United States Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo

The first Native American to become the United States Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo explores what is at the heart of her poetry.

AIRED: January 04, 2020 | 0:27:16

Funding for COLORES was provided in part by:

Frederick Hammersley Foundation

...and Viewers Like You














>>Joy Harjo: I've had many teachers in my life

showing me the way.

Showing me the way that yes, it is possible to

embrace what you are, who you are.

Every person is part of a generation and every

generation is carrying a story forward.

Poetry is an art of sound but every art you know,

you have to depend on listening, listening

beyond what's most, what's most obvious.

>>Megan Kamerick: Where does poetry come from?

Imagination or memory?

>>Harjo: Huh!

That's an interesting question to be asked right off.

That's a huge question.

I think that's a question we're always asking, you know.

It's like where do humans come from?

Why are we here, and what does it mean?

And poetry is really part of the questioning.

It's funny how poetry is.

I don't always know what I'm doing.

I think any artist will tell you that.

Because you're an artist.

Because you're exploring something unknown with

known tools and but it's interesting how this poem,

this rabbit figure has come to light in recent times.

Rabbit is up to tricks.

In a world long before this one, there was enough

for everyone, until somebody got out of line.

We heard it was rabbit fooling around with clay in the wind.

Everybody was tired of his tricks and no one would

play with him and he was lonely in this world.

So rabbit thought to make a person and when he blew

into the mouth of that crude figure to see what

would happen the clay man stood up.

Rabbit showed the clay man how to steal the chicken.

The clay man obeyed.

Then he showed him how to steal corn.

The clay man obeyed.

Then he showed him how to steal someone else's wife

and that clay man obeyed.

Rabbit felt important and powerful and rabbit felt

important and powerful and clay man felt important and

powerful and once that clay man started, he could not stop.

Once he took that chicken, he wanted all the chickens.

Once he took that corn, he wanted all the corn, and

once he took that wife, well, he wanted all the wives.

He was insatiable.

Then, he had a taste of gold.

He wanted all the gold.

Then it was land or anything else he saw his

wanting only made him want more.

Soon it was country, then it was trade.

The wanting infected the earth.

We lost track of the purpose and meaning of life.

We began to forget our songs our stories.

We can no longer see or hear our ancestors or talk

with each other across the kitchen table.

Forests were being mowed down all over the world to

make more and rabbit had no place left to play.

Rabbit's trick had backfired.

Rabbit tried to call that clay man back but when

that clay man wouldn't listen, rabbit realized

he'd made a clay man with no ears.


>>Kamerick: You wrote on a blog that this identity...

this was a quote from you...

"this identity question is one of the most

controversial in our communities and will

continue to be so until we heal of self-hatred and

loss from colonization."

How do you respond to questions of identity and

then move beyond stereotypes?

>>Harjo: What we run into because of the history of

this country which has been so distorted by the

Wild West, you know, Wild West shows, by mascots, by

you know, all of that...

we're not really seen as human beings and so what happens...

a lot of the public gets caught up in the

sentimentality and nostalgia of those kinds

of images because often those are the only images

that America will allow us to be seen in.

So they get caught up in that and want to be

identified as that and so you get you there's a

large number of the population who want to be

part of that notion.

>>Kamerick: And people who might not have grown up on

a traditional maybe Pueblo or Reservation and they're

they want to come back and find their roots or

finally capture or...

>>Harjo: Who you are is with you.

We have urban populations of natives, you know we

know who we are.

We have populations that are in reservation or tribal areas.

Not all tribal areas are called reservations, you

know, Tulsa essentially, you know, which is where

I'm from and where I now live, is really Muscogee Creek.

Most of it is Muscogee Creek lands.

>>Kamerick: How can poetry help the healing that

needs to take place in these situations?

>>Harjo: That's what, well, the healing is what

is compelling me about, you know, the US poet

laureate position.

I mean, how do we heal?

What is healing mean?


healing is not often easy.

It's really rugged.

There's often challenges.


there can be destruction in healing just as there

is immense possibility for creativity and so I...

poetry, a poem, can hold history.

A poem can hold, it can hold the heart, it can hold...

it's the place that you go to when you don't have

words and often healing requires that you go into

that place that you have always avoided because you

don't have the words.

