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Move Me Poetry

Saturday Stroll With Joy Harja

Poet laureate 2019 — present and winner of the Academy of American Poets 2022 Leadership Award

Image via Joy Harjo — US Poet Laureate 2019-present

Hi there everyone and welcome to another Saturday Stroll with Silver, your delightfully entertaining host for this week (everyone is going to suspend belief for just a minute and pretend that I am NOT the one who wrote that! Come on, you can do it — I believe in you!!). Now the reason you’re seeing me this week instead of chris papps as usual is you may remember us mentioning that we’re wanting to open things up to our community more.

This is because while we have an incredible team working behind the scenes — they all have real life responsibilities and jobs too! So sometimes juggling all the things gets a little much, and we’d hate to be dropping balls all over the place. If it sounds like we’re asking for help then you’d be perfectly right. We’re not too proud to admit that we are. I’m sure that everyone has a poetry memory or three to share — and we’d love to hear them. So, feel free to reach out to myself or our wonderful Move Me Poetry editing team if you have a story about any creative field that you’re ready to share with us.

Whether it’s a learning experience like I aim for, or just a special journal entry style memory you want to share — we’d be happy to hear them. It is Saturday Stroll after all, and that means as long as you enjoy it then we are happy to join you (with the obvious exception of anything hateful of course).

So, time to start the days stroll. To be honest I had a very different plan for what I was going to write for this week’s post. But I am a lot like the wonderful, surprisingly endearing Leo Snart aka Captain Cold from Legends of Tomorrow, who gave us this gem:

The 4 Rules Of Planning By Leonoard Snart — Captain Cold with the warmest of hearts

And because I am a total scatterbrain who can remember like it was yesterday a random conversation with a friend at 4am roughly 5 years ago, but regularly forgets to eat and never knows the date until I actually check — I didn’t realise that the Academy of American Poets annual Poetry & The Creative Mind gala was happening the day it did. I absolutely remembered signing up for it, I even retweeted it a couple of times. But somehow I glossed over the “this Thursday” part (which was Friday for me because time zones).

And so I still managed to nearly miss it because I was down the rabbit hole of Twitter bots and cloud hosting platforms and Python code that breaks everything if you add a space in the wrong place. So thank goodness I happened to take a coffee break literally five minutes before the start — and actually checked my phone! Which means I saw the reminder I’d set, the Google calendar notification and the email with my link to join the live stream.

National Poetry Month celebration by on YouTube

It was an incredible show, and as a South African there was a time I’d never have had the opportunity for something like this. But out of the pandemic that has wreaked havoc around the world has come one or two good things. And one of them is live streaming events. Now I don’t have to pay for a plane ticket or cobble the short clips from all over the internet together to enjoy these incredible experiences.

Unfortunately, the email I got when I registered stated that the stream of the event wouldn’t be made available at a later stage for those who missed it, so I can’t share a link here. Which makes me incredibly sad because the program included Debra Monk, Roseanne Cash, Richard Blanco, and Terrance Hayes among others. And to make it even better, Claire Danes from Stardust (one of my favourite movies of all time) closed it all off!

Claire Danes as Yvaine in Stardust (that little scrunchy thing she does with her nose!!)

I think I’ll be returning to the gala a few times in the future, because there were so many moments I enjoyed. But for today’s stroll I want to talk specifically about Joy Harjo, who was awarded the Academy of American Poets 2022 Leadership Award during the event.

But while that is an amazing honour and gives you some idea of what an incredible poet she is — it is her role as United States poet laureate since 2019 that made me pay extra attention during her portion of the gala. You see poet laureates came up in another conversation I had during the week, and I’m going to be honest that I may have slightly misunderstood what being a poet laureate meant.

The thing is I’ve always thought that poet laureate was effectively the poetry equivalent of the Nobel Peace prize (it is not by the way)?? I could not for the life of me tell you where I got that idea, but knowing how my brain works it probably has something to do with the Nobel Peace prize logo featuring laurel leaves. And I probably read somewhere many, many moons ago that a person or organization who wins a Nobel prize is called a Nobel Laureate. In fact, I probably read articles about Nelson Mandela becoming a Nobel Laureate in 1993 and I’ve held this mistaken idea since way back then!

Quote by Joy Harjo — I believe that poets have to be inside their poems somewhere, or the poem won’t work.

But back to Joy Harjo. If you visit that link I shared there (or the one before to her site) you’ll see that her biography is a laundry list of achievements and accolades that anyone would be proud to be able to claim just one of. Besides being a poet, she is a musician, playwright, mentor and activist. She is also the first ever Native American poet laureate in the history of the position. Which has me thinking things about inequality and racism and oppression that I’m not going to get into here. And so moving on swiftly!

She was appointed as the 23rd poet laureate in June 2019, which was just a few months before COVID-19 first made an appearance and the world went into lockdown, bunkering down in their homes and hitting pause on everything except their favourite streaming platforms (and their ablutions apparently??).

According to Google her most famous poem is An American Sunrise, which was the feature poem of her book by the same name. I’m sure Americans have heard the poem a dozen times. But I never had until I went looking for it. And I was like — why didn’t she choose this one? It’s INCREDIBLE!

