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Anthology Of Native Nations Poetry Is A 'Doorway,' Says Editor Joy Harjo

Sep 12, 2020
Originally published on September 12, 2020 4:40 pm

As U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo was working on the Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, she and the other editors decided they needed to hear the whole collection.

"At one point in the editing, we decided to read the whole manuscript aloud," Harjo says. "That's how I revise, so that's what we did — is we took it into our mouths and took it to our bodies."

The result of that work is When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through -- an anthology of poetry from more than 160 poets, representing close to 100 indigenous nations.

Harjo thinks of this anthology as "a doorway."

When Native peoples are portrayed in American culture — when they are portrayed at all — "usually it's through images that we did not construct but were constructed by nightmares and takeover," Harjo says.

Translation poses a challenge, too: "There's been so much native poetry in languages that has been published over the years that was translated by people who ... don't know the language and that's always problematic," Harjo explains.

But she sees the poetry in this new collection as an opportunity. "A poem opens up time, it opens up memory, it opens up place, the meaning of place, the meaning of ... our place in history," she says.

So the anthology is "a doorway," she says. "I mean, every time I open it ... it's kind of [an] encyclopedia of memory of what matters."


Interview Highlights

On how the pandemic has changed her plans for being the U.S. poet laureate

It certainly shifted them because there were a lot of plans for in-live events to promote poetry. And of course, we know the world is shut down. I've done a lot of virtual work. ... I've been working on a digital story map of native poets with the Library of Congress staff. But yes, you know, we're living in a virtual world right now, and so it did shift the plans quite a bit.

W. W. Norton & Company

On her role as a representative of indigenous poets

There's not just me. This anthology has 160 [poets] and because of the page limitations, you know, we couldn't put everybody in here that should be in here. There are many of us and we're not just poets. We're teachers. We're dancers. Essentially, we're human beings. And you would think that at this time we would not have to say that. But we still are in the position, strangely enough, that we still have to remind people and the public that: We're still here, we're still active. We have active, living cultures and we are human beings and we write poetry.

On the arts being crucial to our humanity

We talk about needing food, clothing and shelter, but ... that's bodily. But we also need to feed our spirits, and we need to feed our souls, and maybe we even feed history and grow it one way or the other.

And this book of poetry, it says: Here we are, we're indigenous peoples. We can be as different as the French from the Italians and Germans. And yet here we are. We have not gone anywhere. ... We're living and we are making art.

I came across this quote recently — the [Hawaiian chief's] cloak and helmet that was gifted to [British explorer] Captain [James] Cook was returned to Hawaii — and I love this proverb. It was a Maori proverb that says ... Where there is artistic excellence. There is human dignity.

And that just stayed with me. I think of this book being a compendium of human dignity, of artistic excellence.

Will Jarvis and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk poetry now. Maybe all these months of staying home have given you more time to reread your favorite pieces and maybe even discover some new ones. So to help you with that, we have called one of the country's most celebrated poets, Joy Harjo.

In 2019, she was named U.S. poet laureate, and now she's using her platform and deep appreciation for this art to serve as editor of the "Norton Anthology Of Native Nations Poetry." It's called "When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through." And she's with us now to tell us more about it.

Joy Harjo, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOY HARJO: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for inviting me and native poets on your show.

MARTIN: I do want to ask before we get into the anthology about being named U.S. poet laureate. I mean, you were named - you had a beautiful reception at the Library of Congress welcoming you to this role where people got to hear your beautiful work. And I believe that you are the first person from the Native nations to be so honored. And I recall from your investiture that there were people who had never been to Washington who came to see you installed.

So, in a way, that's kind of what you're doing with this anthology in a way, isn't it? You're bringing people to the limelight who have not had the opportunity to be spotlighted in this way.

HARJO: Yes. I think that's what's been so important about this poet laureateship because basically, I'm essentially a doorway. And I'm representative, certainly, of Native nations and of poets. And I say, well, there's not just me. This anthology has 160. And because of the page limitations, we couldn't put everybody in here that should be in here.

