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Joy Harjo on making her students memorize poetry to carry with them

The former poet laureate takes a special interest in young poets

Joy Harjo, author of "Weaving Sundown In a Scarlet Light."YWCA/65b9456951cd942112304169Denise Toombs

In 2019 Joy Harjo became the first Native American to be named poet laureate of the United States, and only the second poet to be appointed to three one-year terms. A poet, a memoirist, and a children’s book author, Harjo has won a lengthy list of awards, including for her music. A member of the Mvskoke Nation, Harjo lives in her native Tulsa, Okla. She will read on Wednesday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at Boston College’s Gasson Hall.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

HARJO: I recently read Safiya Sinclair’s wonderful memoir, “How to Say Babylon.” It’s a coming-of-age memoir about becoming a poet in a Rastafarian family. I just started Debra Magpie Earling’s novel “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” She’s so inventive. She’s doing what I always wanted someone to do. She’s taking the perception of a Native language and expressing that in English.


BOOKS: Are you reading poetry too?

HARJO: I did an event this past fall with a young poet, CooXooEii Black, who is a member of the Northern Arapaho nation. His poetry excited me so much I bought several copies of his chapbook “The Morning You Saw a Train of Stars Streaking Across the Sky” to give away to friends. I’ve also been reading Shangyang Fang’s debut collection, “Burying the Mountain.” There’s a music and lyricism to his poetry and he has something to say.

BOOKS: Do you make a point of reading young poets?

HARJO: I have for a long time. I started my first teaching gig working with students at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I went to high school. So many young poets have come out of A.I.A, such as Sherwin Bitsui and Layli Long Soldier. I love watching what they are doing. Natalie Diaz is another to watch.


BOOKS: Do you read one book at a time or multiple ones?

HARJO: A number of things at once. I’m also reading Louis Armstrong’s autobiography “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans” because I’m working on a musical that has to do with the origin story of the Mvskoke people and the origins of blues and jazz. I have the new translation of Juan Rulfo’s novel “Pedro Páramo.” I have an alligator thing so I picked up Rebecca Renner’s “Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades.”

BOOKS: What else is on your stack?

HARJO: Angie Debo’s “The Road to Disappearance.” She’s a historian of Southeastern Native Americans. I’m always trying to learn what I can about my history. That’s what I do late at night. I work out, play my saxophone, and dig around in history.

BOOKS: When did you first read a Native American author?

HARJO: Not until I went to the University of New Mexico. That was N. Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969 for “House Made of Dawn.” When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I remember walking around town for the first time and going to the university bookstore. I looked in the fiction section for Momaday’s book and couldn’t find it. It was in the anthropology section. That’s how a lot of our literature was characterized. It still happens.

BOOKS: How does your reading relate to your writing?

HARJO: I think reading and writing are so interconnected. When I taught undergraduates, I had them read a book of poetry a week. They moaned and groaned. I taught a class at U.C.L.A. I called Decolonizing the American Mind and for the midterm I had my students memorize a hundred lines of a poem. We had a few days of them just reciting. It was very powerful. I told them, “Now you can carry that poem with you.” But man, I got pushback on that.


BOOKS: Did you memorize one?

HARJO: I did, one of my favorite poems, Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.”

BOOKS: Can you still recite it?

HARJO: No. I’m pulling it up. Here it is. “We are, I am, you are/ by cowardice or courage/ the one who find our way/ back to this scene/ carrying a knife, a camera/ a book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” Oh man, that is one of the best poems ever.