On the third floor of the Stueckle Sky Center, in a large room overlooking the blue turf, a motley group of poets and aficionados of the craft gathered around to listen to and converse with Joy Harjo, the United States Poet Laureate. In Boise to speak at President Marlene Tromp’s investiture ceremony, Harjo took a moment to share the work that she is doing since assuming the position as the first Native American woman to do so.
“My presence in this position makes a doorway that says, ‘Yes, there are Native people, and some of us are poets. We have a lot of poets, and that poetry is alive in America, and we’ve had poetry here for millions of years,’” Harjo said.
Harjo said she believes poetry is an act of bringing people together and, in that way, her work is activism.
“When you speak a word into the world, it goes out, and it will do something,” Harjo said. “It will either raise people up, or it can hurt them and divide them from each other and keep them from listening to each other.”
Harjo started writing poetry when she was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico as a member of the KIVA club, a Native student organization that encourages involvement with Native and human rights. Harjo explained that, as an artist in America, she is a composite of many different worlds.
“I see myself as part of an American legacy of poetry and also a Muscogee Creek legacy of poetry,” Harjo said.
Harjo has recently worked with her editors and Norton publishing to build an anthology of Native American poetry that will be released next fall.
“It’s important for people to realize that poetry belongs to them, it’s part of them. It’s not something that’s far away in a book or a university,” Harjo said. “It might be there too, but it’s also something that you can carry in your heart, and pull up any time you’re going through any of life’s transformations and heartaches and joys that every human being goes through.”
Speaking on the importance of people like Harjo gaining large platforms such as that of the Poet Laureate, professor of English and ethnic literature Dr. Dora Ramirez said that people such as Harjo are in a unique position to bring the stories of traditionally marginalized and erased cultures to the public.
“Knowing that she was the poet laureate, I was like ‘Wow, that’s a huge thing,’ especially knowing her poetry, and how she writes about place and community and sovereignty, and all the things that come with history, negative and positive,” Ramirez said.
Jacob Robarts, a senior studying poetry, emphasized that contemporary literary writing is deeply concentrated on voices that have traditionally not been included in literary communities.
A person from a community that has not always been legitimized holding an important office means that more people can see themselves in those positions of power and know they can access similar creative freedom if they choose, Robarts explained.
“I think that having a Native American Poet Laureate is exactly what writing is trying to do. It’s trying to tap into this universal consciousness,” Robarts said. “By hearing work from someone that is not like you, and from someone who’s from a marginalized community, it shows you what’s going on outside of yourself, and at the same time lets you reflect inward.”