Joy Harjo (right) started writing as a college student in New Mexico in the early 1970s, during what she described as “the beginning of a multicultural literary movement.”
At gatherings around the Southwest, she began meeting poets, including Native American ones. Hearing them perform made her realize that poetry was available to everyone, including her. “It became a way to speak about especially Native women’s experiences at a time of great social change,” she said.
Since then Harjo, 68, has written eight books of poetry, a memoir and two books for young audiences. Now the Library of Congress has named her America’s new poet laureate. She will take over for Tracy K. Smith, who has held the position for two years, and joins the ranks of such acclaimed writers as Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Billy Collins and Juan Felipe Herrera. Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is the 23rd poet and first Native person to be selected for the role.
“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” said Harjo, who now lives in Oklahoma, where she was born. “This kind of award honors the place of Native people in this country, the place of Native people’s poetry.”Rob Casper, who heads the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, which houses the laureate, praised the “great humanity” of Harjo’s poetry. “She can have a kind of great sweeping vision and still speak so directly as one human being to another in a way that I can’t help but feel completely moved by and believe in,” he said.
In a statement, Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, said Harjo’s work “powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”