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Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice

Poet and Musician



Joy Harjo is an award-winning poet whose books include She Had Some Horse, In Mad Love and War, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, and the recently released A Map to the Next World (W.W. Norton and Company). She is a member of the Muskogee Tribe, and she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writer's Circle of the Americas. She moved to Hawaii two years ago, and is currently writing short stories. She has been playing saxophone for about 12 years, mixing jazz, reggae, and tribal rock alongside her band Poetic Justice. They have released a CD called Letters from the End of the Twentieth Century.

What was it that brought you to the saxophone?

I've always liked the sound of the saxophone. It sounds to me like a human voice. It is an extension of voice. Later, I found out that my grandmother, Naomi Harjo, also played saxophone. She was a full-blood Cree woman. She passed away when my father was small, so I never knew her personally. She was a painter and she also played saxophone in the early 1900s, which is something that blows apart people's stereotypes of Indian people.

Was the saxophone your first instrument?

As a child, I played clarinet for about two years. It was a school program and I think I had the same two or three reeds the whole time. Then I went to junior high and went into band and the teacher wouldn't let girls play sax, so I quit.

Were there any other ways that you channeled your musical energy?

I love listening to music. I've always loved Coltrain. I grew up with a mother who sang a lot. I guess I always liked to sing too. And I loved to dance. I would go to the bars and I would just dance for hours and not get off the dance floor from beginning to end. I was in one of the first all-Native drama and dance troupes.

Is there more to your drama background?

I always wound up on the stage, even though the only 'B' I ever got in elementary school was for not standing up and talking, because I was terrified. But if it was a play and I was projecting somebody else's lines, I could do it.

Do you think the poems you've put to music had a musical identity waiting to emerge?

The music was always there. Every time I write poetry, I work with rhythm. They aren't the prescribed rhythms of Western European civilization, generally. But there's rhythm. Poetry is marked by rhythm. Poetry's an oral art anyway, originally. I think my ear's always been toward the rhythm, toward the music.

Your two recent books have consistently juxtaposed poetry with short narrative prose. Is that technique related to what you're doing musically?

It is actually. Usually books are considered as literary. In the educated Western public's mind, a book is a book. It's a very linear kind of thing. This is a book of poetry, this is a book fiction. I wanted the book to be an oral event of sorts. I want to somehow make a cross between the oral and the written. In a poetry performance, I talk in between the poems. I'll play music in between too. It's the natural way that I go about it. It's about performance.

Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice will perform Tuesday, June 13, at 7 p.m. in Colorado College's Packard Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

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