Joy Harjo on being named artist-in-residence at the new Bob Dylan Center


Joy Harjo, the acclaimed Native American poet, author and musician, recalls the first time she was introduced to Bob Dylan’s music through the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” during her youth. “I remember being captivated by his voice and his words,” she said of the caption. “His voice came out at a time when we were all wondering. Our generation was a pretty powerful generation that came out and asked questions that were afraid to be asked, and we were taking a stand for justice. His voice emerged during major cultural shifts. In Indian school we used to sing a lot of his songs. His voice was very present. It was always present when I came of age in the 60s.”

Harjo, who just completed her third and final term as American Poet Laureate, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the new Bob Dylan Center (BDC) will have its grand opening this Tuesday. So it’s only fitting that Harjo is the center’s first artist-in-residence for the next six years.

“As a poet, musician, playwright and author, Joy Harjo exemplifies art and brings light to the world through her work,” Steve Higgins, executive director of the American Song Archives which administers the BDC, said in a statement. hurry. statement. “BDC’s programs and exhibitions will explore the creative process and inspire future generations of artists, and we couldn’t be more honored to have Joy play such an important role in helping us fulfill our mission and establish our future legacy. .

The Bob Dylan Center will house on more than 100,000 archival documents– among them are notebooks, memorabilia, handwritten manuscripts, photographs, films and videos – spanning Dylan’s life and career. For the center, Harjo’s role as artist-in-residence will include presenting educational programs and events and curating special exhibits. “I would like to see [it as] a hub for musical/poetic happenings in the city and region,” Harjo says of BDC, “helping new acts emerge – and at the same time cultivating, allowing younger people to hear and see what is happening there in the country.

Appropriately, the facility is near the Woody Guthrie Center, which is dedicated to the Okemeh, Oklahoma-born folk music legend. Guthrie has been cited as an inspiration for Dylan, who wrote and recorded “Song to Woody” for his 1962 self-titled debut album. [the BDC] is right next to the Woody Guthrie Center because of that connection,” says Harjo. “I see Woody Guthrie as the musical ancestor of Bob Dylan.”

The addition of the Bob Dylan Center is set to further bolster Tulsa’s reputation as a major center of cultural arts. “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 artistic endeavors,” Harjo says of the town. “Even in our education back then in school, we had music and art. I see it as still an integral part of our identity as a city. Having the center here is kind of a way of acknowledging it. I think it will be seen as a major attraction and really part of an ever-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 a busy and prolific time for the poet whose notable works include “An American sunrise», « She had horses », «This morning I pray for my enemies,” and “To remember.” Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, once said of Harjo“For her, 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 powerfully connects us to earth and to the spiritual world with a direct and inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.

At Harjo perspectives on the aboriginal experience through his works formed the basis of his final album last year, I pray for my enemies, which was co-produced by former Screaming Trees and Mad Season drummer Barrett Martin. The disc consists of previously released and new works with moving musical accompaniment and guest appearances from Peter Buck (REM) Rich Robinson (The Black Crowes), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana). In addition to her vocals, Harjo plays saxophone on the record.

“I had several of the songs already and was sitting there waiting,” she says of I pray for my enemies. “All of this feeling came from being in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of political division and racial inequality. And that’s how the album was born out of a need to try to be useful or find a gathering place in an album because that’s what I do with my work… For me, when I started writing poetry and I didn’t plan on doing it at all, 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, Poet Warriorwho NPR called “a wonderful hybrid text that blends memoirs, poetry, songs and dreams into something unique”, as well as “a narrative that highlights compassion and emphasizes the importance of rituals”. According to Harjo, the memoir was written during the pandemic. “I’m at a certain age, I just look back and think of stories that impressed me or even times in my life where I learned something that could be useful, and I reflect on that. .”

If Harjo was always interested in poetry from an early age, she originally majored in pre-medicine for a semester when she was a student at the University of Mexico before switching to art. “I didn’t have all the in-depth knowledge of biology that people had in premedicine. And so I was a little handicapped, but that wasn’t my path either. In the second semester, I was in art studios and changed my major. We had a very active aboriginal student club that advocated for aboriginal rights in the community. And I started hearing native poets for the first time. It opened the door for me because for the first time I heard native people writing poetry about our lives and what we saw and went through. He just changed.

“So I started writing and that’s what happened. It took over and I still don’t fully understand it. But it’s like making concise songs. A song can be like an amazing bundle of energy shaped by all sorts of rhythms, melodies, harmonies, etc. And poems are like that. It’s almost like being a comedian, but you don’t get the laughs. You have these very powerful moments, and that’s how it all fits together for me [with] music. There’s one of my poems, when I read it, I feel like I’m playing the saxophone.

When she was named the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States in 2019, Harjo became the first Indigenous person to hold the honor; she is also one of only two poet laureates to have served three terms. She considers her term, now over, a great honor. “Where it had a profound effect was among the native people,” she recalls, “because I remember when I was at the University of New Mexico and I was leaning more towards poetry – telling myself that if I do nothing else in my life, I want Native people to be considered as human things. This position has contributed a lot to this. It was important to me. There was my poet laureate project [Living Nations, Living Words] which showcased contemporary Aboriginal poets. It was an incredible race.

From his experiences as the Poet Laureate of the United States, Harjo believes that poetry is still relevant today. “I traveled everywhere, reading and meeting people in communities around the world. I have noticed – especially in other countries and also in indigenous communities that are close to oral traditions – that poetry really matters. Poetry was as necessary as the best songs on the radio or on the Internet now. Poetry is a tool we use for transcendent moments, for heartbreak, for falling in love and falling in love. It gives us a place to be in those transformative moments in our lives.

“I’ve seen it in my lifetime take its place, all kinds of poetry, not just academic, but poetry that, as June Jordan called it, ‘poetry for the people.’ I watched all kinds of poetry: spoken word, rap, there’s room for all kinds of poetry. And most importantly, I think with this country, what we’re dealing with, I’ve seen an increase in expression among young people. Poetry has its place. »

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