For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we are joined by Sundress author syan jay. They read poems from poet laureate Joy Harjo, and talk about the role of storytelling in indigenous poetry. Thanks for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: What is your personal connection to Joy Harjo that led you to read her poetry for Lyric Essentials?
syan jay: Joy Harjo is the first Indigenous poet I was ever introduced to, my first connection to seeing how storytelling could be done on our terms through poetry. Her book, “Map to the End of the World” was the first poetry book I read outside of school and I instantly felt bonded to it. Her and her work have been integral to my creative landscape since I was a child. I cannot imagine a world without her work.
EH: Of Joy Harjo’s expansive body of work, why did you choose these two poems?
sj: These poems have been sitting in my mind recently. To think of the ways my people, and Indigenous people all over the world, have survived or haven’t survived these apocalypses of settler colonialism and all its violence. I think it’s necessary to look at the ways in which we interrogate the systems that have displaced and dispossessed our people, and the methods in which we continue ceremony and connection to each other. This includes questioning the ways America is seen as America by settlers and non-Indigenous people who may benefit from settler colonialism now.
EH: How do you think it’s important to experience Harjo’s poetry read aloud?
sj: Her work has unshakable cadence, the ways in which she utilizes line breaks has such concussive force. I love being able to feel the way in which her words form landscapes, the low valleys to high peaks. She is one of my favorite poets to read aloud.
EH: There is a particular line from “Perhaps the World Ends Here” that reads: “It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Do you make use of that concept of what it means to be human in your own writing, or in your newest poetry collection Bury Me in Thunder, specifically?
sj: Storytelling in my community, and so in many others, is a reflection of humanity itself, to explain or process the situations we’ve encountered since time immemorial. Bury Me in Thunder specifically looks at how we are made through intergenerational trauma, the experiences of our family members, and how we process our individual life events. In the case of the book, it was the ways in which I came to terms with grief and healing through these facets, and how it reinforces, instead of diminishes, my humanity as a transgender, Indigenous person.
Joy Harjo is member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). An acclaimed poet, musician, playwright, and activist, Harjo was named the 23rd U.S. poet laureate, becoming the first Native American to serve the position. She is also the chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, directs For Girls Becoming, an arts mentorship program for young Mvskoke women, and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. She is the author of nine books of poetry, two award-winning children’s books, and a musical play. As a poet, she is best known for writing about vast landscapes and incorporating indigenous storytelling and histories, and social justice traditions into her work by exploring the violence of settler colonialism and the reclamation of her heritage. Awards for her work include: the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, a PEN USA Literary Award, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writers’ Award, a Rasmuson US Artist Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Purchase Joy Harjo’s book How We Became Human
Read NPR’s feature, announcing Joy Harjo as the first Native American U.S. poet laureate
Listen to an interview with Joy Harjo, from the Academy of American Poets
syan jay is an agender writer of Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee descent. They were the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and were Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/forthcoming in The Shallow Ends, WILDNESS, and Black Warrior Review. They currently live with their partner in the occupied Massachusett homelands of Nutohkemminnit (Greater Boston). Their debut poetry collection, “Bury Me in Thunder” (January 29, 2020) is out now with Sundress Publications. You can find more of their work at www.syanjay.com.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/