Joy Harjo, the acclaimed Native American poet, author and musician, recalls the first time she was introduced to the music of Bob Dylan through the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” during her youth. “I remember being caught by his voice from him and his lyrics from him,” she says of the legend. “His voice from him came out at a time when we were all questioning. Our generation was a pretty powerful generation that came up and asked questions that were afraid to be asked, and we were making stands for justice. His voice emerged during major cultural shifts. In Indian school, we used to sing a lot of his songs from him. His voice was very present. It was always present to my coming of age in the ’60s. ”
Harjo, who has recently completed her third and final term as US Poet Laureate, was born Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the new Bob Dylan Center (BDC) will have its grand opening this Tuesday. So it’s very fitting that Harjo will serve as the center’s first artist-in-residence for the next six years.
“As a poet, musician, playwright and author, Joy Harjo exemplifies artistry and brings light to the world through her work,” said Steve Higgins, managing director of the American Song Archives that administers the BDC, in a press statement. “The BDC’s programs and exhibits will explore the creative process and inspire the next generations of artists, and we couldn’t be more honored that Joy is playing such an important role in helping us to fulfill our mission and establish our future legacy.”
The Bob Dylan Center will house over more than 100,000 archival items—among them, notebooks, memorabilia, handwritten manuscripts, photographs, films and videos—covering Dylan’s life and career. For the center, Harjo’s role as artist-in-residence will involve presenting educational programs and events and curating special exhibits. “I would like to see [it as] a center for music/poetry happenings in the city and in the area,” Harjo says of the BDC, “helping bring up fresh new acts–and at the same time cultivating, making access for younger people to hear and see what’s going on out there in the country.”
Appropriately, the facility is near the Woody Guthrie Center, which is devoted to the folk music legend who was born in Okemeh, Oklahoma. Guthrie has been cited as an inspiration to Dylan, who wrote and recorded “Song to Woody” for his 1962 self-titled debut album. “It makes sense [the BDC] is right next to the Woody Guthrie Center because of that connection,” Harjo says. “I see Woody Guthrie as Bob Dylan’s musical ancestor.”
The addition of the Bob Dylan Center is poised to further heighten Tulsa’s reputation as a major cultural arts hub. “Growing up, we were always surrounded by these art deco buildings, beautiful buildings, and a lot of Native art here and a lot of attention to arts endeavors,” Harjo says of the city. “Even in our education back then in school, we had music and art. I perceive it as always integral to our identity as a city. Having the center here is kind of a way of acknowledging that. I think that it will be seen as a major attraction and really as part of an ongoing developing arts community in the middle of the country.”
The appointment of Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as the center’s artist-in-residence caps off a busy and prolific period for the poet whose notable works include “An American Sunrise,” “She Had Some Horses,” “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies,” and “Remember.” Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, once said of Harjo: “To her de ella, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work by Ella powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”
Harjo’s perspectives about the Native experience through her works formed the basis of her most recent album since last year, I Pray for My Enemies, which was co-produced by former Screaming Trees and Mad Season drummer Barrett Martin. The record consists of previously published and new works with soulful musical accompaniment and guest appearances by Peter Buck (REM) Rich Robinson (The Black Crowes), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana). In addition to her voice, Harjo plays the saxophone on the record.
“I had several of the songs already and sitting there waiting,” she says of I Pray for My Enemies. “The whole feel of it came from being in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of political divisiveness and racial inequity. And so that’s how the album emerged out of a need to try to be useful or find a place of coming together in an album because that’s what I do with my work…For me, when I started writing poetry and I hadn’t planned to do that at all, that it was music, it was always driven in my mind by music and rhythm, and I’m very rhythm-oriented.”
In addition to the album, 2021 saw the release of Harjo’s recent book, Warrior Poet, which NPR called “a wonderful hybrid text that mixes memoir, poetry, songs, and dreams into something unique,” as well as “a narrative that shines a light on compassion and stresses the importance of rituals.” According to Harjo, the memoir was written during the pandemic. “I’m at a certain age, just looking back and thinking about stories that have impressed me or even moments in my life where I learned something that might be useful, and thinking along those lines.”
While Harjo had always been interested in poetry from an early age, she had originally majored in pre-med for a semester when she was a student at the University of Mexico before switching to art. “I didn’t have all the heavy-duty biology background that people did going into pre-med. And so I was a little handicapped, but it was also not my path. Second semester, I was in the art studios and changed my major. We had a very active Native student club engaged in Native rights in the community. And I started hearing Native poets for the first time. It blew it open for me because for the first time I heard Natives writing poetry about our lives and what we saw and went through. It just shifted.
“So I started writing and that’s what happened. It took over and I still don’t totally understand it. But it is like making concise songs. A song can be like a packet of energy that’s incredibly shaped by all kinds of rhythm, melody, harmony, and so on. And poems are like that. It’s almost like being a comedian, but you don’t get the laughs. You have these very potent moments, and that’s for me how it all fits together [with] music. There’s one poem of mine, when I read it, I feel like I’m playing a saxophone.”
When she was appointed the 23rd US Poet Laureate in 2019, Harjo became the first Native to hold that distinction; she is also one of only two Poet Laureates to serve three terms. She considers her now-completed tenure a tremendous honor. “Where it’s had a profound effect is with Native peoples,” she reflects, “because I remember when I was at the University of New Mexico and moving more into poetry—saying to myself that if I do nothing else in my life, I want Native people to be seen as human things. This position went a long way toward that. It was important to me. There was my Poet Laureate project [Living Nations, Living Words] that highlighted contemporary Native poets. It’s been an amazing run.”
From her experiences as US Poet Laureate, Harjo believes that poetry still holds relevance today. “I’ve traveled all over, reading and meeting people in communities all over the world. I’ve noticed it–especially in other countries and in also in Native communities that are close to oral traditions–that poetry utterly matters. Poetry was as necessary as the top songs on the radio or internet now. Poetry is a tool that we use for transcendent moments, for grief, for falling in and out of love. It gives us a place to be in those transformative moments of our lives.
“I have watched it in my lifetime taking its place, all kinds of poetry, not just the academic, but poetry that as June Jordan called it ‘poetry for the people.’ I’ve watched all kinds of poetry: spoken word, rap, there’s room for all kinds of poetry. And especially I think with this country, what we’ve been dealing with, I’ve seen a rise in the expression with younger people. Poetry does have a place.”