>>Kamerick: In your new collection "American

Sunrise" the poem for which it's named that you

wrote, it's an homage or an evocation of the famous

poem by Gwendolyn Brooks "We Be Cool" which...

that poem is a portrait of young black men

simultaneously bragging but they're also

questioning the validity of their existence.

They're struggling to find their place in American society.

What parallels did you find in Native American youth?

>>Harjo: So it is about young people, young Native

people, years ago trying to assert themselves as

human beings and assert their identity in place

with that kind of spirit, you know, that

spiritedness that you have at that generation when

you're opening your mind to imagination in the

memory to what is possible from the doorway and

finding doorways that only they can open.

And so the poem really is really is about that kind

of energetic...

and saying you know at the end of yah we are still

America we are you know we're here.

>>Kamerick: It also brings out a theme I seen in your

poetry about the difficulty of trying to

live in at least two worlds if not more.

(Joy: "More") yeah!

How would you try to talk about that in your poetry

is for yourself and for other native people?

>>Harjo: I just listen and I do my poetry, you know,

I don't sit and think, well, I live in how many

worlds or I do it's not that it just it emerges that way.

People ask me, "what do you write as a Muscogee

Creek person?"


I write as who I am as a human being and it's about

listening and so you ask for poetry comes from,

well, you listen and if it comes from you know the

source of life which gives us breath.

You know, there comes...

you listen and and you have all your tools there

but the first part of it is listening and then

enjoying the ride but it takes, you of course, it's

going to come through what you are and who are you

and where do you come from and who are your ancestors

and you know what plants have fed you and how you

know are they speaking through you or with you,

you know, it's a combination of all of that.

>>Joy Harjo: "An American Sunrise" We were running

out of breath as we ran to meet ourselves.

We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors' fights,

and ready to strike.

It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if

you were straight or easy if you played pool and

drink to remember to forget.

We made plans to be professional -- and some

of us could sing, when we drove to the edge of the

mountains for the drum.

We made sense of our beautiful crazed lives

under the starry stars.

Sin was invented by the Christians as was the devil, we

sang, we were the heathens but needed to be saved from them.

Thin chance.

We knew we were all related in this story.

A little gin will clarify the dark and make us all

feel like dancing.

We had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz.

I argue with the music as I filled the jukebox with

dimes in June.

Fourty years later and we still want justice.

We are still America.



>>Laquita Mitchell: Why do I sing?

( Laquita Singing)

I sing because I know that I have something to say.

And I know that it's important.


There's a challenge involved in singing classical music.

It's the memorization component.

It's the style component.

It's the component of actually communicating

what the composer has asked of you to communicate.


One is constantly thinking about your focus.

At this moment, what is the character thinking?

At this moment, how would the character sit?

At this moment, how would the character look into

the eyes of someone that she loves?

And so, when you have those things running in your mind...

the music lends itself to be sung.


>>Mitchell: I'm involved with the Colour of Music

Festival because I think it's a fantastic premise.

The idea is quite amazing.

>>Lee Pringle: The Colour of Music exists to

showcase the extraordinary talents people of African

ancestry have contributed to the classical genre.

We are truly the largest black, classically

presenting organization.

The talent of the musicians that perform in

the Colour of Music Festival is truly global.

From the natural voice, having Ms. Laquita

Mitchell, who's a phenomenal soprano, to

conservatory training musicians that come from

the Kurtis Institute, Oberlin, Julliard,

Manhattan School of Music, the Royal Conservatory.

I could go on and on and on.

>>Mitchell: I think something like this can thrive.

Because the importance of inclusion and diversity is

needed and with classical music - I think it's like

0.01 percent of orchestras have people of color.

>>Pringle: So, like many black institutions that

start, it's out of necessity.

We have to create our own institutions when they're

not giving us access.

The classical music world is a very complicated,

expensive world.

That's where it started, by aristocrats who used to

pay very poor composers to do things that they could

show off their wealth.

So, it still carries all those standards of what

classical music should be and how it should be presented.

