Joy Harjo, an award-winning poet, author, musician and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, has been named the 23rd U.S. poet laureate, the first Native American to hold the position.
The Library of Congress announced Harjo’s appointment on Wednesday. She succeeds Tracy K. Smith, who held the title since 2017.
“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry – ‘soul talk’ as she calls it – for over four decades,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them, she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”
Harjo has written eight books of poetry and a memoir. She has won numerous awards, including the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Ruth Lilly Prize in Poetry.
She also has released four award-winning record albums after learning to play the saxophone in her late 30s as well as the flute.
Harjo called her appointment a “tremendous honor.”
“I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem,” she said in a statement.
“I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry,” she said.
Harjo will open the Library of Congress literary season on Sept. 19. with a reading of her work. She’ll later undertake her own projects to help “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry,” according to the Library of Congress website.
“Poetry is a way to bridge, to make bridges from one country to another, one person to another, one time to another.”
Harjo told The New York Times that she hasn’t decided what she will do during her appointment, but hoped “to remind people that poetry belongs to everyone.”
“Just as when I started writing poetry, we’re at a very crucial time in American history and in planetary history,” she said. “Poetry is a way to bridge, to make bridges from one country to another, one person to another, one time to another.”
Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951 and first started writing as a college student in New Mexico in the early 1970s. In her 2012 memoir, “Crazy Brave,” she recalled growing up with an abusive stepfather, family alcoholism, a failed first marriage and living in poverty.
Her latest book of poetry, “An American Sunrise,” is set for release in August.