, her particular voice and perhaps the voices of women.
Suzi F. Garcia: Wow.
Joy Harjo: You know, she went through, she was still castigated for stepping outside the father’s mansion in the academic towers.
Suzi F. Garcia: Here’s Harjo reading from her new memoir, Poet Warrior.
In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map for
those who would climb through the hole in the sky.
My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged
from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens.
For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.
The map must be made of sand and can’t be read by ordinary light. It
must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.
In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it
was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.
Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the
altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace.
Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our
children while we sleep.
Flowers of rage spring up in the depression. Monsters are born
there of nuclear anger.
Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to
We no longer know the the birds here, how to speak to
them by their personal names.
Once we knew everything in this lush promise.
What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the
map. Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us, leav-
ing a trail of paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.
An imperfect map will have to do, little one.
Joy Harjo: Probably the ancestor story to this poem is Borges’s The Book of Sand. I love the concept of that, you know, a book that opens and you can never quite find the same page again.
Suzi F. Garcia: Something that I love about this poem is the declaration, this is an “imperfect map.” And that “will have to do.” We think of maps as such authority. But they change over time. They go backwards sometimes, they make pit stops sometimes.
Joy Harjo: And it depends on where you come in on the map, too. I was living, I lived in Hawaiʻi for over 11 years. And I did a visiting stand at University of Hawaiʻi Manoa, but I wasn’t there to teach, I was there—I’ve always wanted to be there, so I went. I went out racing river canoes and riding. And there was a period where I commuted to teach at UCLA. That’s when you could buy a pass for you know, a year pass for not much, and I could get on a plane and get everything graded, and then I would be home, instead of in traffic. But we had a map, there was a map in the hallway, Pacific-centered. That shifts everything. That’s what it taught me is, wow, then I could see the story that we have, the Muskogee Creek people, that there was, there were seven Polynesian canoes that came ashore. You could see where it happened that way. It shifted the story.
Suzi F. Garcia: Harjo has been creating her own maps for decades, with her poetry and with her—and now I’m borrowing her language—beingness, the way she lives in the world. She also recently completed the project Living Nations, Living Words, which is a literal map. It’s a collaboration with the Library of Congress and her signature project as United States Poet Laureate. It’s an online map of First Peoples’ poetry. The map is different shades of blue and green, representing the oceans and land with orange clickable dots where poems by Native Nations poets can be heard.
Joy Harjo: I had all kinds of project ideas, but it came down to this map making. Of course, I think with my poetry, I’m making a map of the soul. But I don’t have the perspective quite yet. I have rooms, you know, so I don’t know quite how to put it all together, because it’s not linear. But when I had my orientation at the Library of Congress, I said, “I want to see as many of the departments as possible, and I’d like to start with geography.” I love maps. But I thought it was important for us, one, to see a map that had no political borders. There was no border between Canada and the US, and tribal nations went back—well, we didn’t go back and forth, there was no border. Same with Mexico and the US. There was no border there. All we could see is earth and water. And I loved that. So I thought it was,
Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah.
Joy Harjo: yeah, so I thought it was important that we see, okay, we’ve been here. We’ve been writing poetry for, you know, in our languages, too, that would be another part of it, since, you know, long before. This is the root, these are root cultures. So I think of this as being the start of the map that would highlight Indigenous poets, because I was the first Native poet to be appointed. And I thought it was important that people saw that I’m not the only one.
Suzi F. Garcia: Right. So the project is not just about—it’s about visibility, but it’s also about breaking the idea that there’s a monolith here.
Joy Harjo: And this project was centered on place, it was centered thematically on place. Where are you from? Why are you situating yourself here? What is the story of how you got from here to here?
Suzi F. Garcia: That part is also so interesting, what you’re talking about how we got from one place to another. A large part of this conversation has to be about the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands. You’ve talked a little bit about, in the past about your family being a part of the Trail of Tears. How does grappling with something so complex and so clearly tied to geography work in this project?
