Listen: DC2B - Joy Harjo

MPR’s Kerri Miller interviews Native American poet Joy Harjo, who discusses literature, music and activism. Harjo also talks about working on a play titled “We Were There When Jazz Was Invented.


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CATHY WURZER: But now we're in depth with poet Joy Harjo.


That's not what I expected to find when I read about the genesis of Ms. Harjo's poetry. But it was indeed country swing that introduced her to the rhythm and the precision and the beauty of language. She says, the roots of poetry lead to music. Poetry is a sound art.

Today, as she serves as the distinguished visiting writer at The Minnesota Northwoods Writers conference, we've asked her to spend some time with us talking about literature and music and activism. Joy Harjo's recent memoir is titled Crazy Brave. Her newest collection of poems is Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings poems. And she joins us today from our Bemidji station.

Joy Harjo, welcome. It's really good to have you on the show.

JOY HARJO: Thank you. It's really good to be here up here in Minnesota.

CATHY WURZER: Did the country swing bring back some memories for you?

JOY HARJO: Yes, it did.

CATHY WURZER: Tell me about that. You say that your mother used to write country swing ballads in the what, in the kitchen of your house in Tulsa? Is that how it went?

JOY HARJO: Yes, it was. It was in the kitchen with the sunlight and all of her plants. And she had an Underwood typewriter. And we used to have a lot of country swing musicians, guitar players come over, and she wrote songs. And the bandleader, Ernie Fields, also took one of her songs and rearranged it into an instrumental. And she had quite a career going, actually. And then her heart was broken when she sent a song to Los Angeles and it was stolen and became a hit and yeah.

CATHY WURZER: What song was that?

JOY HARJO: It was a song that Johnny Mathis sang. I don't know who-- You know, somebody writes, gives songs to people. I'm not saying he took it, but-- And what is the name of that song. I can't remember the name of the song, but she loved writing. She loved music. And actually, the first poetry I heard was from her, the poetry of song lyrics, of course, but also the poet William Blake. She had to memorize his poems as a student. And those also influenced her.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I love the idea that you put that detail of her Underwood typewriter into that memory of yours. I mean, what, she would set up this big typewriter, you know, in the kitchen with these musicians around and she would type away as they were kind of playing, and that's how she'd write these songs, it seems. So I don't know, it seems kind of an uncreative way in the middle of that kind of creative energy, you know what I mean?

JOY HARJO: I like that idea. And you just gave me a great idea for a scene in my play.

CATHY WURZER: You're writing a play, aren't you?

JOY HARJO: Yes, I am. It's a musical play that will-- It deals with teen suicide, but it also deals with the story of American music. And one of the reasons for the play or the motivators was to restore southeastern native people to the origin story of American music, of blues, jazz, rock.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I understand the name of the play is We Were There When Jazz Was Invented. Is that still the name of it?

JOY HARJO: Yeah, that's the working title. It might change, but that's the working title.

CATHY WURZER: How is it that the we and you say native people have been taken out of the story of how jazz began.

JOY HARJO: Yes, it's very interesting. I think of the origin story that maybe the Naval, the place where the Naval court attaches of the story is Congo Square in New Orleans.


JOY HARJO: And Congo Square, If you look at the history of Congo, Square, of course, was on Sundays, the slaves would be free to go down and hang out. And you could just see a huge-- you know, there was huge sharing of music because people were from many different tribes and places. And then you also have other people, French, people from the South, the islands coming in. But people have always left out that, which is a big leaving out place, is that Congo Square was a home of a Muscogean people, the village of a Muscogean people.

CATHY WURZER: The square itself was?

JOY HARJO: Yeah, the village was right there. So what I can see is, of course, you know, there's people coming in, native people coming in from Africa, other places. So you stay and you invite people in, you want to hear-- You like to share stories, you want to hear where they're coming from, what their people are like. You people like to eat together. They like to dance. And you can see where it all got started.

CATHY WURZER: So this is a musical that you're writing?

JOY HARJO: Yeah, a kind of a musical. I'm not sure that it's going to be a traditional musical, but I hear a soundtrack going through the whole thing.

CATHY WURZER: [LAUGHS] Have you ever have you ever taken on something like writing a play before?

JOY HARJO: Yes, actually I did a one woman show with music with some of my music, because I'm also a musician. I play saxophone, et cetera, bass, et cetera. And I had music, I worked with Larry Mitchell, and for my play Wings Of Night Sky, Wings Of Morning Light. And that will be coming out next year in a book form from Wesleyan Press.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. So writing that play dialogue, screenplay dialogue, I assume you're going to infuse that with the kind of poetry that you obviously think and that kind of language. But what's the difference in writing the dialogue for something that's going to be performed and as opposed to an experience of poetry that I think of is often kind of a quiet experience?

