On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
In search of insight in this time of pestilence, we turn to U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Harjo, the first Native American to be named poet laureate, is both an award-winning musician and author of several books of poetry, including most recently “An American Sunrise.”
She joins us from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to discuss the collective grief of coronavirus and how poetry fits into these uncertain times.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Joy Harjo U.S. Poet Laureate
The Poetry of Home
Harjo reflects on her childhood, the way the kitchen table unites us and the renewed connections she hopes will emerge out of this difficult time.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. We're all in search of a way to make sense of what's happening in our world. And, in times of uncertainty, we turn to the philosophers, the poets, the musicians, the artists to help us work through our feelings of loss, grief, fear and anxiety, and perhaps to find a bit of hope in the midst of the chaos.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Joy Harjo. She is the author of many books of poetry, including most recently, "An American Sunrise." Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma she's a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation, and the first Native American to hold the title of U.S. Poet Laureate. Joy Harjo, thank you so much for joining us.
JOY HARJOI'm really glad I could be here.
NNAMDIThis is a strange time for all of us. How has your life changed since this outbreak began?
HARJOYes, it is very strange, and yet, this kind of period is really good for art, for those who are creating. (laugh) My life has changed drastically. I had a travel schedule of two or three gigs a week across the country, and even internationally. And that was brought to an abrupt halt. And now I’m in the middle of writing a memoir and writing a new album of music. But it's still a kind of -- it's just strange. We can't -- I have a grandchild who is in the hospital. I couldn't go -- you know, I couldn't go see him. Things like that that we're all dealing with, yeah, it's strange.
NNAMDIIn a message on your website, you wrote that your response has been similar to, quoting here, "the classic grief response." Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
HARJOYes. The classic grief response, like, you know, you can't -- you try to ignore it. You can't believe it's true. And then you get angry, and then you grieve. And then you've got to figure out, what do you do about it? Because, often, it just has to run its course. And with this pandemic, I guess what's so strange is we don't know exactly how it began, where it's going exactly or when it will end.
HARJOAnd so we are all living on this edge of we know that it could kill anyone, and that people of my demographic, Natives are especially -- you know, our numbers -- when we're counted, usually we're not counted, but when we have been counted, our numbers are way, way higher than any other demographic. And then I'm in the age group and have had lung stuff. So, you know, we're all on this edge which tends to separate us, even as we feel this utter need to be next to each other at times like this.
NNAMDIOf course, I'm in the age demographic and a person of color, which is why I'm broadcasting from home. Joy Harjo, what poetry have you been reading lately?
HARJOWell, I read everybody, but a poem came to mind -- this came up, and I've thought about this poem a lot. One of our finest poets, Eavan Boland, just passed. And she had written a poem called "Quarantine" about, you know, a similar pandemic in 1847. She was from Ireland. And this poem -- I don't know, can I read it?
NNAMDIYes, please do.
HARJOYes, because it comes down to, we can't forget about the people, the humans. You know, where each story has a human, you can say pandemic, but it means about -- it's the suffering of the Earth. It's about the suffering of individuals. People with stories and so on. And this gets it. I love this poem. It's called "Quarantine," by Eavan Boland.
HARJOIn the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people, a man set out from the workhouse with his wife. He was walking. They were both walking north. She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. He lifted her and put her on his back. He walked like that west and west and north, until, at nightfall, under freezing stars, they arrived. In the morning, they were both found dead of cold, of hunger, of the toxins of a whole history. But her feet were held against his breastbone. The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
HARJOLet no love poem ever come to this threshold. There is no place here for the inexact praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body. There is only time for this merciless inventory. Their death together in the winter of 1847, also what they suffered, how they lived and what there is between a man and a woman and in which darkness it can be best proved. I love that poem, yeah.
NNAMDIJoy Harjo reading -- tell us the name of the poem again? I'm sure many of our listeners...
HARJOIt's called "Quarantine," by Eavan Boland.
NNAMDIPoetry, during this time, can certainly take on new meaning. Have you been reflecting upon your own poetry lately?
