Friday, February 07, 2020

Joy Harjo Is Good Medicine

Melinda Palacio

Joy Harjo

After all the disappointment that surrounded the impeachment trial, Joy Harjo brought a sense of calm and beauty to Santa Barbara's packed audience at the Natural History Museum. Harjo is the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate and the first Native American Poet Laureate from the Muskogee Creek Nation. True to her name, she was indeed a joy. She is a renowned musician who performs solo on saxophone and with her band, The Arrow Dynamics. Her prolific repertoire includes five CDs of music and poetry, nine poetry books, a memoir, and an award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2009. As someone who has recently started studying music and playing guitar and ukulele, I'm fascinated and inspired by poets who are also musicians. She didn't play saxophone on Wednesday, but she did sing and play the flute, and she performed one of her poems to her own accompaniment.

I'm glad we have a U.S. Poet Laureate, given the oppressive political climate. However, I now realize that the U.S. Poet Laureateship has nothing to do with the U.S. government. The position is funded privately. Earlier this week, the Academy of American Poets received the largest grant ever by a philanthropic institution. Thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the U.S. Poets Laureate Fellows will be funded for the next three years.

At the beginning of her presentation,  someone's cell phone went off and Harjo said, "there is an alarm going off in this country." Her words and firm delivery helped wash the sense of panic I've been feeling about the direction of our country and planet. As a musician, she is a natural performer and although she says she doesn't sing well, her voice is a gift. I am grateful to have been in the audience. I'm also looking forward to her next book, a second memoir, as well as musical play that connects the Muskogee contribution of Congo Square and the story of American blues and jazz, We Were There When Jazz Was Invented. Harjo's poetry and music reminds us to connect to the earth and to each other. Her words are a beacon of hope.

Read Joy Harjo's poems on the Academy of American Poets. Joy Harjo is the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. I'm honored to be included in this website with my poem, The Praying Tree from Bird Forgiveness.

Fleischmann Hall, SB Natural History Museum

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