US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo — Eagle Poem — White House Tribal Nations Summit — November 16, 2021 (actual poem starts at about 2:20)

But after listening to her reading of her poem titled simply Eagle Poem for the gala, I realized that she made the perfect choice. The poem, to me, is a guide on how to pray. To open yourself fully to the universe. To turn your prayer into a type of meditation that allows you to center yourself, free yourself from the worries and burdens a little. And draw strength from whoever your chosen deity may be, to continue.

There have been several times when the landlines to the heavens have been clogged over my lifetime. September 11 in America. The devastating wildfires in Australia. The Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. Although that was before even my mother’s lifetime, it became a symbol of everything that was wrong about apartheid. And now 21 March is our Human Rights Day, so it plays a part in my life today.

But I don’t think prayer has ever been such a global phenomenon as it was when the pandemic first began to really take hold. People who hadn’t mentioned their gods except as a curse word, surprised exclamation, or cry of pleasure in decades; found themselves suddenly whispering a little prayer every now and then.

Sometimes the prayers were because they or a loved one had caught Covid, or they were worried about a loved one getting sick. Everyone in the hospitality industry (and elsewhere) who found themselves suddenly laid off due to lockdown measures, and now had even longer months at the end of their non existent money, prayed for relief. The first responders and essential service workers who are still getting up every day and stepping into a literal war zone that there is no guarantee they’ll return safely from prayed for everything from a little common sense to strength to carry on.

And the imagery of the eagle in this poem is such a jarring contrast to what we all went through. Stuck in our homes for months, many of us with no company except social media and our own thoughts. How we all longed for the freedom of a day at the beach. Or a hike up a mountain. Or a wander through some forest near our homes.

How envious we all were of the birds who could just take off for a little fly around the countryside whenever they wanted. How we wished we could be eagles for a minute or two and soar far above it all. How we all longed for a…..Saturday stroll…

And Harjo’s decision to follow that poem about soaring through open skies with Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich just proves again how carefully she thought about her choices. Because “Diving into the Wreck” is literally about diving down to the “threadbare beauty” of a shipwreck at the bottom of the “deep element”.

And as beautiful as it can be down there beneath the waves, as humans who enjoy breathing oxygen — there is always a little moment of claustrophobic like panic when the water closes over our heads. And again when we sink low enough and the sun glinting on the surface above us is no longer just a quick kick away.

The more you read Diving, the more you wonder what exactly Adrienne Rich was talking about. Was it just the shipwreck? Or was there an undercurrent of something more, hinted at in her line “we are the half-destroyed instruments//that once held to a course”? If I’m lucky enough to have a conversation with her one day I will definitely ask her.

Because one thing I often hate about learning about poetry is how these critics and reviewers and teachers say things like “and in this line we see that so and so was actually talking about the fragility of the world.” Meantime the poet is sitting up there in the clouds yelling “It’s literally a poem about stealing pie from the kitchen windowsill in summer!!!!” and throwing lightning bolts at the idiots who forget that poetry is subjective.

We all take different things away from poetry, or any of the arts. And all I could think about was how this poem made me flashback hard to those months and endless months of lockdown. The mention of the “grave and awkward mask” probably helped with that to be honest.

Do you remember when we all first started wearing them? How weird they felt, and how we couldn’t wait to take them off? Now we’ve gotten so used to them that we tug them down to say something, and forget them like that — bundled under our chins — for hours.

She later talks about treasure in barrels and myths in books so I assume the shipwreck in question is something like a pirate ship from days of old — wooden, creaking and powered by the wind. Literal months stuck onboard a ship, with the same face’s day in and day out, no escape, at the mercy of the elements.

I could still drive to the shop every now and then, or get in my car and claim I was going to a doctor or something and just drive somewhere sometimes. But I can totally understand cabin fever now, and how it drove people insane enough to just walk off the deck one day. Because anything is better than this expanse of boredom and aloneness, even the possibility of getting eaten by a shark means a few minutes of excitement at least.

And whether this juxtaposition of imagery and ideas was what Joy Harjo intended with her choices, I don’t know. But that only highlights for me, how incredible her poetry is. How well she plays with emotions and imagery, how she seems to draw her poems from the deepest wells of creativity to share a pure and ancient wisdom in a form we can process easily.

I realise I’ve gotten a little off track with where I wanted to go with my stroll today — which was talking about Joy Harjo and what it means to be a poet laureate. But apparently my brain decided that was a boring way to spend it’s time and wandered off on another path.

The people who know me best will know that is perfectly normal and that I may or may not get to the point one day. But this stroll has already gotten a bit long, so for those who were hoping I’d explain what a poet laureate is and what they do — please enjoy this Wikipedia article (it’s actually a pretty huge responsibility!).

And if I didn’t tire you out to much with my rambling, then why not share your favourite Joy Harjo poem with us? Or if you have been lucky enough to see her live somewhere — then tell us all about that!!



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A bohemian cowgirl with a passion for words. I know a little bit about a lot of things, my mind/mouth filter broke a decade ago & I punctuate with swearwords.