Joy Harjo: Well, it’s, I think, there, there are many trails of tears. And you can see in this project where people scattered. I mean, people have always traveled. It doesn’t matter who you are, people travel for adventure, for love, for escape, you know, just like any other human being. And so many people, usually romanticists, look at the cultures and they want us to stay frozen in time and behave. But, you know, we’re like anybody else. I always say, my grandmother, Naomi Harjo, was a painter, and she also played saxophone in Indian territory. Put that in your stash of images of Native people.
(RECORDING OF JOY HARJO SINGING PLAYS)
When one of the last trails of tears wound through New Orleans, Rabbit, that ragged trickster, decided he wanted to be a musician. He was tired of walking. And they had all the fun. They got all the women, fans gave them smokes, drinks, and he could have all kinds of new friends to do his bidding.
Suzi F. Garcia: We grew up where the Bible was a large part of our education. And, while maybe neither of us actively knew we were participating in poetry, the storytelling around us, as well as the influence of the Bible was teaching us poetry, even maybe when we were not consciously interacting with it as poetry. Does that make sense?
Joy Harjo: Oh, yes, I loved—I would sit in boring sermons, because even sermons can be poetry. I loved, I loved reading the Bible. I love the stories. I mean, that’s what attracted me, of course. It was all about everybody went to church or, or they would come and get you. They stood outside the school with flyers with candy on them. So I was, that’s how—well, my mother took us, but then my mother, she had it tough, she would often work three or four jobs. I wound up going to church three times a week, because it was a refuge from stuff going on at home. It was a place to be and there were nice people in the church, even though kids wouldn’t sit with me because I was Native, and because my parents were—they eventually got a divorce. And so, I was often sitting by myself. But what drew me there was the storytelling. I loved the storytelling. I loved the Psalms, and I loved Song of Solomon. I would sit there and I would, you know, I would read those. And often, you know, with my mother, I was very close to my mother, and one of the rituals was, she loved water. I mean, she was fire, so she went for an opposite. So every night, she kind of, she’d be exhausted from working and would, I would draw her bath. I don’t know if people use that anymore, I would run her bath. And then, but I got to sit there, because she was a really good storyteller. And I would sit there, and I got into a period of trying to convert people, (LAUGHS) because that’s what you were taught. And she’d just say, you know, “I don’t need to be converted, I don’t,” and so on. But my favorite thing to do was find stories in there to shock her.
Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)
Joy Harjo: (LAUGHS) Which I found.
Suzi F. Garcia: Oh, my gosh!
Joy Harjo: Yes, yes, including Song of Solomon and, you know, Lot sleeping with his daughters and all of those. I remember, (LAUGHS) “That’s not in there.” “Oh yes it is, here it is.” And I had all those places marked.
But I love the, I love the poetry. I love the poetry of it. And I know that it’s probably been an influence. It’s one that I don’t really talk about a lot, because I walked away at 13. And then I get worried about saying it here, because it still is so much embedded in part, as part of the culture. But yeah, my mother was, my mother loved to write songs. I was very stuck with musicians coming to the house. I mean, that’s another, for me, that’s another kind of poetry. I love—Tulsa was a hotbed of country swing music and musicians, and I heard my mother sing with some of those bands. That was really how I came to love poetry. I would listen to her, I was her audience for her lyrics. And I felt very protective toward my mother. Sometimes I think I came in just to be with her, and I was quite a comedian. I would do pranks, and it was important to me to see her laugh because I knew she had it so hard.
(READS EXCERPT FROM Poet Warrior)
The place of entry is the sea of your mother’s blood,
your father’s small death
as he longs to know himself in another.
There is no exit.
The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—
a spiral on the road of knowledge.
You will travel to the membrane of death, smell cooking
from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of
fresh deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.
They have never left us; we abandon them for science.
