Poet Laureate Joy Harjo Names Libraries as Early Influence | ALA Midwinter 2021

The ALA President’s Program at the American Library Association Virtual Midwinter Meeting 2021 featured U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo in conversation with fellow poet and memoirist Jill Bialosky, an executive editor at W. W. Norton.

The ALA President’s Program at the American Library Association (ALA)’s Virtual Midwinter Meeting 2021, on Sunday, January 24, featured U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo in conversation with fellow poet and memoirist Jill Bialosky, an executive editor at W. W. Norton and author of Asylum: A Personal, Historical, Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric Sections. The program was introduced by Aaron LaFromboise, director of library services at Blackfeet Community College’s Medicine Spring Library in Montana, and drew an audience of over 1,000 attendees.

Bialosky began the session by asking Harjo when she first discovered poetry. Harjo said that it was “a mystery to her” and that she had never planned to become a poet, but her mother, a poetry reader, was an influence. As a child Harjo “used to live in the library,” she recalled. Her childhood library was housed in a small row of stores; she visited every week to check out as many books as she was allowed.

Bialosky then asked about the moment when Harjo was told of her selection as U.S. Poet Laureate. “Like lightning, that was the feeling that went through [me],” Harjo said, explaining that poets tend to work privately for years and have doors slammed in their faces, but she thinks of her work as a calling. Harjo said that she is still amazed by the journey that ended with that call from the Library of Congress. She joked that the Library of Congress had tricked her by scheduling a call purportedly to discuss the National Book Festival; instead, Harjo was put on the phone with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who asked her to become the next poet laureate. Just before that call, Harjo had told her booking agent to turn down any requests for interviews because she wanted to focus solely on writing.

When Bialosky asked if poetry could make a difference in the world, Harjo responded that traditional poetry—African and Indigenous poetry, among other forms with long histories—comes from places where poets are known as truth tellers. She has seen a growing need for poetry over the last four years, during which poetry and the arts more broadly have been activated in a way that Harjo had never seen before. “People go to poetry,” Harjo said. “Poetry has the ability to hold time. A poem can hold many different kinds of time. It can hold grief, hold the questions we cannot answer, hold joy.... Poetry makes the best doorways for going in.”

Harjo also discussed her laureate project at the Library of Congress: a story map of contemporary Native American poets that includes poems, statements, recordings, and images. Those works will be collected in Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry, forthcoming from Norton this May. Harjo will also publish a memoir with Norton in the fall, titled Poet Warrior: A Call for Love and Justice

To conclude the session, Harjo thanked librarians for their work; “Humans are story gatherers,” she said.

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