Renee Liang swaps notes with writer and musician Joy Harjo ahead of her New Zealand visit
Legendary poet, musician and playwright - none of these terms fully describe what Joy Harjo does. She moves deftly between genres, blending and creating, much as she moves between the worlds of her native Mvskoke (Muscogee) Nation and white America.
After a brief confusion with international date lines, we are finally talking. Her voice is as warm as it is in her many recorded performances and sounds exactly as I imagine when I read her words.
I explain that as a writer of colour myself, I hope to learn something from her journey. Harjo, the current Poet Laureate of the United States of America, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she continues to live and work from interspersed with long stretches of touring and performing.
She's coming to Wellington to spend an evening as part of the New Zealand Festival and our own recent Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala-Marsh, will interview her. It has the makings of a no-holds-barred, laughter-filled evening.
As a young woman, Harjo left home to attend high school at the innovative Institute of American Indian Arts, which was then a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. She caught the flame of poetry there, responding to Native empowerment movements. But then, she crossed into more traditional academia, earning her MFA at the much-vaunted Iowa Writers' Workshop.
She's now won a slew of awards for her poetry, non-fiction, plays, children's books and music; Harjo is an accomplished alto saxophone player and has toured with her own band. She also teaches at a bunch of universities across the United States but still finds the time to mentor young indigenous voices through Girls Becoming, an arts mentorship programme for young Mvskoke women.
No wonder I am inspired. Harjo is part of a network of experienced indigenous writers growing awareness and voices around the world, and she tells me she speaks regularly to some of our own literary heroes and loves visiting here. She is also aware of the current issues in Aotearoa relating to indigenous and minority voices – who controls it, who programmes it – and counsels me from her own experience.
"I've always had pressure to conform to certain images or storylines – I've been aware of it from the beginning. They like to hear about the tragedy; recently I had to point out that the rate of alcoholism in indigenous communities is no more than in other communities," she says. "I like to joke that I would have made more money if I had put a dreamcatcher on my CD cover. But I just do what I do and it hasn't always matched up."
This fits with my own experience of "white gaze" – the idea that well-meaning programmers and funders, with no lived experience of being indigenous, will influence artistic output by driving demand for a particular "cultural product".
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Usually this involves value judgements about what "mainstream" audiences want, such as something entertaining or educational – trauma testimonies are particularly popular – but only if there is also no reflected guilt on that audience or duty to act. (I once had an audience member complain that my play did not contain the depictions of racism that she, a Pākehā lady, had paid to see.) Harjo murmurs in sympathy. This is something she has actively battled but recently she's been handed a powerful weapon.
An intensely private person who draws her strength from her homelands and people, Harjo views her appointment as US Poet Laureate as an important tool, one she is willing to sacrifice her privacy for. She tells me that there was no way to prepare for the very public journey. It is clear that the US Library of Congress, which makes the appointment, chose Harjo to make a statement at a time of increasing conservatism and nationalism in US politics.
"This is a gift," she says. "It has opened the door of appreciation for indigenous people and their arts. We're still battling the use of images of our native culture." She cites the recent Illuminative intitiative (https://www.nativeknot.com/news/Native-American-News/IllumiNative-Launches-Toolkit-to-Help-Change-Indian-Country-Narr.html), which studied narratives of indigenous American culture and has launched actions to try to evolve them.
"So many people think we no longer exist. If they don't see people wearing headdresses and living in teepees, they think they're not seeing 'real' natives. A lot of people don't even see us as fellow human beings but that goes back to Vatican teachings.
"[When colonisers were going out], if they ruled that we weren't humans, that gave them permission to take our land and resources because then they were superior. And those attitudes are still deeply embedded – that idea of 'higher IQ'."
A marvel, then, that throughout Harjo's career she has expressed hope and love much more than anger. This is the case even in her latest poetry collection, An American Sunrise, which draws an uncompromising, lyrical connection between the forced relocations of Native Americans in the 1830s and the current injustices of the US government towards refugees and migrants.
