Joy Harjo Makes History as First Native American to be Named Poet Laureate of the United States

Image Credit Sophie Herxeimer

Joy Harjo has just been named the next poet laureate of the United States by the Library of Congress, taking up the post that had previously been occupied by Tracy K. Smith. Notably, Harjo is the first Native American to have ever been honored with the responsibility of poet laureate. “I’m still in a little bit of shock,” Harjo told the New York Times last week. “This kind of award honors the place of Native people in this country, the place of Native people’s poetry.”

Hailing from Oklahoma, Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Her background as a creator is varied: Not only is she a poet, but also a memoir and fiction writer, a musician, and a trained painter. Now 68, she began writing poetry in college after hearing Native American poets perform. Harjo told NPR that she once asked Audre Lorde about whether writing becomes easier as you get older. “And I was hoping that she would say, yes. And she said in her very low voice — it was like, no honey … In fact, it gets more complex because of the different layers — how history piles upon history and piles upon history and the intricacies of human beings and the art form and all of that.”

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The multiple award-winning poet hasn’t yet decided what she will do during her tenure as poet laureate, but she told the Times last week that she hopes to elevate the experience of “sunrise, sunset, eating, enjoying company, births, death, all of it.” This deceptively simple, elemental subject matter will reflect her belief that poetry is for everyone.

Nick Martin, a member of the Sappony Tribe, wrote a piece for CNN in which he shared the way that Harjo’s appointment, at least for now, fills him with a sense of optimism. This optimism, though, is guarded. “They will read our works, they will use our lands, and they will even celebrate those of us whose talent demands nothing less,” he wrote. “But will they listen to us after the final period of the poem arrives? In Ms. Harjo’s ascension, and the ascension of those that fill the literary community still today, I find hope that they will. And for now, that will have to do.” If you haven’t read Harjo’s work before, Martin recommended picking up a copy of “How We Became Human” to start out, and if it connects with you, delve deep into the rest of her oeuvre to not only celebrate her appointment but also to carry her words with you well beyond her tenure as poet laureate.