Episode 109: Joy Harjo

Rachel speaks with Joy Harjo, internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation about jazz, grief, second sight, teaching, and so much more. Joy Harjo served three terms as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2019-2022 and is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years.

Dear Listener,

It is with great excitement that I share episode 109 of Commonplace with you, featuring Joy Harjo. Joy Harjo is one of my very first favorite poets. I’ve been reading her books and following her work with deep admiration since I was in high school! Returning to her work, especially her newest selected collection Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: 50 Poems for 50 Years and listening to both of her memoirs on audible carried me through the end of 2022 and into 2023.

Joy and I talk about how to tolerate the hits and struggles that life brings, about her teaching, writing, and music making. Throughout the episode I’ve added excerpts from two of Joy’s jazz albums Letter to the End of the 20th Century and I Pray for My Enemies and I think you’ll love this conversation!

Joy Harjo is an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She served three terms as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2019-2022 and is the author of ten books of poetry, including, most recently, Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years. She’s also the author of several plays, prose collections, and children's books, and two memoirs, Crazy Brave and Poet Warrior. Her many honors include the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. As a musician and performer, Harjo has produced seven award-winning music albums. She served as Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy When the Light of the World was Sub­dued, Our Songs Came Through — A Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Native Nations Poet­ry and the editor of Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry, the companion anthology to her signature Poet Laureate project. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Board of Directors Chair of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and is the first Artist-in-Residence for Tulsa's Bob Dylan Center. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For this episode, some members of the Commonplace Book Club will get a copy of:

A few additional members of the Commonplace Book Club will receive Audible download codes for Joy’s audiobook Catching the Light, part of Yale University Press’s Why I Write lecture series.

Please consider supporting Commonplace at any level by becoming a patron here or making a one time donation!

Commonplace’s charitable partner will donate $250 to “Indigenous Nations Poets (InNaPo)...a national Indigenous poetry community committed to mentoring emerging writers, nurturing the growth of Indigenous poetic practices, and raising the visibility of all Native Writers past, present, and future. In-Na-Po recognizes the role of poetry in sustaining tribal sovereign nations and Native languages.

Where I’ve been and where I’m going

As I mention in the introduction to the Joy Harjo episode, Joy’s work, voice, music and wisdom kept me company from December through February, from Scarborough, Maine to New York City to an amazing week-long mindfulness retreat at Blue Spirit in Costa Rica where my son and I got to learn from Jack Kornfield, Trudy Goodman, Lama Sultrum Allione, Elisa Appel, Caroline Welch, Dan Seigel and Shelly Harrell.

Then, with Joy in my ears and on my mind, I went back to New York and then Maine where I received some awful health news from my poetry-sister Arielle Greenberg. I talk about these tweets and about grief with Joy early on in our conversation.

Here are two still shots from a crazy little selfie-vid of me running into the ocean (and submerging!) in Maine, the day before I recorded with Joy! Much colder than Costa Rica–certainly woke me up! My very concerned dog, Ginsbyrg, and a properly dressed little girl (and now you!) are my witnesses.

I’m hoping to talk more in these newsletters about my new-ish meditation practice as well as what I’m reading, listening to and teaching. For now, here are the audio books I’ve listened to and deeply enjoyed in the past few months:

Are you a San Francisco newsletter reader and Commonplace Listener?

I’ll be reading on Friday April 21st, 7:30pm with James Cagney, Henri Cole, Jewelle Gomenz and Jacques Rancourt at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco! Get tickets here! I love meeting Commonplace listeners and newsletter readers—please introduce yourself to me after the reading!

From April 22-29th I’ll be attending my first silent retreat. It feels like an unexpectedly fitting way to celebrate National Poetry Month.

I also wanted to let Bay Area listeners know about Horizon Stanzas: a new dance by Hope Mohr, inspired by Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette. I don’t know if it will be good or not but I’m so excited about it I’m staying an extra night so I can see it.

Commonplace is not going silent right now. We’ve got some exciting guest-hosted episodes coming up: Gabrielle Rucker (with Valentine Conaty), Moheb Soliman (with Valentine Conaty), and Charif Shanihan and Safia Enhillo (with Isaac Ginsberg Miller).

And, you’ll continue to hear my voice in the next few weeks and months as we release five special (and very personal-to-me) episodes containing original audio from my Bagley Wright Series of lectures, which became my new book The Poetics of Wrongness. The first of these is almost done. In addition to audio of the title lecture in the book, the episode contains a new conversation between my son and me about the lecture book and about Commonplace.

Lastly, this week is the last session of an independent, online course I taught, based on my book The Poetics of Wrongness. The class was an amazing, joyful, fulfilling experience for me, and I think for many of the participants as well. This class is the first of what I hope will one day become The Commonplace School of Embodied Poetics: a non-degree, independent writing, reading, and learning program. Although it’s not in my nature, I’m trying to move slowly with this new idea. The next step will be to run five classes, some taught by me and others taught by former Commonplace guests. I will announce these upcoming classes in the next newsletter!

If you have any questions about my lectures or new book that you’d like me to address in one of these upcoming episodes, feel free to reach out.

Until next time,

Thank you for listening,

Rachel (& the Commonplace team)