Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo

Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo

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Overview

Joy Harjo is a "poet-healer-philosopher-saxophonist," and one of the most powerful Native American voices of her generation. She has spent the past two decades exploring her place in poetry, music, dance/performance, and art. Soul Talk, Song Language gathers together in one complete collection many of these explorations and conversations. Through an eclectic assortment of media, including personal essays, interviews, and newspaper columns, Harjo reflects upon the nuances and development of her art, the importance of her origins, and the arduous reconstructions of the tribal past, as well as the dramatic confrontation between Native American and Anglo civilizations. Harjo takes us on a journey into her identity as a woman and an artist, poised between poetry and music, encompassing tribal heritage and reassessments and comparisons with the American cultural patrimony. She presents herself in an exquisitely literary context that is rooted in ritual and ceremony and veers over the edge where language becomes music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819574183
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 09/24/2013
Pages: 164
Sales rank: 386,582
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.75(h) x 0.41(d)

About the Author

JOY HARJO became the first Native American to be named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2019. She is a multitalented artist of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. She is an internationally known poet, performer, writer, and musician. She has published seven books of acclaimed poetry including She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. She has produced five award-winning albums of music and poetry including Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, Winding through the Milky Way, and Red Dreams: A Trail Beyond Tears. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. TANAYA WINDER is a poet from the Duckwater Shoshone and Southern Ute nations. She is pursuing an MFA in poetry from University of New Mexico and working on her first collection of poetry. LAURA COLTELLI is a professor of American literature at the University of Pisa, Italy. Her publications include Winged Words, American Indian Writers Speak, and an edited collection of essays, Reading Leslie Marmon Silko.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Becoming the Thing Itself

Interview with Triplopia, 2005

Joy Harjo knows noise.

Explore her writing and you'll soon find it rich in the auditory imagery of dogs barking, the ground speaking, and the moon playing the horn. And yet, sounds do much more than play to the senses in Harjo's poetry.

I was first introduced to Harjo's voice through her poem, "She Had Some Horses," in Lucille Clifton's poetry class. By a careful reading of the poem, Clifton managed to guide her undergraduates through the repetition of the poem, the horse-running composition found in the rhythms of the words, and the end line which reverberated within us.

"There is music here," Clifton suggested, and indeed there was.

Joy Harjo knows noise.

Harjo has won many accolades and awards for her writing, including the William Carlos Williams Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. She holds a B.A. from the University of New Mexico, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, and an honorary doctorate from Benedictine College. In 2003–2004, she won dual awards, Writer of the Year and Storyteller of the Year from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for her book, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975 – 2001, and her CD, Native Joy for Real. Most recently, Wordcraft Circle awarded her the title of 2005 Writer of the Year — Film Script, for A Thousand Roads, which she wrote for the National Museum of the Native American.

She is an artist in more ways than one, as she is poet, songwriter, screenwriter, children's writer, musician, and storyteller. And yet for all of her degrees, awards and accolades, she still runs across those who do not feel her writing is considered poetry.

Joy Harjo knows noise.

We recently had the privilege of catching up with Joy when we discussed the fusion of oral and written poetry, the responsibility of the poet, and the way music penetrates us all. ...

You started out painting, yes?

Yes, I started out painting when I was young and often think about returning to it. I never quite developed it. I eventually leaped over to poetry.

And now you've been working with music for quite some time, as well as screenplays.

Music was probably my first love, but I didn't start working on it until the last fifteen years or so. I've written prose, and in fact, have a book way overdue at Norton. The contract is for a memoir, but memoir sounds so pretentious to me. It's actually a book of stories, some of it as memoir. At the moment I'm working on a show, something that will combine all of the above. And yes, screenplays, too. A screenplay I cowrote for the National Museum of the American Indian, A Thousand Roads, just premiered at Sundance.

There's a 1993 interview with Marilyn Kallet, in which Kallet asks if you regretted the decision to give up painting, and asked what poetry could do that painting couldn't, and you answered that it allows you to "Speak directly in a language that was meant to destroy us." Do you find yourself attracted to that particular challenge?

