Study Questions for Joy Harjo [b. 1951]

To prepare for our class discussion of the Bill Moyers interview with Harjo and of her poems, read the interview and her poems carefully, then consider how the issues and concepts that she discusses in the interview help us to understand her poem, "Autobiography," which appears in the professor's pack on the page following the interview. As you read the interview and her poems, consider these issues:

  1. Discussing the inspiration for her poems, Harjo talks about a "mythic place," a "river" that she says we all tap for creative impulses and inspiration, but she personifies this source of creativity through the idea of her muses, typically an old Creek indian or an elderly woman whose presence she feels as she writes (160). To what extent does she expect us to take these kinds of spiritual literally?
  2. What does she mean by the'idea of a "layering" of worlds in a "landscape of timelessness" ? (161). These concepts seem central to her explanation of the "native mind" and to her belief that time is not linear. In which of her poems do you see these concepts at work?
  3. Parallel to the concept of a landscape of timelessness are her claims that we were all once tribal people and the our separateness is an "illusion" (161). She seems to see poetry and art as forms of prayer that can once more unify all people, overcoming the "incredible relationship of guilt between native people and white Americans" (161). For her, poetry, like prayer becomes a ritual experience, a healing ceremony. Can you identify this element inany of her poems?
  4. Harjo later argues that "the expression of culture is primarily oral" and privileges versions of culture and identity handed down through stories told by people, as if history and culture are contained in personal experiences orally transmitted (164). She seems to contrast this kind of cultural transmission [clearly linked to stories and to art] to the "falsely created" realities of Holywood and TV (162). Can you identify moments in her poems that reinforce these views expressed in the interview?
  5. Finally, re-read "Autobiography" and see if you can identify specific moments evoking any of the issues raised in #1-#4 above.