Poet Harjo told stories and shared ideas about writing and stories

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MASSILLON – Joy Harjo sees the world and its inhabitants, places and things as a giant “land of history”.

From the trees in your backyard to your own families and towns, the stories of each are intertwined in endless layers. And every story has a place, a purpose – the good, the bad and the ugly.

After:The Massillon museum launches Big Read with free distribution of books on Saturday

“Some stories are hard to watch because it makes us look at the worst of ourselves,” she told a crowd of around 175 who came to the Massillon museum on Thursday evening to hear a keynote speech for the Great Reading of Harjo, the outgoing American Poet Laureate.

Difficult stories like the chaos of war. Difficult stories on topics such as abortion. Difficult accounts, such as the fate of his own Native American ancestors in the southeastern United States, driven west from their lands by the Indian Relocation Act of 1830.

Some of Harjo’s poetry readings

Harjo, 70, is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a self-governing tribe near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dressed in black pants and a black shirt, both the same color as her long straight hair, she dazzled her captive audience with stories, songs and readings of her own poems.

Most were from his collection in the book “An American Sunrise,” published in 2019, and inspired by Harjo’s visit to the southeastern United States.

After:What’s new at Mu? Native American artwork to complement Big Read

Pieces like “How to Write a Poem in Time of War”, which opens with:

You cannot start anywhere. It’s a wreck.

Shrapnel and the eye

From a house, a row of houses. There’s a rat scrambling

Light with meaty waste in his mouth. A baby strapped to its mother’s back

Detach yourself.

Or “Break My Heart”, which begins:

The Poetry Foundation said this about her: “To read Joy Harjo’s poetry is to hear the voice of the earth, to see the landscape of time and timelessness, and, most importantly, to gain insight into the people who find it difficult to understand, know themselves and survive.

First Native American Poet Laureate

Harjo has won numerous awards for her work, which includes nine books of poetry. But it was “An American Sunrise” that brought her to Massillon. The event was part of the city’s Big Read 2022, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Locally, the Massillon Museum and Public Library partners with civic groups and schools to present a host of “An American Sunrise” related events. Everything from book discussion groups to a current museum exhibition, featuring works by contemporary Indian artists.

Stephanie Toole, the museum’s education and outreach coordinator, said it was Massillon’s 15th consecutive major reading and the first time a book of poems had been chosen.

Over the years, Big Read has provided 30,000 free books to the community and brought in author Tobias Wolff, poet Julia Alvarez and artist Charles Vess, to name a few.

Harjo, who became a mother in her teens, a grandmother in her 30s and now a great-grandmother, said being a poet was not a lifelong dream. It kind of happened. She was 15 credit hours away from a fine arts degree when she changed courses and started writing.

Writing helps her make sense of what she sees and feels, often when she reaches an internal boiling point.

“You just write,” she explained.

Her career earned her the title of Poet Laureate in 2019. She was the 23rd in the United States and the first Native American. She is also only the second to serve three terms; his last stint has just ended.

So what is a Poet Laureate anyway?

The New York Public Library website explained it pretty well in a 2017 blog post by Nicholas Parker:

The official title is “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry”, and it is selected by the Librarian of Congress; position has non-specific duties, but generally advocates reading, writing, and poetry; the role dates back to 1937, although the winner was added to the title in 1986. The salary is $35,000 plus a stipend for travel expenses, paid for by an endowment created by Archer M. Huntington, who appointed the original consultant to the position of poet.


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