HARJOWell, so much of it seems so timely. You know, poets are usually -- and artists, whatever kind of art, you know, we usually run a little ahead of society, of what emerges in society. And that comes to bear over and over again in poetry.
NNAMDIAs you were saying, poetry during this time can certainly take on new meaning. Joy Harjo, I'm wondering if you could read one of your own poems from your latest book "An American Sunrise." This one is called "Honoring."
HARJO"Honoring." And I think a lot about, you know, this. This poem came out of looking at the seams of my clothes. You know, it'll say made in China. I think the shirt I put on, I noticed. I always look. It says made in Indonesia. And I think about who made this.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, it's really appropriate for this time.
HARJOYes. Who made it. Who made it in a room? Who made it -- how were they treated? What were they thinking because all that goes into it. And we should honor, you know, those who grow our food or if we grow -- honor the plants, honor this gift of life, honor this Earth, you know, this Earth. And it's called "Honoring."
HARJOWho sings to the plants that are growing for our plates? Are they gathered lovingly in aprons or arms, or do they suffer the fate of the motor-driven whip of the monster reaper? No song at all, only the sound of money being stacked in a bank. Who stitched the seams in my clothes, one line after another? Was the room sweaty and dark, with no hour to spare? Did she have enough to eat? Does she have a home anywhere? Or did she live on the floor? And where were the children? Or was the seamstress the child with no home of his or her own, who sacrifices to make clothes for strangers of another country? And why?
HARJOLet's remember to thank the grower of food, the picker, the driver, the sun and the rain. Let's remember to thank each maker of stitch and layer of pattern, the dyer of color in this immense house of beauty and pain. Let's honor the maker. Let's honor what's made.
NNAMDIThat was U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, reading from her latest book of poetry, "An American Sunrise." Joy Harjo, what does that poem "Honoring" make you think of now? Who deserves honor in our society, currently?
HARJOWell, I know, you think of all the people. I have a daughter, a stepdaughter who is one of those health workers who has gone in and was exposed early on to the coronavirus. Her name is Starr, and it's an apt name. And I think of those people who are, you know, a great sacrifice, taking care of others. And those, you know, making masks in their house and those growing the food and trying to get things, you know, food out there so that we'll have something.
HARJOAnd I think ultimately, too, the Earth, because that's what's behind this, is that we're seeing -- this kind of thing emerges when there's an emergency. It's something out of the Earth, so there's kind of an Earth emergency.
NNAMDIHere is Jane in Alexandria, Virginia. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANEThank you, Kojo. Joy, I have to say how much I enjoy your poetry. And I get teary listening to the poem that you read by Eavan Boland, who passed just the other day. I am Irish, as well, and my ancestors lived through the famine. And that poem just brought that so close to home for me. I shared it with my many siblings, and we all feel that the strength that our ancestors gleaned and showed through the famine is in our bones and supporting us now, and the poetry reflects that. I write some poetry myself. Every one of my siblings' birthdays, I send them a poem that I create. So, poetry holds a special home for me, and yours, in particular, and I just want to thank you.
HARJOThank you. I was going to say, I like what you said, poetry holds a special home for me, because I think of each poem as a home. It's a home that can carry grief, like that Eavan Boland, you know. And then it lifted us. That poem almost went through all the stages of grief we were talking about earlier. And it becomes a home, you know, a home for -- like, this one was a home for honoring. And we all have those. You know, our ancestors have lived through pandemics, massacres, genocide.
NNAMDIAnd, Jane, I'm so glad you mentioned ancestors, because, Joy, you have said that you feel a responsibility to, quoting here, "all past and future ancestors to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all Earth and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. " Do you feel an even greater responsibility at a time like this?
HARJOWell, I know that I'm one of many shouldering a responsibility. And I guess what this is -- I mean, I'm still pondering it all. I'm still a little bit in shock. I mean, I've been watching this. And the way -- it takes me a while. You know, sometimes it takes me a while to respond in a certain kind of way, because I take it all in. But, yes, I feel I -- we all have been given gifts to use to help everyone. Not to gain power, but to use to assist. And, you know, I have poetry, and so I think, well, I have a responsibility. But what's interesting is how my poems and the poems of others have been speaking to this all along.
