Tina He / Sun Staff Photographer

Native American poet and memoirist Joy Harjo read from her work in Goldwin Smith Hall Thursday, as part of the Fall 2016 Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series.

September 18, 2016

Acclaimed Poet Joy Harjo Describes Influence of Her Mvskoke Heritage

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Prof. Joy Harjo, English and American Indian studies, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who has published collections of poems and memoirs, and even toured as a singer with the band Poetic Justice, has said in a previous interview that her writing process “requires rigorous study of the human soul,” according to Prof.  Joanie Mackowski, English.

Harjo shared her work with Cornellians at a reading Thursday, also recounting stories and moments of inspiration explaining when particular pieces were written.

The poet’s work is informed by the injustices inflicted upon Native Americans and “yet nonetheless extends a sense of hope and joy,” according to Mackowski.

Of her Mvskoke heritage, Harjo wrote a poem, “Indian School Night Song,” narrated from the perspective of an intoxicated woman reflecting on the condition of her school and its students.

At the poetry reading, she recalled how the poem was informed by her experiences living in Oklahoma and watching her tribe and people struggle through problems from drug addiction to water shortages.

Harjo originally attended college to study medicine and become a doctor, but later decided to pursue her passion for art, she said. In an excerpt from one of her memoirs, “Conflict Resolution with Holy Beings,” she described how she was inspired to switch her focus after seeing men wearing cowboy hats in Albuquerque and remembering her culture and its place.

Harjo said her poetry explores themes external to the human body, and believes the external world defines every individual’s experience.

“Micro and macro views are mirrors,” Harjo said in a previous interview. “We go out and see the world, and see the world is inside us, and we are inside the world.”