This hope, though, is tempered with determination and gritty realism:
You will never sleep again
Though you will never stop dreaming.
The end can only follow the beginning.
And it will zigzag through time, governments, and lovers.
Be who you are, even if it kills you.
* extract from Break My Heart – An American Sunrise, by Joy Harjo.
Harjo has drawn on the oral and recorded testimonies of survivors of her own Mvskoke people to write this book. To me, her imagery echoes strongly to corresponding events on this side of the Pacific: forced schooling and religious conversions, the Stolen Generations, Land Wars and land confiscations, through to current events at Ihumātao and the fallout over Oranga Tamariki.
"Hope feels like a flimsy construct," Harjo muses. "But it's like the fire in the centre, the fire that cooks food, keeps a place warm and transforms what is planted in every living thing. It's that original seed of love around which we're constructed."
I mention that this sounds very much like the Māori concept of wairua.
"Yes! It's like a seed from our ancestors. It keeps me going because I know it's there. You can see it in children's eyes – all people eventually walk back to where they come from," she says.
Is this flame also something that drives her considerable creative output? "Yes, of course. The love is channelled – I don't know where it comes from exactly but when you're in that moment of conception, you're connected to that utmost creative space. There's a creative intelligence that helps navigate all those pathways of being."
In an interview with Laura Coltelli in Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, Harjo explains how she writes: "I begin with the seed of an emotion, a place, and then move from there … I no longer see the poem as an ending point, perhaps more the end of a journey, an often long journey that can begin years earlier, say with the blur of the memory of the sun on someone's cheek, a certain smell, an ache, and will culminate years later in a poem, sifted through a point, a lake in my heart through which language must come."
She explains writing a poem is like bringing up different children: one might be easy and come fast, others take years to develop. "I'm a perfectionist – I revise constantly."
It is, however, sometimes hard to flip from the inside-facing side used by writers to the outward persona that also being a performer requires. Harjo seems to do so easily. In performance (there are plenty of videos on the internet – she has a cult following) she is strong, tender and direct. Her work is reminiscent of the spoken word and storytelling traditions that I also see in bars and theatres around Australasia but is unique in that it reflects her Mvskoke heritage.
Like most of her peers, Harjo was disenfranchised from her mother tongue as a child and has been swimming her way back to reclaiming it. "I've tried to write in the Mvskoke language," she says. "I don't know it fluently enough yet – I can use it in music, but not yet in poetry, as that requires such deep familiarity. But I'm learning, I'm trying – I get my friends to rescue me. It's important to honour it. Our language is the encyclopaedia of knowledge for our people."
This dialogue sounds incredibly familiar. Language is more than just a means of communication; it's a key to a culture, a birthright and also a bridge. For those of us who are trying to reclaim it, it's also scary and feels risky to use, but there is no choice if we wish to know who we are.
Harjo certainly sees language as a connector, a salve if you will to all the fear and mistrust we encounter in the modern world. And language and poetry are there for everyone, even if they don't realise they need it.
"Poetry can hold history, heartache, time, stories, and can be adaptable and usable," Harjo told the Albuquerque Journal recently. "[It is] always there – in marriage, death, birth, falling in love, out of love, at sunrise. Those sacred moments when we have no words, we have poetry. Poetry is a big teacher."
Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather to his grandson,
His granddaughter, as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children.
There it would be hidden from the soldiers,
Who would take them miles, rivers, mountains from the navel cord place
Of the origin story.
He knew one day, far day, the grandchildren would return, generations later
Over slick highways constructed over old trails
Through walls of laws meant to hamper or destroy, over the libraries of
The ancestors in the winds, born in stones.
His song brings us to his home place in these smoky hills.
* from How To Write A Poem In a Time of War, by Joy Harjo
An Evening with Joy Harjo, New Zealand Festival, Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre, Saturday, March 7