Readings in Contemporary Poetry

Joy Harjo

Introduction by Brighde Mullins

Tonight's reading brings together Joy Harjo and Thomas Lux, two "great users of words" to quote Walt Whitman's definition of the poet. The thinking behind the pairing of these two distinct sensibilities was to counterpoint two poets whose work undertakes a serious contemplation of place. With empathy and insight, Joy Harjo and Thomas Lux explore disparate American geographies and inheritances. Here are two powerful, disturbing imaginations that yield fresh surprises about the syntax of a locale, and the contingent responsibilities of its associations--home, family and community. Celebratory elements as well as urgent warnings figure in their poems; both write fables, story-poems; and both summon up Charles Wright's question: "what is it about a known landscape that tends to undo us?"

Part of the pleasure that we feel, in reading a poem by Joy Harjo, is in reading a poem hewn from individual and shared experience. Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is an enrolled member of the Creek, or Muscogee tribe. Harjo's access to a living oral tradition infuses her work. With openness and humanity Harjo scrutinizes her cultural heritage and political consciousness through over seven books of poetry, her teaching and her work with her band Poetic Justice, which performs tribal jazz reggae music; and has been on the road for several months.

Mythic figures and contemporary presences populate her poems. Her poems are, simultaneously, home to ancient traditions as well as those of the urgent now. There is a sense of the knowledge of the utility of words, of their usefulness--the power of the poem as chant, as antidote, and as prayer all register in her work.

"If we cry more tears we will ruin the land with salt; instead let's praise that which would distract us with despair. Make a song for death, a song for yellow teeth and bad breath"

These lines are from "Mourning Song," and reveal how the musical elements of language cannot counteract grief, but can help us come to terms with it by offering us joyful cadences. In suggesting alternate responses to death, the death not only of the individual but of a culture, Harjo fights against extinction and revives hope.

"It is the dream of every poem to be a myth," Galway Kinnell writes. There's an underneathness to Joy Harjo's work; that underneathness is the foundation of myth, both ancient, received myth and contemporary manifestations; her range of references are Native American stories as well as urban narratives told from a female perspective. This integration of the space between the past and the present, the worldly and the spiritual informs and illuminates her writing. There is a revolutionary feeling in Joy Harjo's poetry that comes from the potency of her language, of the oral tradition she works within, of the heard and the overheard, of the story and the story-teller.

"Stories and songs are like humans who when they laugh are indestructible," Harjo reminds us; it is a pleasure to gather here as a community of listeners to welcome Joy Harjo.