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‘Poems are pockets that hold words …’

  • U.S. poet laureate shares her unique perspective in social justice event

    Wednesday, April 7, 2021
    U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

    Listening to Joy Harjo is like riding on the winds of history grabbing at pieces of a dream as they swirl around you.  It is difficult to describe all of the aspects of the inspiration that drives her “word weaving.”  

    On the evening of April 6, Harjo, the nation's 23rd poet laureate, was the latest speaker featured in the “We Stand Together” series, a year-long project organized by a consortium of the nation's universities, including the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. 

    Harjo provided much food for thought from a humanistic perspective.  Driven by her Native American culture - she's a member of the Muscogee (Creek) nation - and the spirit of her great grandfather, her poetry speaks to the past, present and future.  “Poet Warrior” -- a forthcoming memoir -- describes how we come into the world with guardians - family ancestors who give guidance. 

    Early in her life Harjo said she needed the words of her great-grandfather to direct her journey.  She questioned why she would have a legacy of storytelling when she was afraid of failing her art because she did not view herself as the best. 

    As a woman, she has endured the oppression her gender has suffered throughout time.  Her elder's words of wisdom, however, allowed her to find a poetic voice where “time means nothing in the place we inhabit” and where “poems are pockets that hold words we cannot speak.”

    Dean Marshall F. Stevenson Jr.

    Harjo finds inspiration in questions on how we unravel history, and she reminds us that prior to European colonialism, there were no hierarchies of race and gender in North America.  Once greed and materialism set in, native peoples were forced to deal with the present at the expense of their past being erased.  Terror became an uncomfortable companion.  Still, her words emphasize the need to pray for one's enemies -- prayers of goodwill. 

    A question from UMES posed to Harjo during the virtual event was on the significance of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa (Okla.) Massacre, since she was born and lives in Tulsa.  She does not necessarily write poems inspired by events, but did for this one.  It is titled “Somewhere.”  When she looks out of the window of her studio, she can see the neighborhood -- “Black Wall Street” -- that was destroyed in 1921. 

    “All students (today) should be leaders to the correction of history,” she said.  America will not grow, she added, without realizing its diversity, and that diversity of thought and respect in sharing is essential for that growth. 

    When asked about the trend to push the humanities to the background in the shadow of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), she said the humanities create a whole, healthy society. 

    STEM fields, she said, are important, but humanities give rise to “higher thinking.”  Art forms represented across the humanities serve as the soul and STEM the body as part of our world's bio system.  

    Strangely enough, when Harjo attends conferences or is in the company of STEM practitioners, she finds herself gravitating toward the mathematicians. She says she sees poets and math people similar in their ways of thinking about their craft. 

    --- Dr. Marshall F. Stevenson Jr. / Dean, School of Education, Social Sciences & The Arts