NNAMDIJoy Harjo is the author of many books of poetry, including most recently, "An American Sunrise. She's also a musician and singer. She is the U.S. Poet Laureate, the first Native-American to hold that title. Are you writing any new poetry, Joy Harjo?
HARJOActually, I'm working on a memoir, and the only poets -- I've written two poems. I've written one poem since becoming U.S. Poet Laureate, and I have written a song, a song since this.
HARJOIt's -- yeah, it's...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
HARJOYeah, go ahead. So, I've written that directly addressing, you know, what's going on.
NNAMDIOh, good. What has it meant to you to be the first Native Poet Laureate of the United States?
HARJOWell, it was -- I mean, it was a shock. I think it was a shock. It was a shock for me, and I think it was a shock for a lot of people. I mean, for Native Indian country, everyone has been so proud. I mean, it opened the door. One thing, it opened the door for America, because it said -- because a lot of Americans -- and there's a study that illuminated -- did prove this, that a lot of Americans think that we're dead or we're not here anymore. We don't exist.
HARJOAnd what this doorway says, we are still here. There's over 500 -- you know, 550 tribal groups, and some of us are poets. And, you know, some of us (laugh) -- you know, some of us are poets. We are human beings. And I remember, early on, when I started first doing art and then -- you know, and then I do my music and I do poetry and write, is -- I said, if I do anything else with my life, when I die, I want people to know that we are human beings. That sounds so elementary, but it is so crucial. I think even to the history of America, to the pathway to where we're going as a collective people, as a collective.
NNAMDITo someone who has not read your work before, how would you describe it?
HARJOOh, I don't know. I think a major theme is transformational. Like, how do you -- and I think this comes from being a Native person. I mean, how do you turn history into something you can use for understanding rather than allowing it to destroy you? That's crucial, you know. You know, how do you -- it's about, you know, transformation -- transformational moments. Those moments when we become more than who we think we are.
NNAMDISpeaking of transformational moments, at one point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a poet? Was there, so to speak, a transformational moment?
HARJOYes, there was, because I had never wanted to be a poet. I loved poetry. I loved song lyrics and songs, but it wasn't until I was a student at the University of New Mexico and a part of Native rights movements. And that's how I came to poetry as -- even a use -- I didn't think of it as a use -- it became a way to speak, especially from a woman's voice, about what I saw and what was going on and about who we are individually, as a people.
HARJOAnd so I began writing poetry. You know, began writing poetry then in the midst of that, you know, coming to terms and coming into ourselves as a really -- I think a brave generation and a generation with a great love for our people.
NNAMDIFunny, one of the people who introduced me to Native Rights movements some nearly 50 years ago shares your last name, Susan Shawn Harjo, is who introduced me.
HARJOYeah, I know her. She's my cousin, actually, and we're related, not to the Harjo side. Yes.
NNAMDII've always wondered about that. Now you just cleared that up for me. Who are your own role models in poetry?
HARJOOh, one of your -- somebody in your neighborhood, Sonya Sanchez.
NNAMDIAw, yes. (laugh)
HARJO(laugh) I love Sonya. She's wonderful. She has been, she's been there the whole way and I love Sonya, dearly. Leslie Silko, actually. She's known more for her novels than her fiction, but she's always inspired me, especially looking at the -- you know, how the mythic interweaves our reality here. Those are two people who've inspired me. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet.
NNAMDIFunny, I've just been reading Sonya Sanchez some more, because we just did a book about the Howard University students' uprising back in 1989. And the students talked about Sonya Sanchez being one of their inspirations for that student uprising. (laugh) And that caused me to go back and read some of Sonya -- because she was teaching at Howard in those days.
HARJOWell, Sonya always tells the truth. And she tells it as a poet, with her words and her -- I love her performance, too, the way she's absolutely in it, and we're all in there with her. It's like she makes this circle. Yeah, she was amazing. And you know who else influenced me was Jane Cortez.
HARJOI don't know if you ever met or heard her.
NNAMDIWell, I've never met her, but I know exactly who she is, though, yeah.
