Lyric Essentials: syan jay Reads Joy Harjo


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.

syan jay Reads “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo

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.

syan jay Reads “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo


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.

Further reading:

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 EndsWILDNESS, 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.

Further reading:

Purchase Bury Me in Thunder from Sundress Publications
Read Frontier Poetry’s interview with syan jay.
Follow syan jay on Twitter

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/

Interview with syan jay, Author of Bury Me in Thunder

Ahead of the release, Sundress author syan jay sat down to discuss their forthcoming collection, Bury Me in Thunder (Sundress Publications, 2020) with editorial intern Kimberly Ann Priest. In the discussion they touched on writing through trauma, moving against colonial notions of research, landscapes as memory, and the ways we carry our homes with us wherever we go.

Kimberly Ann Priest: The book covers topics on abuse, confusion, intimacy, and pain. Were there ever moments when you felt like you were saying too much on these topics? Too little?

syan jay: Bury Me in Thunder was put together with care and thoughtful intention. Yes, it explores intergenerational trauma, illness, and pain. It also celebrates love, kinships, and the ways in which we learn to heal. To call back to my interview with Frontier Poetry, prioritizing my boundaries with writing is key. Every word, image, and piece, I reviewed to be mindful of what I was saying and how I was saying those things. I only felt the manuscript was completely finished when I felt fully in control of my narrative.

KAP: How do you make aesthetic choices and know where to break lines in a poem? Why the winding nature of these poems?

sj: I am a visual learner, and in understanding that landscapes are not linear, neither is my writing. Some pieces call for such breath, to expand and move as a river. Others call for structure. The poems tell me how they want to be made by how I write. Most of it comes through experimentation and trust in the process of self-editing.

KAP: Tell me, what research went into writing these poems?

sj: Quite a few of these poems are from personal or invented places. I remember Kaveh Akbar discussing Zbigniew Herbert and how there are cat writers and ox writers. Cat writers may wait for extended periods of time before being “hit” by inspiration and suddenly burst into writing. A majority of these pieces were written during these moments of spontaneity. Even the ones that did involve subsequent research, such as my poem “The Infant Machine”, were written without planning. I was listening to a podcast and the topic fit into scraps I had kept of other poems to work into a larger, final piece.

At the same time, I think the idea of research within poems is often within a colonial, Westernized framework. It carries the idea that there must be a source cited or be verified by some “objective” truth. This does not allow for Indigenous knowledge to exist on the same plane. Oral storytelling is research; how I carry the culture of my people through connections and sharing of knowledge is research. This process of Indigenous research was at the core of this book.

KAP: Do you feel it is important to draw attention to how traumas from our past and past generations inform our present and our future as individuals?

sj: Of course—we do not exist as singularities. Trauma is carried in our DNA, through memory, and in the body. BMIT seeks to draw on my own experiences. I don’t want to try and think that I can understand or claim the narratives of other people and their trauma. I do not experience the same violence and struggles that are faced by Brown and Black Indigenous people. BMIT was a reckoning toward my own healing, and being able to find clarity in what my ancestors, my family, and myself have experienced.

KAP: Talk about the women in your life. How have they formed and shaped you? How have they influenced you as a writer? And why do you think it is so important to write about the lives of women?

sj: Well, to start, I am not a woman but I was raised in girlhood. This book wasn’t looking to only discuss the lives of women. Much of it discusses my grandfather. I talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women because it is ongoing. Settler colonialism is a continuous project.

I dedicated this book to my mother, who has survived abuse and other traumas. She was the one who taught me how to write poetry as a way to show others my world and how I describe it. It helped me navigate the frightening experiences I was going through and to find another connection to land, beauty, and love. Even if the writing was filled with pain, it ultimately comes from a place of love and acceptance. She raised me with my siblings, most of whom are women.

My culture is matrilineal. Perhaps the work can be read as maternal and about women, but it is for myself and the generations that came before me. My priority will always be to my transgender and gender non-conforming kinships.

KAP: Talk about landscapes. I see a strong desert motif in the poems, but you also mention other places such as Nebraska and Oregon. Tell us about your relationship with landscapes; specifically, as home or lack of home and how it relates to your ancestors in this book.

sj: Deserts are not exclusive to the Southwest. My homelands have forests, mountains, and beautiful rivers too. Oregon has deserts, green valleys, and long coastlines. There is so much space to know and be with, and I wanted to acknowledge all of these places.

BMIT tells stories of all the places I’ve lived or where my loved ones lived, or even as I was on a plane flying over Nebraska writing a poem that one day became the title for this book. I am of the land and connected to it. I have a responsibility for its care because it takes care of me. This is how I was raised. It felt natural, then, while writing these poems to call to the land.

We are always tied to place, even if we leave it, because it exists in our memory. How we remember, what we remember, they inform our relationships to a place. I was not raised on my ancestral homelands, but it will always be a part of me because it is where my ancestors lived, it is near where my mother grew up. Home is a place you always carry with you, even as you create new homes and find new places.

KAP: What is significant about “teeth” in these poems? What do they represent or allude to?

sj: Our teeth provide evidence of where we are from. The land and what we have access to during childhood will influence how our bones grow. Scientists use isotope chemistry to look at tooth enamel and bone in order to measure geochemical signatures that carry evidence of where a person lived as a child. We can tell how someone lived, what they ate, and their access or barriers to nutritional food and clean water. The body carries so much and yet, we do not think of what we can find beyond what we say. What can the body say? What can teeth tell us about intergenerational trauma, legacies of forced malnourishment through cutting off access to traditional diets?

KAP: Tell us how you came to name your book and what this title means for you as an overall statement of the book’s content.

sj: Bury Me in Thunder was originally the title of a poem included in this book. I had been considering which of my poems could tie together all of the themes. The first versions of the manuscript were titled Mother Warhorse, from another poem. Eventually, I decided upon BMIT as I wanted to utilize the storm to frame these complex issues and stories. Thunderstorms are integral to my culture for many reasons, and it serves as an anchor to who I am. BMIT honors the legacies of where I come from and the process by which we heal. There will be ruptures and storms, but eventually, clear skies follow.

Pre-order Bury Me in Thunder today.


syan jay is an agender, Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee (White Mountain Apache) poet who resides in Massachusett/Nipmuc/Wampanoag land. They are the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and are Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/upcoming with The Shallow Ends, WILDNESS, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Black Warrior Review. You can find more of their work at www.syanjay.com

Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Still Life (PANK, forthcoming 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass Poetry Press, forthcoming 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP, 2018). Her work has appeared in several journals, including The Laurel Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, and The New Delta Review. You can find her work at kimberlyannpriest.com.