In the Middle of a Wound, A Space in Words: An Interview with Joy Harjo
By Jeremy Michael Reed
Throughout her poetry and prose, Joy Harjo’s work fosters community. She began writing poems in New Mexico during the era of the native civil rights movement, inspired by the major native writers of the late 1960s and early 1970s and by the stories of women’s lives in native communities that weren’t being told. In the decades since, she’s become one of the most well-known and beloved writers of contemporary literature.
Over the last few years, Joy Harjo has lived and taught in East Tennessee, a region part of her tribe’s ancestral home. In 2019, she will publish two new books that look to the past in different ways. Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light (Wesleyan University Press) presents her one-woman play and contextualizes it with interviews and essays on native theater, including discussions of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ traveling drama troupe in the late 1960s in which Harjo performed. An American Sunrise (Norton) will be Harjo’s next poetry collection that focuses on her returning to the Southeast and recovering tribal and familial memories in a place that witnessed the genocide of native tribes and their forced removal to states such as Oklahoma, where Harjo grew up. In addition to these new books, Harjo is also finishing work on a Norton anthology of Native American poetry that is the first of its kind to cover such a wide span: from the first published pieces in the United States by native poets to work being published today, from tribes on the Eastern seaboard to those living on islands in the Pacific Ocean.
A member of the Mvskoke Nation, Joy Harjo has published eight books of poetry, including such well-known titles as She Had Some Horses and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. Alongside her written work, she’s also performed her original music as a singer, native flutist, saxophonist, and bandleader in venues around the world, and released four albums. She has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Wallace Stevens Prize, and William Carlos Williams Award, among many other honors. She was recently elected to be a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets. We spoke in person and by e-mail in the late fall of 2018 as she was finishing her time as the Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee, and we began by discussing her two most recent books, her memoir Crazy Brave and her poetry collection Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.
Jeremy Michael Reed: Crazy Brave is an incredibly written book about extremely difficult topics. It must have been really difficult to write, to come to the concisely poetic prose you found. Did figuring out how to write Crazy Brave affect the way you’ve written since? And how has your writing since either shifted in focus or taken up anew through-lines your work has previously followed?
Joy Harjo: Crazy Brave was so different for me, as it was prose. I had ventured into prose before but more so as poetic essays, some of them memoir slices. I’ve written other forms besides poetry, song lyrics, screenplays, a one-woman show and children’s books. Crazy Brave took me fourteen years to write. I was not at it constantly during those fourteen years. Some of that time was spent running away from the story, and crafting various versions that could be included as “running away from the story that wanted to be told.”
And when I finally “found” the story, or allowed it to become what it wanted
to become, then I hunkered down over the language in the way that poets do. I am a poet at the root of all that I do. I write prose as a poet. I play saxophone as a poet. With my memoir I rewrote as meticulously as I revise my poems. But there were far more phrases, words, and moments than in any one poem. I would revise, read aloud, and make it through the whole book, then start all over again. The last revision I read aloud to a good friend, Pam Kingsbury, who had been a student of mine years before at the University of New Mexico, and who teaches now at the University of Northern Alabama. She listened for two nights, as I sat in my mother’s sewing room where I was living—I’d returned to help her during the last months of her cancer journey—and in the evening is when I could turn to my work. Reading aloud when revising is important, because after all, poetry and stories are essentially oral arts. And reading aloud to someone else ups the hearing, at least it does for me. I want my language as exacting in prose as it is in poetry.
Every project you attempt should teach you something you didn’t know before you started. “What do you want to learn with this project?” asked a music producer once as we began working together. With Crazy Brave I had to learn to keep a story narrative moving in an arc through various areas of time, in prose. I came to value process, not that I didn’t already, but there were many more parts to writing a long, narrative piece. And I learned to let the story have its own integrity, even if it might emerge and form into something I had never quite seen before—I am not the kind of artist who builds vertically from established artistic forms. I might reference them, for instance, a sestina, or…a memoir, but I have to make them my own, as a Native person writing in this particular time and place. I had to learn to trust the story, and even trust myself to find it and bring it along until it was done.
I’m very physical when I write. I can’t sit still too long though I can work long hours once I’m locked in. And I revise and revise and I am not settled until I get it right. You’ve seen me here in this office with version after version of my next book of poetry An American Sunrise. I revise more the older I grow—I get more exacting.
Crazy Brave taught me that I have good instincts, that it’s okay to “fail.” I had first thought of structuring the book around song lyrics that were important in my life and how they evoke memories, and go from there, because memories build, disband, fly away or stay rooted. They are always changing, yet hearing a particular song and there they are again, recon- stituted with emotional flood. I could have threaded a whole memoir like that, but in the middle of it I realized that the form was not going to correctly situate the story. I let the memoir go for a while, and when I returned to it I began writing the memoir as short stories. The first story was called “The Flying Man” and was published in ZYZZYVA. I got a call from an interested agent with that story who was interested in a book of fiction. I learned that memory doesn’t fit into short stories. I tried to make them fit, but to make good short stories I had to fictionalize. Then I tried vignettes. I’ve always loved Eduardo Galleano’s Memory of Fire, especially
that first book of the trilogy, Genesis, and then I admired how Leslie Silko
organized Almanac of the Dead with those small pieces that threaded into a
larger transcontinental, several generational story—and so I thought, “Well,
if Galleano and Silko can…” [laughter] then maybe I can tell a story in this
way with really cool titles heading each prose section, and include dreams
and even bits of interviews from people from different times in my life, and
maybe even photographs and images. I also included poems. That version of Crazy Brave, was about a third dreams. But that didn’t work either. I also had many small stories of improbable happenings that were real. When I was there in that part of the process of finding the book that would be Crazy Brave I hired a friend, a star fiction writer from my days at Iowa. We solidified a chronology, and then he began putting my vignettes into different chronological periods. One area he titled something like “Improbable. Impossible”. Most of the pieces fit there! He began arguing with me that I wasn’t scientific. These things couldn’t happen, he would snap. I realized I brought him in too early. He would have been useful after I had cobbled it all together and in that structuring he could see that the whole story made a larger sense. I learned to honor my process. I thought I was only seven years behind in my contract when I handed the final manuscript to Norton. I was shocked when I pulled my contract out of my files and it had been fourteen years! I have a Norton memoir contract deadline looming again. [laughter] And as before, jumped ahead of it with another book or two!
To read the rest of Grist’s interview with Joy Harjo, buy your copy of Issue 12.
Joy Harjo has published eight poetry collections, including such well-known titles as She Had Some Horses and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. She has also released four albums of original music, and published children’s books, books of interviews, and her memoir Crazy Brave. She has received numerous honors, including the Ruth Lilly Prize, Wallace Stevens Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she currently holds the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee. In 2019, she will publish two new books, Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light: A Play by Joy Harjo and a Circle of Responses and her new collection of poetry An American Sunrise.
Jeremy Michael Reed is a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee. His poems and essays are published in Oxidant|Engine, Still: The Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the editor-in-chief of Grist, associate editor of Sundress Publications, and assistant to Joy Harjo.