The Poet Laureate of the United States is a time-honored position that many poets strive to achieve. It began in 1937 as a “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress“, but changed to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” in 1986. The Library of Congress elects this position every year, and the Poet Laureate can often serve more than one term.
Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, was recently awarded this honor and became the first Native American to hold the position.
And, on September 25th, 2019, I got to meet her.
I sat in the back of the stadium because every seat was full. Harjo, once she got on stage, played a haunting melody on a Native American flute as a way of introduction. She then introduced each poem with a story of how it came to be, how it connected to her culture, and why she included it. All of her poems were heartfelt, insightful, and brimming with Native American lore.
My personal favorites were Rabbit is up to his tricks, a poem explaining how the trickster spirit created man; and One day, there will be horses, a traveling song.
When she got to One day, there will be horses, Harjo sang the verses while we sang the chorus. Hearing almost 300 people sing along gave me goosebumps and will be an experience I’ll never forget.
Both poems come from her book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.
Afterward, Harjo came out and met the audience. She was so kind and gracious, taking time to learn everyone’s names and talk to them briefly as she signed. When I asked for a photo, she didn’t hesitate to agree and insisted I come around and sit beside her for it.
Harjo is the second Poet Laureate I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, as I met her predecessor, Tracy K. Smith, on April 4th, 2019. Like Harjo, Smith’s poems were impactful and full of cultural insight. Smith was also kind and gracious when taking photos and signing books, traits that must come with the territory.
To become a Poet Laureate of the United States, you must be on the radar of the Librarian of Congress. They are the ones who pick the poets they’d like to serve as Laureate, confirm that the poet is willing and able to serve, then appoints them to the position. To make an informed decision, the Librarian of Congress will consult with the current Laureate, former appointees, distinguished poetry critics, and staff in the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center.
Tracy K. Smith and Joy Harjo were powerful, impactful, caring women, and I’m honored to have met such pillars in the Poetry community. Their autographs will forever be among my literary treasures!
(I apologize for the photo quality. They were both taken from my phone)