And when you take your first breath as we enter the fifth world,
there will be no X, no guidebook of words you can carry.
You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice,
renew the song she is singing.
Fresh courage glimmers from planets.
And lights the map printed with a blood of history, a map
you will have to know by your intention,
by the language of sons.
When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers
where they enter the cities of artificial light
and killed what was killing us.
You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.
A white deer will come to greet you when the last human
climbs from the destruction.
We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth
who was once a star
and made the same mistakes as humans.
We might make them again, she said.
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.
Joy Harjo: My father’s in the little house before I was born, but her sister and I, her sister really was my—you know how you grow up thinking you’re an alien, and finally—(LAUGHS)
Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)
Joy Harjo: You know, she was my, I thought, “There I am.” She was a painter. And that’s where I was headed. Very involved in our traditional culture. And she had stacks of stories, books. She knew stories and she passed what she could on to me. I said something at the beginning of Poet Warrior that a memoirist should never do or say is that, I question my memory. (LAUGHS) Which cracks me up when I think about it. You know, because nobody has a perfect memory. And memory, you know, memory is very creative, but at the same time, I try to stay with what, I try to stay with what I remember or I state in a way that this is, you know, my reconstruction.
Suzi F. Garcia: I love the idea of the creative memory. I think that’s a very accurate way to say that. And messing with memory is something I think our brains are—they’re trying to put in the gaps, but they’re also, because we’re storytellers, they want to make it a good story for us, too. They’re like, “It was bigger than you could believe!” And I’m like, “I guess it was.” (LAUGHS)
Joy Harjo: And at the same time, like writing that memoir, I remember with Crazy Brave, I gave it to family, but my stepsister who’s passed, and she said, “You really held back. It was a lot worse than you wrote it.”
Remember the sky you were born under? Know each of the star stories. Remember the moon, know who she is. Remember the sun’s birth at dawn.
Suzi F. Garcia: Your newest album, I Pray for My Enemies, came out in 2021. It features musicians from some of the biggest bands of the nineties grunge era, including REM, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. It’s also connected to album producer Barrett Martin. I love thinking about these musical histories connecting. Can you talk a little bit about this project and all of these histories coming together?
Joy Harjo: Yes, well, a lot of those musicians were due to Barrett. And I met Barrett when I was living in New Mexico. He was working on his doctorate for ethnomusicology at the University of New Mexico. And then we were all playing around, you know, we would play with each other, do stuff, you know, gig around. So this last summer—that came out in March, it was in the height of the pandemic. He said, “You know, I have my studio up here in Port Townsend, if you can get up here.” He was part of that Seattle grunge scene. He’s a drummer, and has produced, I think he must do two or three productions a year. He’s nonstop. And we mixed it in the studio they all used up there in Seattle. And I can’t remember the name of the studio. But the mixer was Jack Endino, who is a player, a really good player, and also mixed and recorded a lot of that early Nirvana stuff and a lot of the Seattle bands. He was wonderful. I consider him an ally. So it came at the efforts of a lot of, you know, different people playing on it.
Suzi F. Garcia: Well, in this album, you speak a little bit about an urgency to explore discord and opposition. Why did music feel like the right genre for that conversation?
Joy Harjo: I always go to poetry. I’ve said this before, but I go to poetry, poetry is where I go to be in that place to speak beyond words. You know, and poetry is probably the form that uses words most essentially, in a way. I mean, any word used ultimately has that essentialism to it. But with music, it shifts. I think it can broaden the communication. Also, poetry was, you know, the roots of poetry, most poetic forms, there’s usually music and dance. But a lot of people in literature and poetry don’t know that I’m a musician or know that I play saxophone. And you know, when I first started doing music when I was almost forty, I always thought I could marry the audiences. But I have found that I have a whole music audience. Some of them know nothing about the poetry, even though the poetry is very much part of the music. And then I have the poetry diehards who don’t want the poetry messed with, with music. And then I think there’s a space for those in between.
