Poet, musician, author Joy Harjo has been appointed as the new US poet laureate, the first Native American to be named to the post.
The Oklahoma-born, Muscogee Creek Nation member has been in the wings for this role for a long time.
“I’ve been an unofficial poetry ambassador on the road for poetry for years,” the 68-year-old Harjo wrote in a recent email.
“I’ve often been the only poet or Native poet-person that many have seen/met/heard. I’ve introduced many poetry audiences to Native poetry and audiences not expecting poetry to be poetry.”
Her appointment was announced on Wednesday by the librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, who said in a statement that Harjo helped tell an “American story” of traditions both lost and maintained, of “reckoning and myth-making”.
Harjo’s term is for one year and she succeeds Tracy K Smith, who served two terms. The position is officially called Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, with a $35,000 stipend.
Harjo will have few specific responsibilities, but other laureates have launched initiatives, most recently Smith’s tour of rural communities around the country.
“I don’t have a defined project right now, but I want to bring the contribution of poetry of the tribal nations to the forefront and include it in the discussion of poetry,” says Harjo.
“This country is in need of deep healing. We’re in a transformational moment in national history and earth history, so whichever way we move is going to absolutely define us.”
She is known for such collections as The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and In Mad Love and War and for a forceful, intimate style that draws upon the natural and spiritual world. Her previous honors include the Pen Open Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Jackson Prize, given by Poets & Writers, for a poet of merit who deserves more attention. She also has a lifetime achievement award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and the William Carlos Williams award from the Poetry Society of America
Harjo is currently editing an anthology of Native poets, and a new book of her own poems, An American Sunrise, comes out in August.
The poet laureate is not a political position. Harjo makes clear her disdain for many office seekers, however, in her poem For Those Who Would Govern. She also has expressed her views on Donald Trump and has linked on social media to articles critical of him.
Harjo said in an interview that “everything is political”. She added: “I began writing poetry because I didn’t hear Native women’s voices in the discussions of policy, of how we were going to move forward in a way that is respectful and honors those basic human laws that are common to all people, like treating all life respectfully, honoring your ancestors, this earth.
She cites her poem Rabbit Is Up To Tricks as an expression of political thought, but in a timeless way. Her poem tells of a trickster Rabbit who has become lonely, and so forms a man out of clay and teaches him to steal. The clay man learns too well, stealing animals, food and another man’s wife. He will move on to gold and land and control of the world.