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Poet Laureate Joy Harjo performs reading, speaks about work at ND

| Tuesday, February 23, 2021

February 22 marked the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2021 Walk the Walk Week. Monday night, as part of this observance, Poet Laureate Joy Harjo performed a live reading at a virtual event sponsored by the Multicultural Student Programs and Services and the new Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience

Professor of romance languages and literature and member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, Fish Clan, Andrea Topash-Rios began the event with a greeting, followed by an introduction of Harjo by professor of English and Africana studies and director of the Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience Mark Sanders. This event served as the official launch of the project.

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo speaks during a virtual reading during Notre Dame’s Walk the Walk Week Monday, Feb. 22.

Sanders also introduced Notre Dame senior and member of the Cherokee Nation Michaela Murphy, who helped organize Harjo’s appearance and begin the question and answer segment of the night.

Harjo, member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and award-winning writer, was appointed the nation’s 23rd Poet Laureate in 2019; she is the first Native American to hold the position.

Sanders described her poems as ones of “place, myth and memory” that offer her readers the “music of language.”

She began by reading her work “A Postcolonial Tale,” which she said we are all living through together. The metaphor of “falling” appeared throughout the piece, with Harjo repeatedly mentioning we were unaware of our descent.

“When we fell, we were not aware of falling,” she said. “No story or song will translate the full impact to falling with the inverse power of rising up, of rising up, of rising up.”

The poem finished with an emphasis on imagination: an imagination that illuminates, speaks, sings, drums and loves with us. Harjo said that when she reads the poem, it reminds her of poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who she deems one of her “poetry ancestors.”

She continued by reading new pieces of hers. The first was a poem entitled “Somewhere.” She was asked to write this piece in memory of the 100th commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“We don’t need any of that,” Harjo said of the racial hatred that spurred the crime. “We all come from the same place and we will go back to the same place… Diversity marks a healthy culture.”

When questioning how to write a poem about something of this magnitude, Harjo said that the poem found her in the form of a woman standing on the corner of the street, who Harjo described to be like “a ghost from that time.”

Instead of setting the poem at the time of the event, she told the story from a modern perspective, talking about how “ghosts keep their place among us.”

In this selection, she also repeated the notion of “going nowhere.” Harjo combined the history of the tribal nations of the area with the history of the event, noticing that history was everywhere in that locality. She wrote if the harsh stories are not told, “history goes nowhere,” and society cannot progress.

“At the corner of justice and fight, the thought of the miraculous was miles from my mind,” Harjo said. “It was nowhere in my mind. It was curled up in a distant field in the heart of a once loved country.”

Afterwards, she chose to read a selection from her new memoir that will be released this year, entitled “Poet Warrior.” She said the book is really about teachers, ones from several areas of her life. In the reading, she spoke specifically about her ancestor Chief Monawhee “Menawa,” who fought against President Andrew Jackson in retaliation to the removal of his people from their homeland at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. She recalled her favorite stories usually centered around him.

“That’s how we humans are,” she said. “We have our stories that we go back to.”

The reading ended with a song from her new album entitled “I Pray For My Enemies.” The song she chose, she said, is the song that she prays for her enemies with. 

“The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun; it sees and knows everything,” one of the lyrics reads. “The door to the mind should only open from the heart. An enemy who gets in risks the danger of becoming friends.”

The event then transitioned into a question-and-answer segment. Murphy began by asking how location impacted Harjo’s identity. 

“I was warned; some people say ‘Don’t go back,’” Harjo said of her trips to her native homelands. “So to go back here and then to go a lot more intimately into the story was … it was heartbreaking … But it makes me also realize — because those stories live within me, within all of us — I also came to realize that we’re still part of that story, we’re still part of those lands. And since I’ve been there it feels much more intimate to me, even though we also had to deal with the pain of it.”

Finally, Harjo spoke about her writing process. She said every poem is different for her. For some, she thinks about the shape of the piece and fills in the words within that. She constantly writes notes as well: in notebooks, online and even on scraps of paper. In fact, Harjo wrote down some notes while on the call. She also enjoys the idea of repeating things in her poems, saying there can be “a cumulative power in repetition.”

Specifically for the poem “Somewhere,” this idea of power rang true. 

“I was thinking about the relentlessness of history, and are we somewhere? Are we going nowhere?” she said. “I’m a poet, so my way of approaching these questions and looking for solutions like everyone else is to poetry. Just like a scientist has their particular measurements, well, I use words as structures and measurements.”

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