As an artist, I don't really think about all that — being interviewed also engages the creative. You know, you have to come up with answers for interviewers. [laugh] But yeah, you do it because it absolutely moves you. What attracted me to poetry was language, was basically sound. Poetry is a sound art. Oral poetry is experienced directly as sound art. Poetry in books is sound art but for the most part has lost the original link to performance. Now performance poetry has become a pejorative term. Poetry was here long before Mr. Gutenberg, scrolls, or any other book-like means of transporting the word. What enticed me about poetry was being able to hold in my hands and in my heart these small pieces of meticulous and beautiful meaning. It was like reclaiming the soul, or giving the soul a voice.

When you talk about your first encounter with music, you describe it as being drawn into the music on an almost physical level. There are a lot of other instances in which memory seems to be accompanied by the same mixing of senses. Is this part of the process for you?

I guess so. I don't like to think about it too much. You know? [laugh] Because when I start thinking too much, it gets in the way and sometimes even just writing what I have to do is like going through a ritual to get rid of all the literal and linear and hierarchical stuff of the Western world, and I have to just let that go. My first experience of music in this world was through my mother's singing voice. I have a very, very faint memory of that experience while in the womb, and then it became the center of my world, especially in the formative years, when my mother was writing songs and singing for country swing bands, jukeboxes in truck stops where she worked, the radio, guitar players at the house. Music was and is my body. I don't think I ever felt a separation between music and my body. Words make bridges but music penetrates.

In reading your poetry, I find myself immediately thinking in terms of dynamicism.

Yes, that appears to be the consensus. I've collaborated with an astronomer, Stephen Strom: his photographs, my poetic prose pieces. His astronomical study is on the birth of stars. Poetry also concerns rigorous studies, of the human soul, which is directly connected to Strom's studies. We all appear to struggle in this universe. Poetry is basically another discipline and provides a structure for understanding the world. Science is a religion. Its world is mechanistic. Some philosophical strands of American and European poetry are similar, based on a mechanistic world, and more theoretical. To dip down into the soul is to get dirty. The more theoretical, the more removed it can become, and then you lose a relationship between the soul and the world. You talk at it rather than move with it. I'll never forget my first day of teaching at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Reg Saner was a professor there. He introduced himself and came into my office. Said that he believed there were two kinds of poets; he called them Jacob and Esau poets, Jacob implying the refined and Esau the hairy wild man. He considered me of the second sort, primitive. Seems to me this becomes a pejorative kind of naming though he may not have meant it directly that way. The way I took it at that time was as a question: what is such a primitive poet doing in such a refined place?

And that connection between the soul and the world is important to you in your poetry?

To me, that's what poetry is. The communication with the soul is important to me, and maybe this, too, is considered primitive!

There's communication going on here.

Right.

In a couple of previous interviews, you've mentioned the idea of the fusion of oral and written as a new literature. How do you see this manifesting itself in your work?

Well, I think it is on Native Joy for Real. I consider singing, the saxophone, and poetry the blending of the oral and written. My early poems were short, lyrical statements usually fastened around one image. Then, they grew as my concept of poetry and vision grew. Being a mother of young children influenced the form. Then as the children grew, so did spaces of time in which to write. The lines grew longer, the vision deeper. The first experimentation I did with the interweaving of the oral with written was in The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. By the time I got those poems, I was trying to figure out how to make a book reflect an oral experience of poetry, in written form. Hence, the prose pieces in between the poems. They were another kind of experience that replicated, I felt, the experience of the performance of the poems. It's not the first time it was done. Evers' and Molina's Yaqui Deer Songs used this technique, and they referred to Leslie Silko's Storyteller. I wanted the experience of the book to mimic my oral presentations, which often have commentary preceding the poems. A Map to the Next World expanded that concept. Maybe it doesn't work. Adding a saxophone takes you so far outside the written pages of a book, it's blasphemy!

