Having to Fight for It: An Interview with Poet / Musician Joy Harjo

by    /  November 15, 2013  / 1 Comment


Photo: City of Asylum/Pittsburgh Archives

Joy Harjo, a Creek Indian poet and musician originally from Oklahoma, has known both struggle and accomplishment throughout her thirty-year career. Twenty years ago, as a saxophonist in a jazz setting, Harjo remembers how she was marginalized because the other musicians didn’t know what to do with a woman who wasn’t a vocalist. But now, recording her sixth album, Harjo leads her band and is learning ukulele and bass.

She also tells how, in 2000, after writing her first children’s book, she was similarly dismissed by a publisher as an author solely for Native American readers. However, last year her memoir Crazy Brave was published by Norton to critical acclaim. It also won the PEN Center USA’s award for Creative Nonfiction.

In September Harjo read and played the flute and saxophone at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s 2013 Jazz Poetry concert. The morning before the show she sat down with Sampsonia Way for what was supposed to be a brief discussion on craft. Instead, the conversation widened to include stories about her family and ancestors, writers’ block, the forced exile of Native Americans in the US, and what it takes to balance her “two lovers,” music and poetry.

Tell me about your journey with music and poetry.

It came from my mother. My mother used to sing and write songs at the kitchen table, and back then, when my father was still with us, a lot of country swing people would come over and jam. Tulsa was very famous for country swing.

  1. Joy Harjo
  2. Joy Harjo‘s career has spanned five albums of music and spoken-word (on which she plays saxophone, flute, and sings), eight volumes of poetry, two children’s books, a musical-in-progress, and a one-woman play, among other projects. Currently she is also a professor of English in the American Indian Studies department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

My mother wrote songs, some of them were arranged, and she even recorded one. She also loved poetry, especially lyric poetry, and could quote some Blake, but left school in the 8th grade because she was very poor—she didn’t have money for books and would wear the same dress to school every day. She’s Cherokee, and married my father, who was Creek Indian. It wasn’t a very popular union.

Realistically, I came to music when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I was about 40 that I actually took it on. I talk about it in Crazy Brave. When I was 13 or 14, my stepfather forbade me from singing at home. I also joined the school band the first semester of junior high. I played clarinet because the band teacher wouldn’t let girls play saxophone. So I quit and walked away from music.

In my 20s I went to school at the University of New Mexico, and came into poetry at a time when Ishmael Reed was serving as the force behind several defining multicultural gatherings. In the late seventies there was a gathering in New York City was where I met and heard the poet/performer Jayne Cortez for the first time. She became a major influence on me. Reed also used to come to New Mexico quite a bit when I was an undergrad student at UNM to visit Leslie Silko and Mei Mei Berssenbrugge. Then in 1990 I started my band, Poetic Justice, and began playing sax. I learned to play saxophone on my first album, Letter From the End of the 20th Century, and started learning how to sing on the next album. The newest album is going to be rock, jazz, and blues.

“Words are vehicles for bringing something into being: A vision of peace, a vision of connection, a vision of telling a story of who we are, what we’ve done, where we’ve been, where we’re going.”

It sounds like your career was formed by a lot of people saying “No,” and reminds me of Sherman Alexie’s quote, “Poetry equals anger times imagination.” How does that description relate to your personal trajectory?

I have a different take. Anger is sexier, it’s edgier, but it’s really all imagination: Poetry, science, living. It’s how you’re going to take a paycheck from McDonald’s and feed four children and pay your rent. Poetry is very powerful in the sense that it’s condensed thought, but also dreams and imagination. Words are vehicles for bringing something into being: A vision of peace, a vision of connection, a vision of telling a story of who we are, what we’ve done, where we’ve been, where we’re going.

In addition, for me, music goes into places that words can’t touch. There’s something about music that’s like nothing else, except maybe sex. Especially improvisation. You don’t know how you’re going to get there, but you know where you’re going. If the winds shift a little bit, you’re willing to change the direction.


Photo: Renee Rosensteel

Are these limitations with words another reason you started getting more involved in music?