And there are many of us, and we're not just poets. We're teachers. We're dancers. We're - essentially, we're human beings. And you would think that at this time we would not have to say that, but we're still active. We have active, living cultures, and we are human beings, and we write poetry. I think a lot of what you see out there as Native Poetry in translation that most people are aware of was not translated. You know, there's - you know, there's also a ethics involved, too. So it was challenging.

MARTIN: Well, but you do say that the English language provides access to native poetry because it does allow Indigenous people to speak across tribes and to people all over the world. So, with that being said, I'm going to ask you to read something and tell us what it's about.

HARJO: This was written by a student at a Carlisle Indian School - a school that was an industrial school. It was military-style, as many of the Indian schools were, that was founded by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt in 1879. And his - it was meant to be a tool of assimilation. He was known for his famous motto - or infamous motto, I should say - kill the Indian, and save the man.

This was published in the school paper. And it was noted that it was written in 1913. And the student didn't want his name known. And it's called "My Industrial Work."

(Reading) At half past 2 in the afternoon, you can find me in the 28 room, about three or four covers deep. You turn them back, and you'll find me asleep. And there I lie and patiently wait for the final exams we have in room eight. When the whistle blows at half past 5, what's more, I am up and still alive. Then I run down and wash my face and comb my hair, and I'm ready for grace.

In fifteen minutes, there's a bugle call. The troops fall in, and the roll is called. Then out in front, the troops all stand saluting the flag with our hats in our hand. While standing in the wind, our hair gets wavy. Just the same, we right face and march to gravy. Now, this may sound like going fishing, but this is my only industrial position. That could be any kid - almost any...

MARTIN: Right.

HARJO: ...Even now, you know, who has to go to school or any young kid.

MARTIN: And one of the other things I noticed, too - I just saw another one, is "Kissing The Opelu." There's a lot of reverence for and also grappling with relationship with elders in these pieces, too, which I found really moving.

HARJO: I can do that one. That's by Donovan Kuhio Colleps. He's Kanaka Maoli, or Hawaiian, from - born in Honolulu, Hawaii.

(Reading) "Kissing The Opelu" - for my grandmother. I am water only because you are the ocean. We are here only because old leaves have been falling, a mulching of memories folding into buried hands. The cliffs we learn to edge. The tree trunk hollowed, humming. I am a tongue, only because you are the body planting stories with thumb. Soil crumbs cling to your knees. Small stacks of empty clay pots dreaming. I am an air plant suspended, only because you are the trunk I cling to. I am the milky fish eye, only because it's your favorite.

Even the sound you make when your lips kiss the opelu socket is a mo'olelo. A slipper is lost in the yard. A haku lei is chilling in the ice box. I am a cup for feathers, only because you want to fill the hours. I am a turning wrist, only because you left the hose on. Heliconias are singing underwater. Beetles are floating across the yard.

MARTIN: That's lovely. I love it. Do you love it (laughter)? Do you love it, too?

HARJO: Yes, I do. Can you tell? I was discovering the poem as I was...

MARTIN: Yeah.

HARJO: ...Reading it aloud. And, you know, at one point in the editing, we decided to read the whole manuscript aloud. That's how I revise. So that's what we did, is we took it into our mouths and took it through our bodies.

MARTIN: Obviously, this collection is going to mean different things to different people. I'm guessing for people from Native nations, who - seeing this collection is going to be really exciting. But how do you want people to experience this? What would you recommend?

HARJO: A poem opens up time. It opens up memory. It opens up place, the meaning of place. And so it's a doorway. And it says, here we are. We're Indigenous peoples, and we are making art. And I came across this quote recently. A - the cloak and helmet that was gifted to Captain Cook was returned to Hawaii. And I love this proverb. It was a Maori proverb. I'll just read the English. It says, where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity. And that just stayed with me. And I think of this book being a compendium of human dignity, of artistic excellence.

MARTIN: That is U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. She's the author of eight poetry collections, including the bestselling "An American Sunrise" and a memoir, "Crazy Brave." She's the editor of "When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through." And it is out now.

Joy Harjo, thank you so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll get to talk again in person.

HARJO: Thank you, Michel. I really appreciate this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.