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U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Photo by Paul Abdoo

Joy Harjo on how a new Native poetry anthology fills a gap in American literature

For centuries, Native poetry has been preserved by the spoken word. So when a team of editors were putting together a new anthology of Native poetry, with U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo among them, they read the entire work out loud.

"There were a lot of tears and laughing and missing people, because a lot of these people aren't here anymore," Harjo told the PBS NewsHour.

The poems are verbal art. They are songs. They are prayers. The collection "When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through" compiles work from 161 poets from about 100 Indigenous nations. Some of the poems stretch back centuries or were kept alive by the oral tradition, before the first colonizing Europeans stepped foot into tribal territories. As Harjo notes in her introduction, "Indigenous peoples have been here for thousands upon thousands of years and we are still here."

The team behind the anthology also crucially note when an Indigenous work is translated through the prism of colonization. The dream song of the Anishinaabeg people that opens the collection appears in Ojibwe, along with an early 1900s English translation that interprets the song with line breaks. Margaret Noodin, who provides a much more literal translation, notes that she would view the dream song as one sentence instead.

Geget indabooniisaandaagoog Binesiwag akwaa-ayaayaan

Noodin translates the contemporary Anishinaabemowin spelling as: "It is certain they land on me the thunderbirds across my existence."

"You would have to listen for breath spaces or find rhyme patterns to catch the actual breaks in a line," she wrote.

Harjo said the anthology, in part, fills a gap in American literature that hasn't made enough room for Native voices. In fact, it's probably more than a gap, she said. "It's probably that we're not represented at all or in shards or little pieces here and there," Harjo said.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo reads a selection from the late James Welch, one of the first poets she encountered as a young Native writer just starting out. Video by PBS NewsHour

"The Man from Washington," a poem written by James Welch, son of a Blackfeet father and Gros Ventres mother, is a bureaucrat who "promised / that life would go on as usual, / that treaties would be signed." With these actions in the past tense, the man's promises and treaties were never fulfilled.

Harjo spoke with the NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown on the varied voices featured in the collection and what it's like to be the poet laureate during a pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Before we talk about this new anthology, tell me about your life now during the pandemic. You're in Tulsa, [Oklahoma,] where I saw you last. What is life like now?

A lot of inside (laughs). I was slated to travel non-stop from March all the way through the fall, almost every week — and that came to a halt, which wasn't good economically. But I've gotten a lot of work done. I just recorded the foundation tracks for a new album of music with Barrett Martin. It's part of those Seattle grunge bands. And that album will be out this spring, called "This Morning I Pray for My Enemies." And I finished a memoir, "Poet Warrior, A Call for Love and Justice," that will be out in September. A lot of projects, a lot of working. So I've gotten a lot done here, hiding out.

It's got to be one of the more unusual poet laureateships in history amid pandemic.

It is strange — for all of us. I think we're learning a lot from us. We're learning that with virtual events — we're learning how to be light, camera, action — but at the same time, we're able to gather more people together [at these events], but what we're missing, and what I'm missing, is that contact. What we're all missing is that human contact or being able to listen to music live. It's a whole different experience on virtual.

So the new anthology, "When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through," when I wrote to you recently to ask you to have this conversation, you wrote back, "I would love the chance to support the anthology. I am beginning to see how much of a gap it fills in American literature." That's what I really wanted to start with you; tell me about that feeling of a gap.

It's probably more than a gap. It's probably that we're not represented at all or in shards or little pieces here and there. But it is so strange that these Americas are Indigenous. You know, the roots are Indigenous. We are the root cultures. And yet, we've been basically disappeared, for the most part, from American history, literature, from the canon of knowledge of this country.

You write in the preface, "Most readers will have no idea that there is or was a single Native American poet, let alone the number included in this anthology." That's a pretty strong statement, but probably true, right?

It is probably true. And I think that was probably one of the biggest gifts of this poet laureateship is that, yes, we have poets. There are more poets. I'm not the only poet, and we're alive. I remember being a very young poet when I started writing at the University of New Mexico, and looking around and thinking, "If my work does anything I want — by the time I leave this world — I want us to be seen as human beings with living cultures." And this colonization is a very, thin sliver of time in eternity.

That means not only showing one style of poetry, but a diversity, and a wide geography and a wide history.

That's important because so many people think, "Oh, do you speak the Native American language?" Or there's an image that we're one culture. But the cultures are diverse. You look at any continent, diversity is the key for everything, whether it's biodiversity or ethnodiversity, literary diversity, poetry diversity.

You mentioned being a young poet yourself, learning to write. How much of this tradition, and how much of the history, and how many of the actual writers did you know yourself?