JOY HARJO: It's a lot different. And especially even the one woman show was a female voice, and there were other characters in there who spoke directly now and then, but they were characters you didn't see. Here it's different. The protagonist is a young Muscogee Creek man, late teens, early 20s. So it's been very different. And it's also now. So it's a very different kind of-- It's very different.

CATHY WURZER: When you say--

JOY HARJO: Challenging.

CATHY WURZER: You say it's now, it's contemporary, then.

JOY HARJO: Yes, it is. It's contemporary, but it moves. Like everything I do, it intends to move in time, which is a quality of poetry is that you're bound by time. There's quite a structure of time and rhythm in a poem, as in song or music. But you're able to move through time. And so there's a lot of movement in time. So we're going to be, the way the play set up, we will be moving through time with into, you know, dealing with musicians and space in a way that the play will wind back up at Congo Square in that time when that home village was there.


JOY HARJO: But it will start out on the roof of the Mayo building in downtown Tulsa where this young man is about to jump.

CATHY WURZER: This sounds like quite an undertaking.

JOY HARJO: Oh, yes, it is. I'm in the middle of it.

CATHY WURZER: I mean, is this something that one works up to in one's life or you kind of reach a stage of writing experience and say, now I think I'm ready to write that play that I've always wanted to write about, the experience of Native people and Congo Square and jazz.

JOY HARJO: Yeah, it's overwhelming. I got a commission just to write the play from the public theater, and they've been very helpful with-- I've been researching quite a bit. And I've always loved the music. But I've been involved-- And I research as I go along. And it's overwhelming.

I mean, the story is huge. So to take it on, I've had to kind of, you know, break it. I've learned to if there was a huge project, you have to break it down and you have to hold it into your-- it has to fit into your heart. And the heart is immense, of course. But also what characterizes the heart is a kind of intimacy. And so that's what I've had to do to be able to handle it. Otherwise, it gets a little bit overwhelming.

CATHY WURZER: I went back to read the first several chapters of your memoir, Crazy Brave. And you open it, I'd forgotten this, you open it with music. And you're riding in your father's Cadillac. You're hearing jazz for the first time. And you write, "music was a way to speak beyond the confines of ordinary language. I still hear it." What does that last part mean. I still hear it?

JOY HARJO: It's interesting, as a poet and as a writer and as a musician, you don't always know what you're saying. It comes forth and then you come to understand things as you go along. And I always remember that moment. It's a very transcendent moment where I realized in that solo, that music going on, that it was probably a trail that I was going to follow.


JOY HARJO: And the trail would go in and out and would appear to disappear. And sometimes I would get lost, and sometimes-- like we all do on our trails of life and you get lost, and then sometimes-- Like, I didn't start playing horn until I was almost 40. And then I learned to play in public and failed a lot. And because I didn't grow up as a kid playing in these garage bands and so on.

And then I would question myself and then think, what am I doing. This is crazy. I'm too old. But then I would keep going because there was something just ahead of me that I could hear, I wanted to hear, and I don't always comprehend it. That's what I love so much about jazz is that jazz is a series of trails all going together in a moment, and sometimes they converge and it's amazing.

CATHY WURZER: I thought we'd listen to a little Miles Davis, if that's OK with you.

JOY HARJO: Yeah, all right.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you.


Joy, when you're listening to music like that, are you, as somebody who understands how to play an instrument now, are you imagining the physicality of making that instrument sound like that?

JOY HARJO: Sometimes. But as I was listening, I actually-- it brought tears, because it is so-- you know, it does take you into a place that can only be reached at that moment by Miles and his sound and his being.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I asked you that because I don't play an instrument, so I don't know anything about what it actually takes to create that kind of sound out of an instrument. You do. So you know the precision and the artistry that you have to bring to a trumpet to make it sound like that.

JOY HARJO: Yes, if I had noticed how he was making the sound, then I would-- usually if you really notice it, it's because they're not right on it.

CATHY WURZER: What do you mean?

JOY HARJO: If they're off a little. But sometimes you can be off and it's incredible. [LAUGHS]

CATHY WURZER: It's good to be off sometimes.

JOY HARJO: Yeah, it is.


JOY HARJO: It is. And that's how you find things, you know what I mean? You play a who is it people have said, you know, there's no wrong notes. And I know Miles had a lot to say about that, you just have to then you make that your center. If you make a wrong note, then you bring that into the weave.

CATHY WURZER: That's brave, isn't it?

JOY HARJO: Yes, it is. I think some of the bravest people are jazz players.

CATHY WURZER: So there's a famous line of Davis's where he says, don't play what's there, play what's not there.

JOY HARJO: Yes, I love that.