How has a loss of credibility, for mixing genres, expressed itself, and how do you see such a reaction reflecting upon the world of poetry?

When you perform or sing or add a saxophone to your poetry, it's taken from the realm of literary art to performance art, and performance art is a pejorative term. Recently I came upon a blog written by someone who had come to a performance in Ojai that included Galway Kinnell, Suzanne Lummis, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and me. She was a very good writer, kind of edgy, edgy academic. She trashed me and was very pleased with her erudite opinion. What I was doing wasn't real poetry. What did singing and saxophone have to do with it? She and others like her feel that the music is getting in the way of poetry. And if you read poetry a particular way, then I suppose it is. It's not supposed to be sung, and it's not supposed to have other kinds of accompaniment, or you're destroying the integrity of the written word. The words and text exist without you. That is one reality of poetry, a fixed, flat-planed reality.

In another interview, you mentioned that the division between music and poetry is not something that really has substance in some Native American traditions. In listening and reading your work, especially "Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor," and comparing them and seeing the revisions that had been done from one to the other, what was your process?

When I turned the poem into a song I trimmed about half of the poem, then added a hook line, chorus, and other musical kinds of elements.

What sort of things do you find demanding this sort of revision?

There's a difference between a spoken phrase and a sung phrase. And at the root is rhythm. It's been a primary creative spark for me, even before the music was added, or dropped in where it was always meant to be. Repeating elements are pleasing to the ear, or can be. In "Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor," "Set me free" in one verse is "Set us free," in the next, and in another "Set them free." It works, I think. I didn't need these repeating elements in a poem, but the song needed them. The music fits right around other poems, as if I'd written them to include the music at some future point. This integration has been a long time coming. My first effort was Furious Light, a tape produced and distributed by a Washington, D.C., organization, Watershed Foundation. It's no longer available. I don't even have a copy anymore. Several prominent Denver jazz musicians performed on it, including Laura Newman and Eric Gunnison. The next was my formation of the band, Poetic Justice, which was first just Susan Williams and me, then her brother, John, then Will Johnson, and later Richard Carbajal. I spoke the poems on that project, which resulted in a CD of music, Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century. I learned to play saxophone on that album, played soprano and alto. My singing voice began to evolve and on the next project I learned to sing. The writing too has been affected. Three of the songs on Native Joy for Real are written as songs. The rest were poems first, and I suppose continue to be poems. It's a process and continues to be a process.

One of your most recent books, A Map to the Next World, makes use of the same alternation between prose and poetry you mentioned in The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.

Right. The book consciously leaps between the two. One is to be reminiscent of an oral act, the other more written.

And often the two inform each other. Some of the connections are more explicit, and some are less, but in one poem, "Returning from the Enemy," it seems to hit a real focus. The entire poem takes its form in exactly this way, and toward the end of the book, there's a final poem, "In the Beautiful Perfume and Stink of the World," in which you have two poems that are braided together.

That weaving informs the whole shape of the book and occurs at many levels, a kind of oral and written call-and-response, or the linear stacked next to the mythic. There's the overall book, then "Returning from the Enemy" mimics this shape within a longer poem, and then the shape occurs within the final poem, "In the Beautiful Perfume and Stink of the World." This was my original choice for the name of the book, by the way, but my editor vetoed it — didn't like the word "stink" in the title. Found it repugnant. But to my thinking, it's part of this world, and now seems to be very much a part of this world. Anyway, within that poem, there is that back and forth, so that form is at work on three levels.

"Returning from the Enemy." That title is a reference to a Native American ceremony, is that correct?

Yes. A lot of native cultures have such ceremonies. The poem is intended to work as an actual ceremony for cleansing someone who has gone off to war — and certainly going out into the world can be going to war — and seen and participated in atrocities. Of course, seeing is a kind of participating. You are present at the moment. And what you've seen and taken in is dangerous — to the mind, body, soul, and spirit — and can infect everyone, not just in the present moment but through all time. Much of the monster we are witnessing now in America was given life with the first massacres. So basically the poem is a cleansing ceremony. And to be clean of something you have to go back to the root.

