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Joy Harjo on inspiration behind memoir 'Poet Warrior'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Before Joy Harjo became a renowned poet, artist and editor, she was a quiet child who was more likely to take in the world from the sidelines than become the center of attention. But in a powerful - and, yes, poetic new memoir - the U.S. poet laureate charts the journey to finding her voice and finally learning how to use it. And she shares the lessons she's learned along the way. It's called "Poet Warrior." And Joy Harjo is with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome back to this program. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOY HARJO: Well, thank you so much for inviting me.

MARTIN: We last spoke with you about the gorgeous anthology of Native poetry that you co-edited, and that's just one of your many published works. I mean, you have authored - what? - Like nine poetry collections. And you've even published a previous memoir called "Crazy Brave." So what were you hoping for with this new work? Why this book, and why now?

HARJO: This book was written during the pandemic, you know, a time of great political division, climate change, all of those parts of the story that every one of us is confronting and dealing with right now, individually and collectively. It's also a time in the life of the age of a country and of a planet and so on to look back and see what our intent is, who we are, who we are becoming.

MARTIN: Do you have a copy of the book in front of you? I do hope so.

HARJO: Yes, I do.

MARTIN: Oh, wonderful. Would you mind reading the - I'm going to call it a poem that begins on Page 36 with (reading) one night, when Girl warrior was out traveling.

HARJO: (Reading) One night, when Girl Warrior was out traveling in dreaming time, she went looking for the fire. That's where the old ones sat and watched and looked after those who were left behind in the earth's story. She stood at the edge and waited respectfully to be called over. Fire was friendly, and within it many colors that cannot be found on earth. Fire was singing as it rose up to give back the wisdom of its flames. Girl Warrior was motioned in. She sat down next to her kin. She listened. It was the fire that kept her ear turned towards story. There was a girl, fire's saying, who left us for earth during star rise. In her pack, she was given poetry. Every gift has tests before they can be opened to be shared.

MARTIN: I just - shut the door. Let's just stop now. Just - it's just - there's so many beautiful images and ideas. People might be surprised to learn you weren't immediately drawn to poetry. You actually started college as a pre-med student, and you had a whole other life before that, so many experiences that will be known to many people of, really, around the world of disruption in the home, unhappiness, seeing, you know, men come into your mother's life who had various intentions. I'll just sort of put it that way. I guess the reason I bring that up is that you were so drawn to healing as a young person, and then you got interested in painting. And I just wondered, when did poetry feel like the right fit for you?

HARJO: I think what shifted there was that I loved words, and I loved poetry as a child growing up, but I never saw them as something that really belonged to me. But it wasn't until I heard Native poets. I think that I realized that, wow, this is a powerful tool of understanding and affirmation. And I don't know. I just started writing. And, of course, my first poems aren't very good, but I started writing. And then something took over. I don't know how to explain it, except there I was writing poetry.

And I kept going with it, even when it seemed impossible to keep going with it. You know, especially as a student, you know, when you say, OK, I'm majoring in pre-med and you're a Native and we need doctors and we need and needed attorneys, and we need and needed educators of all sorts, but a poet? What's a poet? You know, what use is poetry? But there was something beyond my everyday knowing that I've learned to pay attention and to follow.

MARTIN: I was also so interested in how you deal with pain and the pain inflicted, particularly by others. You talk about, for example, your stepfather. And you say, you know, I didn't ask for this stepfather. He was not my choice. It was my mother's decision to bring him into our lives. And you say that yet he is probably one of my greatest teachers. Because of him, I learned to find myself in the spiritual world. To escape him, I grew an immense house of imagination. And I just - I was so struck by that because you're not excusing any of the things that he did, but you are claiming it, if that makes sense. Would you mind talking just a bit more about how you think about pain and the pain points that both you've experienced and that those you love have experienced and by extension that your community has experienced?

HARJO: I think what I've learned to do in maybe writing and reading. I read all kinds of things from novels to quantum physics to books on acupressure, et cetera.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HARJO: And poetry, of course, teaches me that everything is energy. And pain points to something. It's a compacted point. And there is a story in there. And so you can either use it against yourself or you can use it as a tool. And at one point, I remember when I was pretty depressed, I was a student at the University of New Mexico. And I was having a really, really hard time. But I had to keep going. And I came to a decision that instead of destroying myself with this accumulation of injustice and pain, that I would look closely at all the materials and repurpose them, so to speak, to use a word. And one way to do that was to try to hear the stories and try to understand. I think forgiveness is important, but it doesn't mean that the story didn't happen or that it didn't cause pain to, you know, even the perpetrator.

So the other part of what you were reading about that stepfather is, you know, even the monster has a story. It put together, you know, sort of how I've come about trying to deal with so much, you know, historical trauma, which is the story of this whole country, if you think about it. But certainly Indigenous communities, which are at the forefront of that story. And yet we've been essentially disappeared for the most part from the American story.

MARTIN: Well, it's always a delight to speak with you. I mean, honestly, I could talk to you all day. But back to the business. You've been renamed the U.S. Poet Laureate. This means you're now in your third term. Has this been a good experience for you? What's it been like?

HARJO: I've been deeply moved by the experience. And again, I've come to see how useful and beautiful and absolutely necessary poetry is to all of us.

MARTIN: That is U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Her new memoir, "Poet Warrior," is out now. Joy Harjo, thank you so much for joining us once again.

HARJO: Oh, thank you so much, Michel Martin, for your care of the stories. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.