CATHY WURZER: What does it mean?

JOY HARJO: Play what's not there. It's like you don't know where-- Like in life, we don't always know where the trail is going. We don't know what's going to happen. But that's the mystery and the magic of what's there but not there.


CATHY WURZER: You know what I thought? What I thought that meant is, as with poetry, what isn't said on the page, the white space, right? The silence in the poem, is often as important as what is being said. Does that make any sense?

JOY HARJO: Oh, it makes a lot of sense. Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Because a lot of listening is about not hearing what is there, but what is the-- I don't want to say metaphorical because-- Well, maybe I do, because metaphor has to do with many, many layers, and it has to do with what's not what you don't hear, perhaps, or what's not there.

CATHY WURZER: I mean, isn't the temptation as a young writer, and you've been doing this for a long time and maybe this is something that you talk about at the kind of conferences that you're at this week, that to put it all there. I mean, isn't some of the expertise of writing being willing to be a little sparer, a little more confident that your reader will get it without you having to be explicit about it.

JOY HARJO: Yes, well, that's poetry and music generally, especially jazz, is that you have to leave-- If you want to make a speech, it's a different kind of writing. If you want to hammer a point, that's a different kind of writing. Poetry, music, it's about discovery and about leading. It's about mystery and yeah, about going where you can't, what you don't-- going to the place of what you don't know and what you can't hear.

CATHY WURZER: And I guess the discovery can happen in those what wider spaces where there is kind of blankness and silence, yeah?

JOY HARJO: Right, because it can't happen if you're talking too much.

CATHY WURZER: Right. So you just mentioned you've used the word trail a couple of times. And the question that comes to my mind about this is now where you're at today in your life, do you look back and say, I know I was on that trail, and that's, as you mentioned, that's where it disappeared. But if you look at it at it as a whole, I can see where I was even on the trail when I thought I wasn't. Do you know what I'm asking?

JOY HARJO: Yes, I am. And what I've also noticed, too, as I've grow older and learn more and still don't know anything, is that we're all of us are in a field. There's different kinds of fields of meaning. And like a generation is a kind of a person, is the kind of an entity. And then I just had a great grandchild born. I was a teenage mother.


JOY HARJO: Yes, I did. And--

CATHY WURZER: Congratulations.

JOY HARJO: But what I've watched is nothing ends. I watch how, you know, it makes a kind of trail, and the music follows that trail. I can hear my mother. I can hear the stomp dancers from way back. I can hear the African ancestors, the Creek ancestors, the Irish. I can hear them and almost see them and I see them in the children. It becomes a long story song that goes way back and you can see it extending into the future.

CATHY WURZER: How old were you when you had your child? You just said you were a teenage mother. How old were you?

JOY HARJO: I was 16 when I got pregnant with my son. And then my daughter was born when I was 21.

CATHY WURZER: You've said that you often pursued your art, quote, "often at the expense of mothering." How long did it take you to admit that to yourself?

JOY HARJO: You know, when I was in it really young, you don't realize what you're carrying. It is a burden and it is a gift. And it drives you. And it's different from-- I think that it's true of all artists. It doesn't matter what the art is, is that it has its own spirit almost, and you have to do it. And it was put here for you to do. And you can argue with it and say, forget it, which I've done and said, I can't do this. But you've signed on for it.

And then to be a young mother, mostly a single mother raising children, that's-- Children, that's-- it's incredible. The mothering is one of the most-- and parenting and fathering is one of the most important, deeply important of arts, and yet it's the one least valued in this culture. And it has its own weight. But we're not meant to be single parents. The way it's set up is you're supposed to have a extended family. And at that point, things were broken in my family.

CATHY WURZER: You could not rely on your extended family for help?

JOY HARJO: No, I had no one.

CATHY WURZER: As you write in the memoir, right.

JOY HARJO: Yes. Yes, and so there I was. And I had this art. I would be up all night sometimes. I would do because I had to follow it. And it gives you less-- There's sacrifices. And I thank my children, because they made those sacrifices with me.

CATHY WURZER: You've clearly reflected on the kind of artist that you would have been without children. Not better. Not worse. But it sounds like you've given some thought to how that art might have expressed itself if you had not had children at 16 and been on your own, mostly, raising kids. What comes to mind?

JOY HARJO: I don't know how it would have been. It would have been different for sure because children also give meaning. And they open up-- they are literally doorways to other-- they're themselves, but they also bring meaning. And they helped-- they certainly grounded me. And I needed that. I realized how much I needed that at that point.

CATHY WURZER: Joy Harjo is with us. If you've joined the conversation, we're talking about some of the things that she writes about in her memoir, Crazy Brave. She has a new collection of poems titled Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings Poems. You heard her saying that she's working on a play with the working title-- I just lost it, Joy. What's the working title again?