In this poem, this isn't a literal war, it's basically a war in terms of culture, correct?

Yes, it is a cultural war I'm addressing here. Violence informs all aspects of it. The source of much of this violence is a fundamentalist stance, a relentless stance in which one opinion or experience of religion, education, or culture is deemed the only one, and anything different is an enemy. Forcing language use is violent and disturbs the root of a people, both the afflicted and the perpetrator.

Your own poetry is often described as a 'poetry of witness,' thus suggesting that conceptions of history are quite central to your work. Do you see the primary aim of history, and by extension, a poetry of witness, to be similar to that of a cleansing ceremony?

I don't know about making a direct analogy between a cleansing ceremony and poetry of witness. Certainly poetry of witness can act as an element in a cleansing ceremony, or a series of poems could be ceremonial in intent. I'm not sure what you're asking. Cleansing can be one part of a larger process of acknowledgment, preparation, recounting, and so on.

Well, for example, one of the threads of thought, in "Returning from the Enemy," is a comparison between the mythological and the everyday ways in which we see ourselves and others. For example, you write, "When my father remembered he was descended from leaders, he was ashamed he'd hit his wife, his baby. When I was the baby I did not know my father as a warrior, I knew him as an intimate in whose face I recognized myself." This comparison between mythological figures and real life, how do you think that informs the process you're describing in "Returning from the Enemy"?

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Soul Talk, Song Language"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Joy Harjo and Tanaya Winder.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword: A Carrier of Memory –; Laura Coltelli
Acknowledgments
INTERVIEWS
Becoming the Thing Itself, Interview with Triplopia
Music, Poetry, and Stories: Returning to the Root Source, Interview with Rebecca Seiferle
Exploring the Depths of Creation and Meaning, Interview with Simmons Buntin
The Thirst for Artistic Brilliance, Interview with Pam Kingsbury
In the Horizon of Light with Joy Harjo, Interview with Ruben Quesada
Writing, Constructing the Next World, Interview with Bill Nevins
Transcending Writing on Singing Wings, Interview with Tanaya Winder
Song Language: Creating from the Heart, Out, Interview with Loriene Roy
You Might as Well Dance, Interview with Harbour Winn, Elaine Smokewood, and John McBryde
The Craft of Soul Talk, Interview with Susan Thornton Hobby
COLUMNS BY JOY HARJO
Global Roots, Muscogee Nation News, October 2006
Identity, Muscogee Nation News, December 2006
Censorship and the Power of Images, Muscogee Nation News, May 2007
It's Difficult Enough to Be Human, Muscogee Nation News, June 2007
Dehumanization Flatlines, Muscogee Nation News, August 2007
We Are Story Gatherers, Muscogee Nation News, June 2008
We Are the Earth, Muscogee Nation News, August 2009
A Way to Speak Their Souls, Muscogee Nation News, February 2010
Energy of the Transaction, Muscogee Nation News, April 2010
Watching the World Shift , Muscogee Nation News, July 2010
THE LAST WORD: PROSE PIECES BY JOY HARJO
Preface for She Had Some Horses, From the second edition, W.W. Norton, 2009
The Art of Resistance, Preface for Indigenous People's Journal of Law, Culture and Resistance, 2004
Afterword for The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, From the second edition, Graywolf Press, 2009
In Honor of Patricia Grace, World Literature Today, May–;June 2009
I Used to Think a Poem Could Become a Flower, Introduction to Ploughshares, December 2004
Talking with the Sun, From This I Believe, July 2007
About the Authors

What People are Saying About This

Marilyn Kallet

“A new book by Joy Harjo is a major event in American literature, and this collection of interviews is no exception. Harjo is a virtual Renaissance woman, the singer who stands at the center of a newly created universe warmed by her voice and her ability to rock n’ roll. Harjo’s comments on her own work in all its guises will be invaluable to anyone who cherishes poetry, music, oral tradition lore, and Native American history. These interviews bring us inside, to the kitchen table, where the universe is created over and over, by Joy Harjo, poet, fierce and tender singer, who revitalizes creation, makes it personal in her breaths. There is no substitute for the poet’s own insights into her multifaceted body of work.”