Part of it. I’ve always heard the music, and in my soul I’m really a dancer. I think of poetry as being able to move with words. It’s very physical for me.

In the early 80’s it finally came to me that I could play music. When I was in Santa Fe, teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I’d go out and listen to jazz. Later I went to Denver and was in jazz clubs every weekend. That’s where it started. Jazz has always intimidated me, but it’s what I absolutely love. It’s where I live.

Still, I always blow the question off when people ask me, “How do you do both disciplines?” I say, “I think of it as one,” but it’s almost like having two lovers. Sometimes I wish I could just go with one or the other and focus my days around that. Right now I’m doing something different every week and that’s difficult.

    How We Became Human New and Selected Poems: 1975 – 2001. W. W. Norton & Company. 2004
    A Map to the Next World W.W. Norton & Company. 2000
    The Woman Who Fell From the Sky W.W. Norton. 1994, Fishing Ox Head Press, 1992
    In Mad Love and War. Wesleyan University Press. 1990
    Secrets from the Center of the World. University of Arizona Press. 1989
    She Had Some Horses. Thunder’s Mouth Press. 1983.; W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
    What Moon Drove Me to This? I. Reed Books. 1979
    The Last Song, Puerto Del Sol. 1975

    Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America. W.W. Norton & Company. 1998

    Crazy Brave: A Memoir. W. W. Norton & Company. 2012″
    Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo. Wesleyan University Press. 2011

    For a Girl Becoming. University of Arizona Press. 2009
    The Good Luck Cat. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2000

Do you prepare differently for a reading versus a performance?

Probably not. I practice music as much as I can in my office in the department of American Indian Studies. When I first came there I said, “I hope you guys don’t mind, but I have to play.” The hard part is having all these different components in my life.

And then I tell my students, “You have to feed the spirit of your art.” A lot of times, that’s actually the act of not doing anything. That’s what I’m finding I need the most right now.

Do you have a routine when you write?

I wish. I love routine. I traveled almost every week last year, so I write on the road a lot. I always have a couple of notebooks in my bag, in different sizes, and my computer. I write a lot of ideas down long hand.

How do poems come to you?

Often it’s rhythm, an image, something that repeats. If I’m going to write a poem, I write it then work on it, so I’m always carrying lots of fragments. Other things come pretty fast, like the song-poem “One Day There Will Be Horses.” There was another one that came to me called “Everybody Has a Heartache.” That was written in an airport when the weather was bad and I was just looking at all the people, thinking “Everybody has a heartache.” That one came quickly, but I’ve done a lot of revision on it.

Recently, I’ve been wrestling with a musical. In February I went to the Sundance Screenwriting Residency in Ucross, Wyoming, for three weeks to work on it. I thought I was going to come away with a first draft, but by the second week I threw out everything I had. I started something new the third week. Finally the rhythm and the language all came in, but I had to chase them. Some pieces are like people, or children.

How do you know when something’s done?

You develop your ear, and practice. Like saxophone.

Where do you draw influence from?

From listening to other people. From the poetry of life, and music. I’ve been listening to Ben Webster and a lot of stand-up comedy these days. In both poetry and song you’re writing concise pieces with a snap to them. Stand-up comedy is similar in that way, except they get laughs.

“You either have to slay your demons, or make friends with them, feed them, and send them on their way.”

What do you do when you experience writer’s block?

Writer’s block usually means that you’re going in the wrong direction or trying to force something. You need to stop for a while because there’s something else you need. Or you’re doing the wrong thing—maybe the whole project. I’ve run into that, and I’ve said, “Ok, let’s throw out these 20 pages. It’s not there.” But that doesn’t mean I’ve wasted that time; I needed to do that. You either have to slay your demons, or make friends with them, feed them, and send them on their way.

Travel and time seem very important to you; they show up in everything you do.

