Joy Harjo, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, becomes nation’s first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate

‘Being named poet laureate was exciting but completely unexpected,’ says Harjo, the first Native American ‘official poet’ of the United States

The Library of Congress has appointed it’s newest U.S. Poet Laureate, award-winning book author, musician and poet Joy Harjo. Harjo, 68, as a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation will be the nation’s first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate when she succeeds Tracy K. Smith.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden made the announcement Wednesday that Harjo would serve as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry and stated “Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—‘soul talk’ as she calls it—for over four decades,” said Hayden in a release.

“To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them, she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”

Harjo, who currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, her hometown said of the appointment in the official announcement., “What a tremendous honor it is to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate.”

Joy Harjo has been named Poet Laureate of the United States.
Joy Harjo has been named Poet Laureate of the United States. Photo by Shawn Miller, Library of Congress.

“I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem. I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee (Creek) people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry.”

Harjo also appeared on an episode of NPR.

"It's such an honoring for Native people in this country, when we've been so disappeared and disregarded," Harjo told NPR. in an interview Wednesday. "And yet we're the root cultures, over 500-something tribes and I don't know how many at first contact. But it's quite an honor ... I bear that honor on behalf of the people and my ancestors. So that's really exciting for me."

The Library of Congress also tweeted the announcement Wednesday afternoon accompanied by a short interview with Harjo.

What is the U.S. Poet Laureate?

According to the Library of Congress, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is appointed to the Library of Congress in order to seek “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.”

The Poet Laureate is appointed on an annual basis by the Librarian of Congress and the appointment is from September to May of the following year. Specific duties of the Poet Laureate are loosely defined to give the Poet Laureate freedom to work on specific projects, participate in speaking engagements or chair literary festivals.

The first consultant in poetry was Joseph Austander in 1937, who was followed by 29 appointees to the position, some of whom served for up to two years. In 1986, the position was named the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Joy Harjo will be the 23rd.

Awards and music

Harjo has received numerous awards for her literary work to include American Book Awards for her books In Mad Love and War and her 2012 memoir Crazy Brave, which also won the PEN Center USA Prize for creative nonfiction.

Though Harjo is an award-winning acclaimed poet and author, she is also a well-known saxophonist having performed with such bands as Poetic Justice and the Arrow Dynamics. Harjo is also a founding board member of the Native American Arts and Cultures Foundation.

Respected Indian Country Today contributor Suzan Shown Harjo expressed her sentiments via email about Harjo's appointment.

“Joy Harjo is one of our preeminent Native poets and U.S. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden is to be applauded for appointing her as the U.S. Poet Laureate, one of only 23 to hold that exalted title. Now that the first Native person has been named Poet Laureate, our young Native poets will be able to envision themselves as honored in their own time, and maybe even as making a living as a poet. Congratulations, Joy, for all the good you will do with this great honor. Mvto, Hokte!” 

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling and Instagram - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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