From the Publisher

“In Soul Talk, Song Language Joy Harjo provides a rare and treasurable acoustic: the sound of an artist and woman thinking for herself, and for us. Never afraid of large questions of purpose and identity. But never remiss either in providing beautiful, small details of craft and commitment. This is an essential book.”—“In Soul Talk, Song Language Joy Harjo provides a rare and treasurable acoustic: the sound of an artist and woman thinking for herself, and for us. Never afraid of large questions of purpose and identity. But never remiss either in providing beautiful, small details of craft and commitment. This is an essential book.”
“A new book by Joy Harjo is a major event in American literature, and this collection of interviews is no exception. Harjo is a virtual Renaissance woman, the singer who stands at the center of a newly created universe warmed by her voice and her ability to rock n’ roll. Harjo’s comments on her own work in all its guises will be invaluable to anyone who cherishes poetry, music, oral tradition lore, and Native American history. These interviews bring us inside, to the kitchen table, where the universe is created over and over, by Joy Harjo, poet, fierce and tender singer, who revitalizes creation, makes it personal in her breaths. There is no substitute for the poet’s own insights into her multifaceted body of work.”—“A new book by Joy Harjo is a major event in American literature, and this collection of interviews is no exception. Harjo is a virtual Renaissance woman, the singer who stands at the center of a newly created universe warmed by her voice and her ability to rock n’ roll. Harjo’s comments on her own work in all its guises will be invaluable to anyone who cherishes poetry, music, oral tradition lore, and Native American history. These interviews bring us inside, to the kitchen table, where the universe is created over and over, by Joy Harjo, poet, fierce and tender singer, who revitalizes creation, makes it personal in her breaths. There is no substitute for the poet’s own insights into her multifaceted body of work.”
“A fascinating, complex portrait of Joy Harjo, the poet musician, emerges from these conversations. Soul Talk, Song Language focuses on her process of making an organic fusion of the musicality of words with the language of the saxophone. Everyone who loves her performances and her writing will want to read this book, which includes Joy’s monthly columns for the Muscogee Nation News.”—“A fascinating, complex portrait of Joy Harjo, the poet musician, emerges from these conversations. Soul Talk, Song Language focuses on her process of making an organic fusion of the musicality of words with the language of the saxophone. Everyone who loves her performances and her writing will want to read this book, which includes Joy’s monthly columns for the Muscogee Nation News.”
“Gathering stories, making stories, and sharing them in a dynamic back and forth defines our humanity. Soul Talk, Song Language gathers, makes, and shares stories that extend our vision of [Harjo’s] work in and out of Indian Country.”—“Gathering stories, making stories, and sharing them in a dynamic back and forth defines our humanity. Soul Talk, Song Language gathers, makes, and shares stories that extend our vision of [Harjo’s] work in and out of Indian Country.”

Eavan Boland

“In Soul Talk, Song Language Joy Harjo provides a rare and treasurable acoustic: the sound of an artist and woman thinking for herself, and for us. Never afraid of large questions of purpose and identity. But never remiss either in providing beautiful, small details of craft and commitment. This is an essential book.”

Leslie Marmon Silko

“A fascinating, complex portrait of Joy Harjo, the poet musician, emerges from these conversations. Soul Talk, Song Language focuses on her process of making an organic fusion of the musicality of words with the language of the saxophone. Everyone who loves her performances and her writing will want to read this book, which includes Joy’s monthly columns for the Muscogee Nation News.”

Susan Bernardin

“Gathering stories, making stories, and sharing them in a dynamic back and forth defines our humanity. Soul Talk, Song Language gathers, makes, and shares stories that extend our vision of [Harjo’s] work in and out of Indian Country.”

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