As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Interview with Joy Harjo

“There are always tests and challenges—what motivates me to keep moving through them are the leaps deep into the mystery of the spiritual realms. Poetry is one tool for diving…”

As / Us Editor Tanaya Winder interviews writer and musician Joy Harjo

1. After spending time in the “MFA machine” which often drills us on linear structure, particularly in the way time is handled, I found CRAZY BRAVE’s form based on the four directions to be refreshing, even empowering. Can you elaborate on your choice to structure your memoir around the four directions or speak to that break away from a traditional memoir structure (if I can call it that)?

There are many kinds of times and approaches. I have been considering ancestral time, that is, looking at a time structure based on generations. This has helped me understand waves of generations and how each generation is connected, no matter culture or environment. One kind of earth time is cyclical by way of direction, though all time is cyclical. I came upon structuring the memoir this way in one of the later drafts. The chronology in basically from before birth to twenty-two years old. Yet, within that linear progression are many leaps of time and space. The narrative went through successive shape ideas. These included many titles and subtitles for vignettes. The subtitling had the effect of breaking the narrative. It was somewhere in this creative chaotic soup that directions occurred to me. Each direction is symbolic with many working elements. That arrangement pulled the weave into a tight design.

2. That leads into a follow-up question. I know writers in particular are always curious about one’s process in undertaking a project. Since this is your first memoir can you talk about struggles you encountered in writing a longer creative nonfiction piece. What were some narrative/craft muscles you felt you needed to stretch after writing mostly poetry and songs?

This is a question asked by a poet! As primarily a poet and a songwriter, when I write prose I tend more toward smaller moments, a kind of poetic prose or vignettes. I wrote a column for my tribal newspaper for about two years. That form was about the right length for a poet writing prose. I notice that I naturally leap from one time/space/event to another. I’d prefer not to—but I’ve had to learn to work with that tendency. I don’t understand why that is—One of my first ideas for writing the memoir was to write it in vignettes, each vignette of memory curled around a song. We humans often plant memories around songs. Then when we hear the song, memory rises up along emotional cords. There is no more time. There we are fifteen again and in love with an impossible love. All senses are blown open. I fought against the need for a single narrative, and then saw that the vignette idea was not working. Eventually I gave in to the spirit of the story and only then did the story begin moving with a little grace and heft.

3. I found it interesting that the sections of your memoir with the most amount of dialogue are those Indian school sections. Did you purposefully craft it this way because you felt that you physically and spiritually had more ‘voice’ during those years or do you just happen to remember more dialogue and conversations in those years as opposed to the years you were pregnant with your first child back in Oklahoma living with your husband and stepmom?

Interesting…I probably talked more at Indian school, though someone recently said I was the shyest kid at Indian school. I don’t think I was the shyest…there was a Hopi kid in Middle Dorm, Arden H. who was shyer than me! The Venus story in CRAZY BRAVE was a chapter in an earlier version of the memoir, when I decided to make the memoir a collection of short stories, all in the time period of Indian school to becoming a teenage mother. In that earlier version, by the time I got to the Venus story I was inventing characters or adding other elements to make the memories form artful short stories. I revised it and included it in an italicized section in the memoir. There I wrote a disclaimer of a sentence or two to differentiate it from the rest of the memoir because of the invention of a character and parts of a situation. All of it was true to some extent. Some of the characters were composites.

I went through much of my earlier life with very few words. I did not speak in most social situations and Indian school was the first school I felt comfortable enough to express myself. There certainly wasn’t much communication going on when I was pregnant with my son in Oklahoma and living with my husband and his mother. I was very conscious of myself as a diminished presence in that time. I did not have my own place or resources and was forced to live at the mercy of others. To be a pregnant, young, Indian woman in Oklahoma was not a powerful position. Today I understand how it could be a very important and pivotal place. Every event has a place of power located somewhere within it.

4. There’s a scene in your memoir where you describe being in the first grade coloring a ghost green instead of white like most of your peers. Then, they taunt you for not fitting into the mold and so you ask them if any of them have ever seen a ghost before. You have a line in there that reads: “What I had seen did not fit into this kind of place.” Something about that line, that scene, that moment, and memory resonates deeply with me and I sense others who feel a similar artist calling which can sometimes make one feel distant and separate from one’s peers. How did that feeling of being out of place affect you? Were there ever times you felt that your art was a burden and if so how did you deal with that?