Well, when I came up as a young — I didn't even think about being a poet, though I love poetry. But I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn't know there were Native poets. Then I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts, which in the late '60s was a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. And now, it's a full-blown arts college in Santa Fe. I realized this — everybody at that school, all the students were within a generation of cultures of orality, and the love of the spoken word and metaphor. There were a lot of student writers and poets, and we would pass poems to each other and it was the living kind of way to move about it and to express ourselves. And that was different than, say, the culture of the public schools that I went to. We had some really good teachers, but people were terrified of poetry.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo reads her poem "Running," which appears in her latest poetry collection, "An American Sunrise." Video by PBS NewsHour

But it was only when I went to the University of New Mexico and learned that there were Native poets, who were real poets, that something shifted, and I started writing. Wow, this is something available as a full-blown art practice. But even then, I think after all these years, I think I've come to think of poetry as a calling more than any kind of career. You don't see poets sitting at a booth on Career Day.

(laughs) Not typically. I'm wondering how much of this anthology for you became not only showing the diversity of today, but of the past and kind of even resurrecting some people who didn't get their due?

I don't know where to start. I want to point out, too, that I wasn't the only editor. Our expert, we're all Native poets. So we had regional advisors, contributing editors. And then a group of students who helped with everything. So this came into being with all advice from Native poets all over America, all over North America and the Pacific Islands. And it was important to show some of the oldest work in our languages, down to present time. The youngest poet, I think, is Jake Skeets, Diné poet. I don't even know how to say it — to be able to hold in my hands, in our hands, this book that's got so much history. One of the oldest pieces is the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian origin story chant — just a tiny bit of it translated — [but we also have pieces from] Jake Skeets. That's quite a range. There is poet Eleazar, who Cotton Mather published. We don't know what tribal nation he belonged to, and he died while he was a student at Harvard. I guess I should say: There are a lot of poets we wish were in here, but we were limited by page numbers. The little over 400 pages we have doesn't cover everything. But we rediscovered all of these poets a lot. The last revision, we read the whole anthology aloud because poetry is an oral art and that is the way to hear how everything fit.

And it did fit, Joy? I mean, it made sense as you listen to it from beginning to end.

Yes. There were a lot of tears and laughing and missing people because a lot of these people aren't here anymore, like James Welch who is from Blackfeet. There's poets from all different tribes. Layli Long Soldier is in here, a younger poet. I went to Indian school with her father. I mean, it sounds like I know everybody. But, in a way, we all know — it's a kind of community that we know each other. And then it branches out. And, of course, all the poets, we kind of all know each other. (laughs) It feels like this huge family, and it keeps growing.

I was thinking about, amid such a diversity of poetry, are there ways to define Native Nations poetry and what you've gathered here? When you went back and spoke aloud the whole thing, what held it together?

The word that comes to me is "dignity." There is a kind of dignity, despite history, despite massacre, despite all the laws and rules meant to destroy us and the broken treaties. There is a great dignity and a sense of respect for the gifts of this Earth, of where we are, even in our own crazy history, and a lot of self-effacing humor comes about. But I think it's a kind of dignity in the midst of it all, where even in a lot of these cases using English words, using a language that was meant to destroy us, but in a way, it became a trade language. And so, now we can all speak with each other. It becomes a useful thing. And then, of course, poetry, it becomes art. It's used for the production of something that goes beyond words.

You mentioned some of the younger poets in the anthology. I'm wondering where we are today. Is there a kind of flowering or renaissance?

You always watch for who's coming up or what's going on. And now there's been a tremendous flowering. I guess you could call it a renaissance, but a renaissance implies that it's brand new. I think of it as maybe a re-flowering. It's like everything is a process. It's a natural part of the human becoming process or an artistic becoming. You know, you might write and write, and there it is. And then it's out there. And then you go inside for a while, into the quiet, into the imagination, into the kind of space that we are in right now as a world. We are in a space — a very necessary space — to say, "OK, what is our relationship to each other?" What is our relationship to this earth? How are we going to move forward in a time, in which we are realizing we're all connected, even virtually? And how do we move forward in a way with dignity, with the dignity that these poets and poems impart? And move forward in a way that creates a future of renaissance, so to speak, for everyone, in which everyone is included, every culture and every people is included in that larger story as equal participants.

I got to be with you just before you were taking on the role of poet laureate. And you talked then about how important it was for you personally, but also to kind of carry this mantle for everyone, but especially for Indigenous people. And here it is a year plus later. How has it been for you? What's your experience been like?

I'll probably know more how to say that after, when I can look at the whole trajectory. When you last saw me, I was still in shock (laughs). I'm still in shock. I guess I realized how important poetry — I know poetry is important and I see how it works in our communities, in our indigenous communities and in our communities generally. But, I guess, in a way, it's been a gift. I feel like it's been a gift from poetry back to me and my people. I think I'll have the better words to speak about it, but I'm really honored to serve. We always go to poetry in times of transformation, you know — birth, death, marriage, falling in love, out of love. But here we are at a time of tremendous transformation — and where do we go? And here we are with poetry. And I get to help during this during this huge, transformative event that we're all part of.

READ MORE: Why poems can be safe spaces during the pandemic

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