By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on September 12, 2020
Joy Harjo is the first Native American to become Poet Laureate of the United States. Her poetry is filled with beautiful and powerful imagery; it is at once accessible, very readable, yet complex.
On Thursday, Sept. 10, she held court with Dare County’s high school AP English students.
Sponsored by the Bryan Cultural Series, Harjo was originally scheduled to come to the Outer Banks, but COVID-19 restrictions forced a change of plans and the students met with her remotely from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But even over a remote feed, Harjo captured the imagination of the students.
“The thing that stood out to me most was that she was from Oklahoma. I feel like she is from England or some fancy place because she is so elegant in her writing,” Cape Hatteras Secondary School sophomore Misty May Elder wrote.
Harjo began by reading one of the first poems she had ever written, Remember. It is a poem where the elegance of the language is on full display.
“Remember the sky that you were born under/know each of the star’s stories/Remember the moon, know who she is/Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the strongest point of time…” the poem begins.
The poem, focusing its attention on how the individual fits into something larger that is part of the sky, the earth, the mother and the father, is a compelling introduction to the themes and imagery that Harjo returns time and again.
As she discussed how she finds the ideas for her poems, Harjo talked about how she wonders about commonplace things. Something as ordinary as a kitchen table becomes the focal point of a number of thoughts she had for the students. She pointed out that with so much happening now with remote learning, the kitchen table has become the center of learning.
“I guess we’re all at kitchen table universities right now,” is how she described it.
In her poem The World Ends Here, the kitchen table, has that same sense of a universal gathering place—a setting where the world seems to come together. “I’ve always wanted to do a kitchen table class, where you bring in all the food and see where it’s from,” Harjo said.
The poem begins acknowledging how important the kitchen table is.
“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live…”
And ends, recognizing the cycle of life.
“Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
Although she spoke at length about her poetry and the process of creating it, Harjo also filled her talk with some very plain-spoken advice.
As a teenager she had two children. Her thoughts on the subject could not have been clearer.
“I was a teenage mother, something you don’t ever want to do. And if you’re contemplating it, talk to me and I’ll talk you out of it,” she said.
Learning about Harjo’s life story seemed to make her more real or approachable to the students.
“I liked when she explained her life story because I always enjoy hearing about people’s past,” Elder said.
There was also time for a student to read one of Harjo’s poems. Manteo High School sophomore Jillian Leary read An American Sunrise.
A relatively short poem, it begins, “We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.”
The poem layers images of the American experience over the despair of Native American culture, the story taking place in a bar.
With its unconventional use of punctuation and line breaks, it is not an easy poem to read, yet Jillian did very well with it.
There was also time for the students to ask questions, which they typed in.
A question about her first attempts at poetry led to the revelation that Harjo’s first poems were written while she was in an Indian boarding school in New Mexico.
“I wrote terrible acid rock songs,” she said. “It was horrible.”
When she finally got to the University of New Mexico, though, and she heard Native American poets for the first time, she found her voice.
“It was like, it blew it open for me. I can write poetry about who I am, where I am, the time I’m in,” she said.
Finally, there was a question about what it takes to pursue writing as a career. Her answer highlighted how important it is to believe in yourself and to persevere.
“I went for years without being officially recognized. Years and years,” Harjo said. “The thing you learn is that you keep doing what you love. You may not be recognized. You might be. Everything comes and goes.”