Biographies Joy Harjo

U.S. Poet Laureate, 2019-2022

Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2019-2022. Photo credit: Shawn Miller.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed Joy Harjo as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress on June 19, 2019. Harjo was reappointed to a second term on April 30, 2020, and a third term on Nov. 19, 2020.

Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position—she is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 9, 1951, and is the author of nine books of poetry—including “An American Sunrise” (2019); “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” (2015); “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” (1994), which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; and “In Mad Love and War” (1990), which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. Harjo has also written two memoirs, “Crazy Brave” (2012) and “Poet Warrior” (2021), as well as a children’s book, “The Good Luck Cat” (2000), and a young adult book, “For a Girl Becoming” (2009).

“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—‘soul talk’ as she calls it—for over four decades,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said. “To 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 the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”

Harjo currently lives in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is the nation’s first Poet Laureate from Oklahoma. 

“What a tremendous honor it is to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate,” Harjo said. “I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem. I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry.”

Harjo’s second term began Sept. 1, 2020, and she launched her signature laureate project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” on Nov. 19, 2020. This digital project gathers a sampling of work by 47 contemporary Native poets from across the nation. Developed in conjunction with the Library’s Geography and Map Division and American Folklife Center, “Living Nations, Living Words” features an ArcGIS Story Map and a newly developed audio collection.

A companion anthology, “Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry External,” was published in May 2021 by W. W. Norton & Company in association with the Library of Congress. The anthology features each poem and poet from the “Living Nations, Living Words” project, offering readers a chance to hold the wealth of poetry in their hands. 

During her third term, Harjo will focus on outreach for the project. “This has been a challenging year for the country, for our earth. Poetry has provided doorways for joy, grief and understanding in the midst of turmoil and pandemic,” Harjo said. “I welcome the opportunity of a third term to activate my project and visit communities to share Native poetry. The story of America begins with Native presence, thoughts and words. Poetry is made of word threads that weave and connect us.”

In November 2021, the Library of Congress released an educator guide to complement “Living Nations, Living Words.” The guide was developed with a committee of educator advisers, including members of the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Indian Education Association.

As a performer, Harjo has appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and in venues across the U.S. and internationally. In addition to her poetry, Harjo is a musician. She plays saxophone with her band, the Arrow Dynamics Band, and previously with Poetic Justice, and has released four award-winning CDs of original music. In 2009, she won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year.

Harjo’s many literary awards include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Harjo has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Witter Bynner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tulsa Artists Fellowship. Her collection “How We Become Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001″ (2002) was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts for its Big Read program. Her recent honors include the Jackson Prize from Poets & Writers (2019), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation (2017) and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets (2015). In 2019, she was elected as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Harjo succeeds Tracy K. Smith as Poet Laureate and joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including Juan Felipe Herrera, Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Rita Dove.

For Poet Laureate media/press inquiries, please contact Brett Zongker in the Library of Congress Office of Communications at (202) 707-1639 or bzongker@loc.gov. For event requests, please contact Blue Flower Arts External.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress

Events at the Library of Congress

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