I think I must have come into the world with that kind of “being out of place” feeling. I was aware of being in a particular box or sequence in the story matrix, and could move with great facility in and out of the reality of my body, my crib, and my parent’s house where I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I knew even then, before speech, that to do so was not a usual state of being and I would not be understood so I kept it to myself. This awareness surfaced and still surfaces in my life, even now! It keeps me a little on edge when it comes to dealing with the status quo of social situations, prevailing theoretical thought streams, and other configurations and institutions. Maybe I perceive in this manner just because I’m Indian, Yet I come from a family that is both church and traditional, native and non-native, and so many other oppositional forces. I am always aware of these forces and literally often feel myself as a bridge between them, even between states of perception.

My art isn’t a burden. It has given meaning and shape to these larger forces that make up who and what I am in this time and place. What has been a burden is feeling out of time and place with my art. I came to writing poetry at a time when to perform poetry was to speak without emotion coloring, to keep the words and meaning clear, without interference. When I took up saxophone in the very late 80’s and began playing with a band in the early 90’s, the act of performing changed the way I read poetry. So did recording. No one else was doing quite what I was doing—Yet, I had to keep going in a direction that made sense to the art-making part of myself. The burden is in feeling you will never quite fit anywhere. Yet, conversely you find yourself home in places all over the world with other artists who understand what and how it means to walk on the edge of the impossible.

5. CRAZY BRAVE only takes us up to a certain point in your life. In the years covered we see different moments of hope, connection, and bouts of disconnection and crises moments. Do you see yourself writing another follow-up memoir down the road? If so, what would be the main message you would want to convey? What are some crucial crises moments or climatic moments you know you would want to include?

I do see a follow-up memoir, the memoir I wanted to write. It would include the political awakening I experienced as a young native woman in the early seventies and into the eighties after natives rights movements, the feminist movement, and several trips to Nicaragua as a witness of the Sandinista Movement. My experience as a young native woman was very different than the men in those situations. I suppose I could write a “tell-all”—I think people would be surprised—maybe not—but that’s not my way. I’ve considered a sensual memoir, whatever that is—I always admired the poet Audre Lorde’s Zami, what she called a “biomythography”. I’ve also considered all the teachers I’ve had and continue to have in my life. I’ve considered doing an honoring, of them, what they taught and teach me. Some of my teachers include enemies. Not all of them are human nor do all inhabit a body.

6. Throughout the memoir we see a young, gifted Joy who ultimately manages to transcend situations and circumstances because of her gifts. More specifically poetry helps her survive. I know that our lives are never done with struggles and trespasses and I wonder what keeps you surviving struggles now?

There are always tests and challenges—what motivates me to keep moving through them are the leaps deep into the mystery of the spiritual realms. Poetry is one tool for diving, so are music and dance. The natural world is intricate with mystery and beauty, even as it is stolid and dangerously forceful. And human beings will always surprise you and keep you awake.

* * *

JH photoJoy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. Her seven books of poetry, which includes such well-known titles as How We Became Human- New and Selected Poems, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and She Had Some Horses have garnered many awards. These include the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas; and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. For A Girl Becoming, a young adult/coming of age book, was released in 2009 and is Harjo’s most recent publication. She has released four award-winning CD’s of original music and in 2009 won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year for Winding Through the Milky Way. Her most recent CD release is a traditional flute album: Red Dreams, a Trail Beyond Tears. She performs nationally and internationally with her band, the Arrow Dynamics. She also performs her one-woman show, Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light, which premiered at the Wells Fargo Theater in Los Angeles in 2009 with recent performances at the Public Theater in NYC and LaJolla Playhouse as part of the Native Voices at the Autry. She has received a Rasmusson: US Artists Fellowship and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. Harjo was commissioned by The Public Theater in NYC to write a play, We Were There When Jazz Was Invented. The story will reinstate southeastern indigenous peoples and our music to the story of the origin of blues and jazz. She is a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Harjo is working to help start an arts council for the Mvskoke Nation, where she now lives.


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