We’ve constructed time in a linear fashion, but time is a being like you or me. I remember I did a one-woman show called Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light. In that show, the character’s father talks about how his father knew how to stop time. There are people in my family who knew how to do that, or know how to do it. My aunt told me these stories about how Monahwee, my grandfather from seven generations back, could do that. When he’d go out on horseback with his warrior friends he’d always end up somewhere long before it was possible because he knew how to ride the currents of time. It’s sort of like the concept of poetic, or dream time, but it can happen physically. It happened to me once.


A year ago I was doing a two-week residency at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. There was an event in March at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend grounds where Monahwee had been one of the leaders. I went there, and took a couple of international students with me. We stomp-danced there while the re-enactors fired off canons, happy to go reenact the battle the next day wearing their outfits. We’re there dancing, and I thought, “This is so strange. We have this broken story and they still want to break it.” On the return trip I was taking the back roads and the two young women with me were sleeping. I get out to the highway and the sign says ‘Atlanta 90 miles.’ The next thing I know I hear the galloping of Monahwee’s horse, and I feel his force and smell the horse and human sweat. Within five minutes I see a sign: ‘Atlanta 60 miles.’ I thought, “Ok. That’s how it happened.” Poetry and music are a lot like that. The rhythm is in everything.

“Most Americans are in exile from where their spiritual core is, and they don’t know it.”

Before we move on, I’d like to go back to the point were you mentioned your experience at the re-enactment. Would you say that the Native American voice in the United States is a voice of forced exile?

Definitely. We’ve been exiled and disappeared in our own country. A big part of that misty sense of history has to do with the disappearance of fact and the history of how this country came about. Think of Africa without black Africans. How many indigenous people are there here today? One half of one percent. How many tribes don’t have any of their original lands, or just hold pieces of them? It’s a struggle to hang on to it. I think we’re in a kind of exile. But maybe most Americans are in exile from where their spiritual core is, and they don’t know it. They wonder why they aren’t happy, why they’re confused, why they want to buy more.

What about marginalization in the publishing world?

It’s quite difficult for indigenous American writers. I’ve been lucky to get a good publisher, but I went to Norton three times before they took me. As you mentioned earlier, with me there’s this theme of having to fight for it. But I think that’s also true for any indigenous people. I remember after publishing my first children’s book with a major imprint I asked, “Can you send me the press release so I can get help with the publicity?”

They said, “Oh we didn’t do one, because there aren’t that many native people.”

I said, “This is a story about a girl and her cat. This is a cat story. People love cat stories.”

As an indigenous writer it’s more difficult to get your work legitimized because people don’t know who you are. One way is to play into or with stereotypes. People recognize the stereotypes. They want to see us dancing, looking a certain way, dressed a certain way. I’ve always joked that if I put a dream catcher into every album, I would sell a hundred times as many albums.

“Native Americans have been exiled and disappeared in our own country.”

Who would you say your audience is?

I think most artists write in response to the spirit in them that moves them in a direction. I first started writing in response to American Indian Freedom Movements. A lot of my poetry is inspired by injustice, love, the move for balance, and compassion. My writing comes in response to what the wisest people in my culture and other cultures say. I hear that spirit more and more. Though native people don’t necessarily buy the music or the books. For a lot of indigenous artists the major consumers of their work tend to be non-natives and university students. I have a huge audience around universities and people in their 20’s.

What do those young writers need to know? What does any writer need to know?

There are three things that the saxophone has taught me about writing: You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in the spirit of the music and your love of it, and you have to practice.

The other thing would be patience. Some people don’t publish till their 70s. Follow the spirit of your art and listen. You can’t compare yourself to somebody else. You have to do it because you love it.

For about two years I was turned down for everything I applied for. I pushed through and realized that I was doing it because I love it. Remember: You’re serving the spirit of poetry or music. You just give yourself to it and add your own spin.

One Comment on "Having to Fight for It: An Interview with Poet / Musician Joy Harjo"

  1. Marie Tkacik December 5, 2013 at 6:58 pm ·

    Great interview. Very interesting talk points. This poet/musician belongs in a space that isn’t defined by these labels. Layers weave through her answers as she finds a way to explain what they mean to her. Good questions. They help to bring out a picture of the strength these “lovers” bring to her as she walks uphill.

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