Joy Harjo and poetry sustain each other Chosen by poetry: Joy Harjo to read her poems and work with young people.

April 12, 1996|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The daughter of a Native American father and a mother both Native American and white, poet Joy Harjo knew early the pain caused by prejudice.

"I started writing to save my life," she says.

It was a pain she long bore silently, partly because of shyness and partly because, as a Native American, she was trained to a quiet stoicism. She first expressed herself primarily not through poetry, but through painting.

Her artistic ability was recognized while she was still in elementary school, and she went on to major in art in college. "Then," she says, "I chose poetry." She pauses. "Actually, poetry chose me."

Now, 20 years later, poetry still calls to Ms. Harjo. The acclaimed Native American poet is the author of six award-winning books of poems, and her 1990 collection, "In Mad Love and War," received the American Book Award.

She will read her poems at 7 p.m. Friday at Essex Community College to lead off the 10th annual Creative Writing Forum sponsored by Baltimore County public schools and community colleges.

During a telephone interview from her home in New Mexico, Ms. Harjo describes poetry as a presence. At times, it is a singular presence, felt as the spirit of an old Creek Indian who stands over her, bidding her to write. Other times, it is a multiple presence, felt in the spirits of ancestors.

Sometimes, it's an image. Rain -- precious in the Southwest -- inspired a poem for her daughter. An eagle's flight inspired a prayer-poem. A rocking chair inspired another poem.

"It was a bony rocking chair with stuffing coming out of the padding," she recalls. The image stayed with her, and soon she envisioned people sitting in the chair.

One of them was a woman, old at 40, who watched the sun as light receded across the floor. Two years later, that woman became a poem, "The Woman Hanging From the Thirteenth Floor Window." Like Ms. Harjo, the woman feels the presence of other worlds:

They come to her in the night when the lights have gone

dim sometimes they are her grandmother's voice,

and sometimes they are gigantic men of light whispering

to her to get up, to get up, to get up.

Born in Oklahoma in 1951, the daughter of a Muscogee (Creek) father and a Cherokee French mother, Ms. Harjo draws on her tribal heritage when she writes her visual poetry, which has won the William Carlos Williams Award, the Delmore Schwartz Award and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, among others.

For Ms. Harjo, poetry has its roots in her father, "who was a poet at heart," and in her mother, who wrote poetic songs on her old Underwood typewriter. In a similar synthesis, Ms. Harjo accompanies her latest poems, "The Woman Who Fell From The Sky," with a cassette recording of her own music. Ms. Harjo plays saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice, which will perform in Atlanta this summer during the Olympics.

Her poetry is a synthesis of several cultures, just as she herself is. She began writing to express her feelings of being cut off; her poetry connected her to a tribal heritage and to mainstream America.

"Writing helped me give voice to turn around a terrible silence that was killing me," she explains in "The Spiral of Memory, Interviews," edited by Laura Coltelli. "I never fit in. Everyone knew my dad was Indian. I was half-Indian." She also carried the stigma of her parents' divorce.

She does not believe that she would be alive today if it were not for her poetry, which has as its overall theme connectedness. Poetry, as Ms. Harjo sees it, is "this shining material which connects us" -- to each other and to our physical and spiritual roots.

That connection will be evident as Ms. Harjo reads her poems and works with young people in her visit to Baltimore.

The two-day Creative Writing Forum will provide Baltimore County students the opportunity to learn from nationally recognized authors through readings and workshops.

Although Ms. Harjo did not seriously begin to write poems until she was in her 20s, she loved poetry as a child. Her earliest poetic experience goes back to 1953, as she stood on tiptoe on the back seat of her parents' car. "The radio is playing jazz, and I listen to the sound of the trumpet playing a solo, until I become that sound," she remembers.

Always sensitive to the world around her, Ms. Harjo recalls being a child and drawing figures in the rich, dark earth next to the foundation of the house. "I would dig piles of earth with a stick, smell it, form it. It had sound," she says. "Maybe that's where I learned to write poetry."

Ms. Harjo's semi-autobiographical poem "For Alva Benson, And For Those Who Have Learned To Speak" suggests the passion in forming such verse:

She grew up talking in Navajo, in English and watched the earth around her shift and change

with the people learning not to hear the ground as it spun around

beneath them. She learned to speak for the ground,

the voice coming through her like roots that

have long hungered for water.

Poetry reading

Who: Joy Harjo

Where: College Community Center Theatre, Essex Community College

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Admission: Free

$ Call: (410) 780-6723

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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