These people of African ancestry, many of whom

can't get the coveted spots and there are

limited spots in orchestras around the

world, this is an opportunity for them to

present these huge works.

>>Mitchell: Ms. Jessye Norman is probably one of the most

celebrated African American sopranos of our time.

She has sung in every major opera house there is

in the world.

So at the age of 14, I was able to meet Jessye Norman

and then I was able to see her on stage.

I'm a kid from Brooklyn.

I had no idea that that was actually a possibility for me.

So, the importance of diversity on stage it's paramount.

It must happen.

It's really, really important that young

people understand that there is a possibility.

When I walk out on stage, I'm thinking that.

There probably will be someone in the audience who's

never seen anyone look like me that is doing what I'm doing.

So, I need to always put my best foot forward when

I'm performing.




(light guitar music)

When all the dark clouds roll away

>>Shannon Orme: Music is a way to connect with people

And the sun begins to shine

>>Eric Adelman: They're people with gifts, and talents,

and struggles like all of us have.

I see my freedom from across the way

They're some of the most eager students I've ever seen


...and ever worked with which really makes it enjoyable.

I needed help.

My mom got me to come here and it's helped me that

they've had a lot of activities, so I get out

more, you know, talking with people, socializing.

Kadima serves people who are struggling with

typically chronic and persistent mental health

challenges who need support to be able to live

independently in the community.

Kadima's Creative Expressions program was

started to provide the people we serve with

opportunities to experience the arts and then to

have that integrated with their formal treatment goals.

Studies go back years showing the benefit of

participating in arts programming for people

with mental health challenges.

We were introduced to a number of arts

organizations, including the Detroit Symphony

Orchestra that come and work with people we serve.

Music is important for therapy because it helps

people get in touch with their emotions.

When you walk through a storm hold your head up high

>>Orme: We need to really feel in our lives in

order to get better and music just kinda helps

that come out in a really honest way.

Members of the DSO, they come to us and they-- we

interact, we play music together.

(clarinet playing)

And it seems like

I sing songs and I, I enjoy doing that.

Yes, it seems like

Many people with mental health challenges are exceedingly

creative. And so, we have a number of very talented

singers, and flautists, and violin players, and trombonists,

and clarinetists, and piano players, and more.

(trombone music)

Woolford Joel, he plays trombone.

His dad was like, first chair in the DSO.

You know, it's a great thing for him to be able to do.

He plays trombone and he plays keyboards.

For me, it's great to have a place to come sing.

You're the meanest old woman that I've ever seen

We've been singing "Hit the Road, Jack," Ray

Charles, and it's just a lot of fun.

Hit the road, Jack.

And don't you come back no more.

What you say

So remember, the two fingers on the right hand?

>>Adelman: The DSO musicians spend time

working on pieces that our clients are interested in

working on and learning more about.

You listen.

And play.

(drum playing)



And then for some of our other folks who don't have

a history of playing the instruments, there was a

music therapist who worked with them on some other

skills that were integrated into their treatment plans.

The music therapy piece isn't to be discounted.

For some of the people we serve, just engaging with

a group in a group activity and learning some

basic music skills or some more advanced music skills is

a great way for them to be engaged in the project as well.

So many of the people that we serve have been

discounted through their whole lives.

Have had it so-- you know, people don't believe in

them or see the potential that they have and what's

been so wonderful about the musicians who are with

us is they, they really see the potential there.

They're just smiling the whole time when they're

engaged and they're doing something they really love

to do, they're experiencing something new and we

try to plan the session so that everyone can be involved.

When we're doing a song, they have me lead

sometimes like last time.

We had a lot of fun on "Hit the Road Jack."

And don't you come back no more. What you say

>>Adelman: In addition to being able

to spend some time with their friends and do

something different, they're able to build some

skills and build some confidence.

Often, when we build and gain confidence in

anything that we're doing, any of us, that translates

to other areas of our lives.

It's improved my confidence.

I've performed in front of a group.

It improves my confidence at karaoke too.

And it gives so much light and it comes from the sky above

>>Adelman: We culminate this experience

with a recital, with a performance, an

opportunity for the people we serve to show to their friends

and family what they've learned and what they've built.