JOY HARJO: We Were There When Jazz Was Invented.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you. And much more, apparently. If you'd like to join the conversation, 651-227-6000, 800-242-2828. And she is at the moment at the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference and spending a little time with us in the midst of that. You know, here's what I wonder about gathering the courage to release a memoir that's as raw and as candid as yours is. You know, you know that people you don't know well are going to make judgments about you from some of the things that you've told about your life in that memoir. How do you come to peace with that?

JOY HARJO: Well, at some point you realize that people are going to say what they say and there's nothing you can do about it. It doesn't matter whether you write it in a memoir or you just standing there living your life. That's what happens. I deal with it quite frequently, actually. And you just have to try to work out of a good place and do what you need to do and to be kind to people. And try to understand where people are coming from.

CATHY WURZER: When you say you deal with it quite frequently today, so what form does that take?

JOY HARJO: Oh, well, there's-- [LAUGHS] You know, anybody that gets anywhere, there's jealousy, there's backstabbers, there's all of that kind of thing going on. And usually I've come to realize it's just because people-- And I see it in myself. If there's something I don't like about somebody, it's because it's me. It's usually Oh, OK, that's because I'm like that at someplace. That's how I can see it, you know? So I understand it, you know? I understand it.

CATHY WURZER: If there's something that you don't like in somebody else, it's because you think it reflects something that is true about you?

JOY HARJO: Often it is.


JOY HARJO: Often, and to some extent. I mean, otherwise, how can you see it.

CATHY WURZER: So by the time you get to be a great grandmother, you still have haven't cast off a lot of the stuff that-- the jealousy, all that kind of thing that we-- What were you going to say?

JOY HARJO: Oh, no, It's just that we're all in this human stew of this mess. Sometimes it's a chaotic mess and sometimes there's the flavor. It makes the flavor. So there's not much-- I have a poem in Conflict Resolution For Holy Beings. It's called This Morning i Pray For My Enemies.


JOY HARJO: Which is a way to address that. Because if you think about it, there's attraction and then maybe the opposite of hate isn't love, but it's absolute not disregard, but no attention at all.

CATHY WURZER: It's like indifference, right?

JOY HARJO: Yes, indifference. That's the word I was looking for.

CATHY WURZER: A call here for you, Joy, from Minton in Grand Rapids. Hi, Minton.

MINTON: Hi. Actually, it's more for you, Cathy.


I've listened to Talking Volumes many times. And I've wanted to say this for years. One of my favorite forms of literature is songs. I consider a well-written song basically a well-written poem set to music. And to me, it's literature. There are several songs I could mention that you listen to them and you could spend hours discussing them.


MINTON: I also write songs. I write gospel songs. And a few of mine are like that. People have told me, you know, we could do an entire study on that. It's amazing what you can cram into three to five minutes.

CATHY WURZER: Agreed, and I think that's something that Joy, I would guess that you don't even really need the lyrics to reflect on what Min just said about the meaning of a song, right? I mean, we just listen to Miles Davis. There's, wow, a lot of meaning in just listening to the instrumental.

JOY HARJO: Mm-hmm. And what I always tell people about poetry, because there's a great fear of poetry in this country, and it's not that-- probably no place else in the world is quite like that. I've traveled all over the world and people love poetry. And people here love poetry. But I always say a lot of times we're taught, well, you need to know what it means first, and no.

I always tell students, you just listen to the-- listen to the music. Just listen to it and enjoy it in the way that you would enjoy a song. And then like the man was saying earlier in the interview about reading a book, you just read it for enjoyment first. Then you can go back and understand it or you're compelled to go back and then go back again and again.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I wonder, that was Robert Stephens. I wondered if you were listening to a little bit of the thread podcast with him. Because he mentioned Miles Davis and Blue, and the layers, the dimension that you get once you, as you've just said, once you give it a listen and then you're back for deeper reflection, I guess, of it. Boy, jazz is good at that.

JOY HARJO: Yeah, and the thing I like about songs, poetry, and comedy, I was very good friends with Charlie Hill and we realized that we both did the same things almost, but a little different, you know, with a poem and a piece of comedy.


JOY HARJO: Yeah, there are moments of things move. You have a small-- I love the kind of space in a song, a poem, or a comedy, the moment is that you have a-- you know, you're moving through space. It's compact. You have just so much time to layer and to move and to transcend and fall back down again. And that's what I love about those forms.

CATHY WURZER: Joy, I thought we would close with Crescent from Coltrane. Is that OK?

JOY HARJO: Oh, perfect.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Thank you. It's been a real pleasure to have you with us.

JOY HARJO: Thank you. You've been great.


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