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Meet America's First Native Poet Laureate

In this June 6, 2019 photo, Joy Harjo, of the United States, poses inside the Library of Congress, in Washington. Harjo has been named the country’s next poet laureate, becoming the first Native American to hold that position. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)
Meet America's First Native Poet Laureate
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Joy Harjo, the first Native American to be named U.S. poet laureate, has been ready for such a responsibility for a long time.

“I’ve been an unofficial poetry ambassador -- on the road for poetry for years,” Harjo wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “I’ve often been the only poet or Native poet-person that many have seen, met, heard.”

The Library of Congress announced Harjo’s appointment to the position on Wednesday. Librarian Carla Hayden said in a statement that Harjo helped tell an “American story” of traditions both lost and kept.

Harjo’s term is for one year. She follows Tracy K. Smith, who served as the nation's poet laureate for two terms. The laureate receives $35,000 to carry out special projects meant to spread appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

Harjo said she does not yet have defined plans for her year as the country’s official poet. But she said she wants to “bring the contribution of poetry of the tribal nations to the forefront and include it in the discussion of poetry.”

Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She is 68 years old and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is known for such collections as “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” and “In Mad Love and War.”

Her writing style is forceful and intimate, and includes elements from the natural and spiritual world.

A new book of her own poems, “An American Sunrise,” comes out in August.

Along with poetry, Harjo also dances and paints. At the age of 40, she decided to learn how to play the saxophone. She has since recorded several musical albums.

Harjo told the AP, “I began writing poetry because I didn’t hear Native women’s voices in the discussion of policy, of how we were going to move forward in a way that is respectful and honors those basic human laws that are common to all people.”

She considers her poem “Rabbit Is Up To Tricks” to be an expression of political thought.

The poem tells of a tricky Rabbit who has become lonely, and so forms a man out of clay and teaches him to steal. The clay man learns too well, stealing animals, food and another man’s wife. He moves on to gold and land and control of the world.

Listen to part of the poem.

And Rabbit had no place to play.
Rabbit’s trick had backfired.
Rabbit tried to call the clay man back,
but when the clay man wouldn’t listen
Rabbit realized he’d made a clay man with no ears.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

poet laureate - n. a poet who is honored by being chosen for an official position by a ruler or government

appreciation - n. an ability to understand the worth, quality, or importance of something

contribution - n. a piece of writing that is published as part of a larger work

forefront - n. the most important part or position

intimate - adj. very closely related or connected

clay - n. a heavy, sticky material from the earth that is made into different shapes and that becomes hard when it is baked or dried