Poet, writer and musician Joy Harjo — a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation — often draws on Native American stories, languages and myths. But she says that she’s not self-consciously trying to bring that material into her work. If anything, it’s the other way around.
“I think the culture is bringing me into it with poetry — that it’s part of me,” Harjo says in an interview with NPR’s Lynn Neary. “I don’t think about it … And so it doesn’t necessarily become a self-conscious thing — it’s just there … When you grow up as a person in your culture, you have your culture and you’re in it, but you’re also in this American culture, and that’s another layer.”
Harjo, 68, will represent both her Indigenous culture and those of the United States of America when she succeeds Tracy K. Smith as the country’s 23rd poet laureate consultant in poetry (that’s the official title) this fall. Her term, announced Wednesday by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, will make her the first Native American poet to serve in the position.
“It’s such an honoring for Native people in this country, when we’ve been so disappeared and disregarded,” Harjo says. “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.”
A native and resident of Tulsa, Okla. — she is also the first Oklahoman to be named U.S. poet laureate — Harjo says the appointment is an opportunity to continue a role she has often assumed throughout her career: as an “ambassador” of poetry. The Library of Congress calls the position “the nation’s official poet” and assigns a “modest minimum” of official duties in order to enable individual projects designed “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.”