HARJOYeah, we became friends and when I'd come into New York, we'd go to Village Vanguard, and so on. But she was -- I loved -- she really deeply influenced even me, you know, getting a band and starting to, you know, perform. And then how, you know, I could mix poetry with music. And then I started singing my poetry. But she was a great influence. And what I loved about her work is how, you know, the African presence in her work -- the presence of the ancestors, that's right. That's what it is, the presence of the ancestors were standing -- they stood there. I could see them standing there, you know, with her in her poetry and her music.
NNAMDIIn the dedication for "An American Sunrise," you write: “For the children, so they may find their way through the dark.” This, of course, is a tough time to be a kid. What advice do you have for young people who are struggling right now? You said you have a nephew in the hospital,.
HARJOYeah, I have a great-grandson, actually, in the hospital.
HARJOBut, you know, that's what I'm writing about in my memoir. And I was just writing about, you know, how do you make it through when you see something very evil going on? Or when you see, as a child, you see how the acts of humans are causing great harm and danger. I mean, how do you walk, how do you walk through that? And even as a child, you have your own -- you have a coherent and wise sense that was planted in you.
HARJOSo, it's important to nourish that, you know, to nourish that, and know that you know what you know, you know. And to keep going and know that -- and also to keep moving towards beauty. Always move towards kindness. You'll never go wrong moving towards kindness, but I don't know how you would tell that to a child, you know, I mean, children. And I'm writing about a really terrible situation I was in, growing up.
HARJOAnd I've wondered. I guess I came to it thinking, how do you navigate evil? How do you navigate about something that's unjust? Like, you know, you're a child at the border, and you've been separated from your parents, and you don't know where they are. You don't know if they've been taken away and killed. You don't know if you'll ever see them again. And you don't know what's going to happen. I mean, how do you navigate that?
NNAMDITorley tweets to us: I'm a poet, and I'm curious, what does Joy feel that the responsibility of a poet is to those around them in this time?
HARJOWell, I think the responsibility of a poet is -- we all have responsibilities to each other. Nothing comes for free. So, as poets, we go to poetry to express what we have no words -- for that which we have no words to express. That's why we go to poetry. So, poetry is about putting into words and an intimate space -- you know, like a space that's confinement. You think, you know, poems fit in a lot smaller spaces than stories, even though poems can be longer, but they fit.
HARJOA poem can fit in your quarantine room. It can fit in those kind of spaces and, you know, it can hold the immensity of, you know, a question of how to navigate evil, for instance, or the immensity of a quarantine or, you know, like Eavan Boland's poem. So, you know, the poets -- that's what we're doing, is we're making -- we make poems. We do what we do.
NNAMDII'm wondering if you might read one more poem for us. It's one that was recently featured in the Washington Post series, "The Poetry of Home." It's called "Perhaps the World Ends Here."
HARJOOkay. I will pull that up. Yeah, that poem was written about a kitchen table, because I was thinking about how the world begins at a kitchen table. Okay. I'm trying to find it. Here it is. The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of Earth are brought and prepared, set on the table, so it has been since creation, and it will go on. We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
HARJOIt is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it. We make women. At this table, we gossip. We call enemies and the ghosts of lovers. Our dreams drink coffee with us, as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor, falling-down selves, and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table. This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun. Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror, a place to celebrate the terrible victory.
HARJOWe have given birth on this table and have prepared our parents for burial here. At this table, we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks. Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
NNAMDIThat was United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, reading from her poem "Perhaps the World Ends Here." In the few seconds we have left, what have you been doing to preserve your own mental health during this crisis?
HARJOWell, I've been playing a lot of music, and I'm learning the bass.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, that's it. (laugh) We're going to end this show with one of Joy's own songs, "The Had it Up to Here Round Dance" featuring Charlie Hill. Joy Harjo, thank you so much for joining us.
HARJOOh yeah, thank you so much.
NNAMDIThis segment with U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about Maryland correctional facilities during the pandemic was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up tomorrow, many struggle to pay their rent, and now the problem has grown exponentially. What measures are being taken to help people avoid eviction during the pandemic?
NNAMDIPlus, will the popularity of a series like Tiger King have any impact on the conservation of tigers? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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