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.