When Rilla Askew first read one of Joy Harjo’s poems in 1989 as she sat in a motel in St. Louis, she was stunned by the power of her words.
“I just kind of fell back on the bed,” Askew said. “I was so knocked out by the power of it, by the beauty of it, by the pain, and by the honesty and by the things that I recognized that were so particularly Oklahoma and so particularly Native.”
Harjo’s poems, which were featured in “Oklahoma Indian Markings,” the spring 1989 edition of the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, alongside some of Askew’s work, were written toward the beginning of Harjo’s career as her poetry received increasing acclaim, Askew said.
“I just went, ‘And she's from Oklahoma? She was growing up in Tulsa while I was growing up in Bartlesville and I never knew her?’” Askew said.
Askew, an OU English department associate professor, would meet Harjo a few years later and build a relationship as members of the Oklahoma writing community. The poets supported one another by attending their respective poetry readings and writing events.
During April — National Poetry month — Joy Harjo will read her work at both the Metropolitan Library System and the OU Mark Allen Everett Poetry Series. These readings will give audiences an opportunity to hear Harjo perform her work and connect with her stories on Native communities in Oklahoma.
Harjo, the current U.S. Poet Laureate, was born in Tulsa and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She is the first Native American poet to hold the position and is the second to be appointed to a third term, according to her website.
Askew said much of Harjo’s work features the generational trauma of Native people in Oklahoma.
“It comes from … the trauma of growing up Muscogee (Creek) in this place where there was so much violence and theft here in the former Indian territory, where Muscogee (Creek) people were removed from their native homelands in the east in the early 1800s, and the woundedness of growing up with the kind of white-dominated racism that exists really across the country but certainly here in Oklahoma and when she was a girl growing up in Tulsa,” Askew said.
Askew said that Harjo’s position as U.S. Poet Laureate, one of the highest honors for poets, is recognized on a national level and is an affirmation of the power of Harjo’s story and witness.
“It certainly brings Oklahoma itself or at least Oklahoma letters — people who care about these things in Oklahoma — to a kind of recognition that we have a place on that national stage, that this story, particularly the indigenous story in the voices of indigenous writers, has a place on the national consciousness, the national narrative, the national stage,” Askew said.
On April 25, Harjo will participate in a virtual Author and Poet Visit with the Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma City. During the talk, Harjo will read some of her work and excerpts from her new anthology “Living Nations Living Words,” and there will be a Q&A session with Harjo after the readings.
Jessica Gonzalez, programs manager at the Metropolitan Library, said the Joy Harjo event is the second event celebrating National Poetry Month, which is April.
The first program was their Youth Poetry Contest, which began taking submissions in mid-March and closed on April 15. Gonzalez said the contest was open to students grades four through 12 in Oklahoma County, and throughout the contest window, the library system created virtual poetry workshop videos with local poets and professors to help students with their entries for the contest.
The winners of the contest will be formally announced by Harjo at the Author and Poet Visit, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said Harjo described her poetry as a way to confront a society that overlooks its Native population, and Gonzalez said Harjo’s poems connect with the library system’s mission.
“I would say that our role and responsibility at the library is to really ensure that indigenous voices are not only represented but amplified through our collection services and programs,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said the pandemic forced the library system to reimagine their programming and events, including switching their author visits to a virtual format.
“This is the first time we are hosting such an iconic and renowned artist virtually here at the library, and we feel fortunate to be able to do so,” Gonzalez said in an email.
The virtual aspect of pandemic-era programming has allowed the library system to expand the reach of the event, and Gonzalez said that the library system’s sister library partnership with the International English Library in Düsseldorf, Germany is also promoting the event.
“By streaming this event live we will be able to reach far beyond OK County and reach audience members across the country and even internationally,” Gonzalez said in the email.
Harjo’s reading and Q&A will be from 2–3:30 p.m. April 25 and will be live-streamed through the Metropolitan Library System’s Facebook page. The event is free and open to the public, but attendees are encouraged to pre-register to submit questions for the Q&A.
Poetry readings are a different experience from reading a poem on the page, Askew said, as hearing a poem read aloud engages multiple senses.
“The power that's given in the performance, it gives the poem a way to the audience … it's a different way to enter that poem,” Askew said.
Askew said that hearing a poem performed can change the audience’s perception of the poem.
“So then, once you've heard her read a poem and give her performance, but especially read a poem, and then you go back to read that poem on the page, you hear it in Joy’s voice,” Askew said.
Askew said she doesn't think the virtual aspect of the readings will diminish the power of Harjo’s reading. While it might be harder for Harjo to feel the audience, the audience will still be able to feel her emotions and the power the words contain, especially with a clearer view of her facial expressions.
“One of the advantages of the virtual medium is that you get a close up on her face — you get the power of that,” Askew said.
Harjo will also be speaking at one of OU’s Mark Allen Everett Poetry Series events “Language Lives” on April 28.
Todd Fuller, curator of the Western History Collection and one of the co-directors of the poetry series, said the series is the latest conception of a poetry reading series at OU and was started in 2007 after a gift from the Mark Allen Everett Family Fund.
The series was created to raise awareness about modern poetry and to bring an “eclectic lineup” of poets to the OU and Norman communities, Fuller said.
Fuller said the Language Lives event started in 2014 as a collaboration between the poetry series and Jacobson House Native Art Center to celebrate the first languages of Native peoples.
“We've been real lucky to have Native writers who have believed enough in this event to want to come and celebrate it with us,” Fuller said.
This year’s Language Lives event will begin with curated open mic readings with several Native poets who will read poetry and short prose. After those readings, Harjo will read and participate in a Q&A.
Fuller said Harjo was scheduled to speak at last year’s event but was rescheduled because of the pandemic. He said that in addition to her readings, Harjo will most likely have uplifting words to share about the effects of the pandemic.
“Knowing Joy, she's not only going to share her work — she's going to share her wisdom, her hopes, her dreams for how we move forward, how we negotiate these new spaces, how we treat one another, how we are all humans living in a world that is for all who inhabit these spaces,” Fuller said.
Fuller said that he hopes the virtual aspect of the event allows more people to hear the readings.
Before the pandemic, Fuller said the poetry series had a small number of attendees per event, but that number has significantly increased for the virtual events. Now, they see anywhere from 15 to 75 people.
“We’re getting a more … honest sense of how many people are interested in what we're doing,” Fuller said.
Fuller said the pandemic taught the poetry series how technology can expand their reach and that the series plans on continuing to live stream their events even after they return to in-person readings.
The Language Lives event will begin at 5 p.m. April 28 on Zoom. The open mic portion will be from 5–6:30 p.m., and Harjo will begin her reading at 7 p.m. Links for registration for both events can be found on the Mark Allen Everett Poetry Series Facebook pages.
Fuller said it’s a “tremendous honor” for the poetry series to host Harjo and for students to hear from and interact with the current U.S. Poet Laureate.
“For me personally, I think that it's important for all students at the university, and those Native students at the university, to see that the highest poet … looks like they do, is somebody who comes from a tribal community, that there is a capacity to reach the highest of high levels of accomplishment and celebration and be recognized for that at a national level,” Fuller said.