(piano playing)

We're doing a concert at the home

of Janet Aronoff, who is one of Kadima's founders and somebody

who's supported this project over the years.

I think the people who come to the concert are

gonna get a wonderful musical experience and

it's an opportunity for everybody to see the

people we serve as just that, as people.

>>Orme: The participants here at Kadima have become

much more confident with playing in front of other people.

At first, I was like, I had my eyes like

practically closed but I was looking down at the lyrics.

But then when I connected with the audience, I felt

that was the best thing.

Brand new day.

Brand new day.

Brand new day.

>>Adelman: I think one of the exciting things about this

program is it's an opportunity for everybody to learn.

I think that the musicians are gaining a broader

understanding of the world of mental illness.

>>Orme: The people here at Kadima are just such

interesting people and interesting to talk to and

all have good hearts and willing to learn.

With a little luck, these sorts of programs can help

reduce stigma and provide more opportunities for people

to talk about mental health challenges and seek care.

We're thrilled these days more people are talking

about mental health, are seeking out the care they

need, and getting the care they need and it's

imperative that we help people build up skills so

they can live a rich and productive and meaningful life.

Anybody interested in getting involved with

Kadima who, you know, who has some issues, come on

out, get involved.

You'll thank yourself.

(instrumental outro)

Thank you, everyone.



>>Reporter: We're on the west side of Houston,

practically to Katy, where there lives a man who can

make your greatest fantasies come to life.

Or at this time of the year, maybe take your

worst nightmares and give them flight.

Here take a look.

Disguising yourself at Halloween is a long-standing tradition.

Initially believed that since spirits walked the

Earth on All Hallows Eve, if we hid our identities, the spirits

wouldn't recognize us and thus would leave us be.

Over the years, we've dressed in costumes, put on masks,

even hidden our faces using clown makeup and greasepaint.

But artist Rudy Campos has perfected his own airbrush

makeup techniques that truly mask our identities.

So how long have you been doing this?

>>Rudy Campos: So I've been doing this since

probably like, I started in high school.

Uh, I started in high school doing just

Halloween makeups and then I'd watch a lot of monster movies.

So, I'd, I'd do it, uh, off Halloween season, but

actually doing makeup since about 2005.

>>Reporter: Early on, Rudy used himself as a model, even going

so far as to glue prosthetic pieces to his own face.

But when it came time to remove the pieces, he had

no idea what to use.

>>Rudy Campos: But I learned a valuable lesson that day.

If you're gonna be gluing something to your face,

always know what the remover is gonna be.

>>Reporter: Before you start.

>>Campos: Exactly.

>>Reporter: As Rudy got older, it looked like

college wasn't for him, but if college wasn't in

the cards, his dad told him, he needed to get a trade.

>>Campos: My dad said, I know that you like makeup

and I know that you like special effects and you're

into that, so let's find you a school, and he found one.

>>Reporter: Rudy completed makeup school and as a

graduation gift from his parents he received his

first airbrush and that became his tool of choice.

But when it comes to Halloween makeup, most

folks don't have an airbrush and end up having

to use sponges and brushes.

But Rudy has a couple of tips for the home creator too.

>>Campos: Whether it be a sponge or brush just use two.

One to apply and then one to blend out.

>>Reporter: And the other tip?

>>Campos: Stray away from the, uh, the, the

Halloween makeup that you'd get at, at, uh, like

Halloween stores or like Wal-Mart and stuff.

You want, you want it to look good, you want to go

to like a theatrical store.

>>Reporter: But since we all can't be masters of

this art form, Rudy is there to help us become

our fantasy selves.

But what is it that keeps Rudy painting on?

>>Campos: The biggest thing that I get out of

doing this is watching people look at themselves

in the mirror and seeing the character that they become.

>>Reporter: And thanks to Rudy and his handy

airbrush, these transformations just keep coming.

>>Campos: How do you like it?

>>Customer: Woah, I'm a fawn.

>>Reporter: With a little bit of imagination and a

whole lot of airbrushing, anything is possible.


New Mexico PBS dot org and look for COLORES under

What We Do and Local Productions.



Funding for COLORES was provided in part by:

Frederick Hammersley Foundation

...and Viewers Like You


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