As the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence in the UT Department of English, Professor Joy Harjo encouraged her students to pay attention to the details of life in order to develop the craft to speak and write with knowledge, compassion, and fluency. In her new role as poet laureate of the United States, Harjo, who officially retires from the university in July, will help raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.
“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—soul talk, as she calls it—for more than four decades,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “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 re-imagine who we are.”
Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position—she is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She succeeds Tracy K. Smith, who served two terms as laureate. Harjo currently lives in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is the nation’s first poet laureate from Oklahoma.
“Faculty and staff in the Department of English are thrilled to hear our colleague Joy Harjo has been appointed our nation’s poet laureate,” said Allen Dunn, professor and head of the English department. “This is a tremendous honor, and we are all celebrating her well-deserved success.”
In 2016, Harjo brought her distinction as a major figure in contemporary American poetry, her expertise in Native American studies, and her background in creative nonfiction, drama, and music to the UT English department. During her time as a faculty member, Harjo won several awards for her poetry, including one of the most prestigious prizes in poetry—the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is bestowed on a living American poet for outstanding lifetime accomplishments.
“We are deeply indebted to her for her many contributions to our department,” Dunn said. “Joy inspired us as a poet, a teacher, and a friend. The fact that her work has won such high acclaim makes her an ideal ambassador for the university and demonstrates the high caliber of the faculty at UT.
Harjo exemplifies the role of artists as activists, drawing attention to societal issues in a way that make people listen. In 2016, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protested a pipeline project running through North Dakota, Harjo used her art to raise awareness of the situation. According to Harjo, poets have traditionally been the truth tellers in many cultures and are in service to the spirit of art and to the people.
“I am very pleased that the committee chose Joy Harjo to be the next poet laureate,” said Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “She has spent her life writing poetry that reflects her heritage and speaks to all people, while engaging in outreach through readings, music, and art. She is a remarkable spokesperson for the value of engaging with poetry as a way to better understand our world and our place in it.”
Known primarily as a poet, Harjo also plays saxophone and has released five award-winning CDs. In 2009, she won a Native American Music Award for best female artist of the year.
“Joy’s poetry is about healing,” Dunn said. “As an outspoken advocate for the rights of women and native peoples, she reminds us of the values that should unite us as community.”
Harjo joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served as poet laureate for the United States, 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.
“What a tremendous honor it is to be named the US 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.”
The Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1937, when Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the library. For more information on the poet laureate and the Poetry and Literature Center, visit loc.gov/poetry.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Amanda Womac (865-974-2992, email@example.com)