You know, I think about what motivates me about poetry and it has to do with the art. I don’t totally understand it. And I say that in Poet Warrior. I don’t totally understand it, except that the journey, as you know, with poetry, with music, or with plays, is there’s an opening, and I’m looking like any, like anyone else, whether they’re fixing cars or writing poetry, you’re looking for a way to illuminate meaning. But of course, I’ve been asked over and over again, like, “Who do you write for? Why do you write?” Or, “Do you consider yourself this, this, or this?” And it’s like, actually, when I sit down to work, I am engaged with that incredible, elusive, plastic—plastic is probably not the best word, I would probably revise and add a different word, but I want a sense of that malleability of the creative forcefield.
Suzi F. Garcia: Mm-hmm.
Joy Harjo: And there’s nothing like that. I mean, there is nothing, there’s nothing like that kind of engagement. I love doing it in music. I love doing it in poetry with words.
Suzi F. Garcia: People say, you know, writing is like lightning. And I agree, except for I don’t feel like it strikes us with electricity, I feel like it’s lightning in the fact that it illuminates for one beautiful second, everything around you. And you’re walking, and all of a sudden, there’s a strike of lightning, and you can see the whole field around you. But it’s just one moment of delightful surprise.
Joy Harjo: Right. And the other point too, there is that of course, you said, we’re all, we all have so many people, so many layers, and there’s the birth layer and it goes all the way through and they exist. And we always carry our deaths with us. Of course, when you get to my age, it becomes a lot more in focus. But, you know, even as a young person, you know, even young, when I was first writing, it always, it’s like I’ve been at the birth of grandchildren, some of them, and everyone I could be at the birth for, and I would discover death standing there just incredible. Powerful. You know, it’s one of the most powerful—it’s, you know, it’s an opening. It’s a door, it’s one of, you know, it’s probably the same door as birth.
Suzi F. Garcia: A door that goes both ways.
Joy Harjo: Yes.
AH JAH LUHGEE MAH GUN GHEE
ALLAY NA LEE NO
HAYOUNG GEE (G)O LEE
We’re here to celebrate life! It’s so short. We’re put here to love and take care of each other, so, hobanee, hobanee, let’s dance!
Suzi F. Garcia: A big thanks to Joy Harjo. It meant so much to me to share that space with her. Harjo is a three-term Poet Laureate of the United States and the author of nine books of poetry, children’s books, and the editor of Native Nations poetry anthologies. The online project Living Nations, Living Words, a map of First Peoples’ poetry, is now live on the Library of Congress website. Today, you heard music from her newest album, I Pray for My Enemies, and poetry from her second memoir, Poet Warrior. If you’re not yet a subscriber to the magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcast offer. This show is produced by Rachel James. The intro music came from the band Resavoir. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thanks for listening.
(MUSIC PLAYS AND FADES OUT)
Today on the podcast: Joy Harjo. Harjo is the nation's first Native American poet laureate and a playwright, musician, author, and editor. Not everyone knows that Harjo also started playing saxophone at the age of forty. Today, we have the pleasure of hearing from her new album, I Pray for My Enemies, which features musicians from some of the biggest bands of the nineties grunge scene—including R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. We also spoke with Harjo about her early activism, how she came to befriend Audre Lorde, her obsession with maps, and her new memoir, Poet Warrior. The memoir celebrates the influences that shaped Harjo’s poetry and reckons with the theft of her ancestral homeland. She writes about her sixth-generation grandfather, who survived the Trail of Tears, and sheds light on the rituals that nourish her as an artist, mother, wife, and community member.
Harjo has been creating her own maps for decades—with her poetry, the way she lives in the world, and recently, with the project Living Nations, Living Words, a collaboration with the Library of Congress and her signature project as United States Poet Laureate. It’s an online map where poems by Native Nations poets can be heard. The conversation starts with how Harjo found poetry.