Joy Harjo and Her Poetencies: An Interview with the 2022 NBCC Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

By Ricardo Jaramillo

Joy at podium The 2022 National Book Critics Circle Awards, New School Auditorium, New York, New York, March 23, 2023. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

When I began my conversation with Joy Harjo, I immediately recognized her cadence. It is a cadence I’d come to know and love via another form, from years of making company with her poems. It is a cadence scaffolded by reverence, by grace, and by a rigorous love for the world. Like any great poet, Joy Harjo’s cadence does not simply indicate her wisdoms; it constitutes them. I spoke with Harjo in the wake of her winning the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, a prize made to honor an individual’s contribution to the larger culture of books and language. We spoke over Zoom, with some final adjustments and amendments completed in writing. Below is a summation of our longer conversation–a conversation which staggered and wandered, like all speech that travels near to beauty: 

You speak, often, of rituals. You’ve even claimed that “every poem is a ritual.” I wanted to ask you about your morning rituals. What rituals accompany your days and your poem-making?   

My favorite ritual is to get up and acknowledge the sun and this life. Then I ask for help, in whatever I am doing. I like to get up while I’m still asleep and to stay in that mode–a liminal mode between dreaming and wake–and just write without thinking. Often, that earliest stuff is rich, rich with the deep earth, where there’s both coal and diamonds.  I like to say I’m an early morning person and a late-night person–I can catch the writing wave on one side of that line or the other… 

You play the saxophone, you paint, and you write poems. I wonder what you feel can only happen in a poem?   

When you deal with the musicality of language, which includes rhythm, the sonics, meaning, architecture… I mean, you can’t get that anywhere else in quite the right manner. Poetry is a kind of distillation. I’ve said sometimes that everyone has their area of obsession; maybe every poem is like that. Maybe every poem has a heart. There must be a heart in there somewhere for a poem to live. I always come to poetry when I have no words, which is the great paradox of writing poetry. Poems map out mystery, using words, lines, phrases, sonics – in a manner unlike any other literary art.  

We are speaking on the occasion of your winning the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. You are one of the most known and decorated living poets. But you are also a spiritual poet, with spiritual motivations. What is your relationship to recognition and accolade?   

Well, I was young once, too, and I’ve learned some things along the way (laughs). Some of it I learned after long, long periods when I felt like I was writing well, but often felt that no one could see or hear me. We all go through testing periods like that. One thing poetry has taught me is that this is all a spiritual world, and poetry is the language of the spiritual world. We’re all in it. It’s the stuff of our poetry, it’s the stuff of our living. As far as accolades, well, this award from the National Book Critics Circle, it means a lot to me. I’ve been writing now for over fifty years, a relatively long time. I didn’t have early recognition. The delay was helpful in the long run because it taught me I am writing because I love language. I love to travel, and traveling means not just physically moving from one place to another, but traveling within the mind-realms, the spiritual realms. What I do does not depend on recognition or non-recognition. Ultimately, I was given something to do, and I want to do as best as possible. I am motivated by healing, and I am motivated by justice. I am motivated by what can happen in the creative story-field, in the creative poetry-field, or the creative song-field. That excites me. That’s worth the journey. 

Former Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Toni Morrison once said: “We die, that may be the meaning of our lives. But we do language, that may be the measure of our lives.” Looking back on the lifetime(s) of your poems, what do you feel they measure or engage?   

Maybe we poets engage directly with eternity. Some version of eternity. Time is staggered. Realms are staggered. I’ve learned that poems seem to ripen at different times. They all have their own lives. And sometimes they go live their lives elsewhere, without you.   But that’s a beautiful thought from Morrison, I think it’s a characterization of poetry really.  

What line of what poem could you never forget?   

A lot of the poems come to mind. Of course there’s always, tiger tiger burning bright. There’s one must have a mind of winter, to regard the frost and the boughs…and have been cold a long time. Wallace Stevens, The Snowman, I’ll always remember that. There’s Audre Lorde’s Litany for Survival. And one line I always remember is from Toni Morrison’s Sula, that last line: girl..girl..girl..girl…  

Can you speak a little about repetition?   

It’s part of the musicality of poetry. Repetition is an essential tool for aural presence and poetentcy.   Funny, I just misspelled “potency”, but poetency also works.    

What guidance would you offer young poets?   

Well, to even be compelled to write poetry, it takes a certain kind of shape of person – not that we’re all shaped the same. It’s almost like we’re all philosopher-singers, even if we’re not singing, we’re singing on paper. You need to learn to listen. To make your own path while also acknowledging you have poetry ancestors. We all have poetry ancestors. It’s important to feed your gift. The role of the poet has always been of the griots, the truth tellers, the healers. Sometimes the healers must break open the wound. To get there, you need to be yourself, and to feed the spirit of poetry. You must learn to trust, to trust your path, to trust language, to trust feeling uneasy at times. If you think you know where you’re going, then you’re already in trouble as a poet.   

Ricardo Jaramillois a poet and writer from Philadelphia. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Believer, and The Rumpus, among other places. He was an inaugural 2021 PERIPLUS fellow, and a 2019-2020 Fulbright teaching fellow at La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. Currently, he works as a case manager at a school for immigrant youth in the Oakland Unified School District.