Author Interview: Joy Harjo on Poetry & Picture Books

By AJ Eversole

Today on Cynsations I am thrilled to present an interview with former, U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. Her latest picture book, Remember (Random House Studio, 2023) released last week. Illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade, Remember, is a poem in picture book form.

What is the heart of Remember?

I used to ask this of my creative writing students when I taught. The heart of this poem can be found by the rhythm, the beat that runs through and is repeated in the word “Remember.” It pumps life in the poem. The driving force reminds us that are all connected and ultimately we are earth or Ekvnvcvke.

What do you think of children as an audience for poetry? 

Children can be natural poets in that they naturally play with whatever materials are at hand. Word play is a given. They like ear surprises, respond to rhythm and music. They love poetry and when given a change to make their own poems are usually eager to participate.

Joy Harjo Headshot

Do children as an audience change the way you package or present a poem? 

I think this depends on the age and the poem. I did not write the poem “Remember” specifically for children. The poem was in response to a request to write a poem to advise younger up-and-coming poets, when I was but a younger and up-and-coming poet myself. I wrote the poem in the seventies. It was published in my first book She Had Some Horses (W. W. Norton) which was published in 1981. I find that children and pretty sophisticated and appreciate authenticity. However, I would speak to a group of kindergartners much different that middle-schoolers. They are at different parts of the story.

Remember is one of your early poems. How has it been watching Remember grow a life of its own? 

I would never have guessed that Remember would have such legs, such wings. To me, it was a humble poem, by a young Native poet trying to understand and work with this discipline, this art called “poetry.” I never planned to be a poet. And I had to find my own way. That’s the path of an artist.

Joy Harjo With Horse and Flute

Are there any other poems of yours you would like to see in picture book format?

I have several ideas for children’s books, and have a couple of ideas for a children’s book series. “Perhaps the World Ends Here” might make a good children’s book, though I’d have to revise a couple of lines.

Tell me about the collaboration process with Michaela Goade. How did you align your vision of the poem with her vision for the visual spirit of the work?

Michael Goade was my first choice as an artist. During our discussion about the art she said she could research my Mvskoke people’s culture, then she asked about the possibility of exploring the poem through her own Tlingit culture. I told her to go with what inspires her. And she did!

I had a wonderful mentor and friend from her culture, the poet and culture bearer Nora Dauenhauer. I like to think of this collaboration as an acknowledgement of our connection. The book is a bridge between families, and as the message of the poem reveals, ultimately we are all related.

SXSW With Michaela Goade
SXSW-EDU with Michaela Goade and Mandy Smoker.

Cynsational Notes:

Joy Har­jo, the 23rd Poet Lau­re­ate of the Unit­ed States, is a mem­ber of the Mvskoke Nation. She is only the sec­ond poet to be appoint­ed a third term as U.S. Poet Laureate. Born in Tul­sa, Okla­homa, she left home to attend high school at the inno­v­a­tive Insti­tute of Amer­i­can Indi­an Arts, which was then a Bureau of Indi­an Affairs school.

Har­jo is the author of ten books of poet­ry, includ­ing her most recent, Weav­ing Sun­down in a Scar­let Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years (W. W. Norton & Company 2022), the high­ly acclaimed An Amer­i­can Sun­rise (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), which was a 2020 Okla­homa Book Award Win­ner, Con­flict Res­o­lu­tion for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), which was short­list­ed for the Grif­fin Prize and named a Notable Book of the Year by the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, and In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990), which received an Amer­i­can Book Award and the Del­more Schwartz Memo­r­i­al Award.

Her first mem­oir, Crazy Brave (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), was award­ed the PEN USA Lit­er­ary Award in Cre­ative Non Fic­tion and the Amer­i­can Book Award, and her sec­ond, Poet War­rior: A Mem­oir (W. W. Norton & Company, 2021). She has pub­lished three award-win­n­ing children’s books, Remem­ber (Random House, 2023) The Good Luck Cat(Houghton Mifflin, 2000) and For a Girl Becom­ing (University of Arizona Press, 2009)

In addi­tion to serv­ing as a three-term U.S. Poet Lau­re­ate, Har­jo is a chan­cel­lor of the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets and is a found­ing board mem­ber and Chair of the Native Arts and Cul­tures Foun­da­tion. She has recent­ly been induct­ed into the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters, the Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety, the Nation­al Native Amer­i­can Hall of Fame, and the Nation­al Woman’s Hall of Fame.

She lives in Tul­sa, Okla­homa where she is the inau­gur­al Artist-in-Res­i­dence of the Bob Dylan Center.

AJ Eversole grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to grow the imagination, which she did through intense games of make believe. She graduated from Oklahoma State University. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and hopes to be traditionally published in the near future. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband and son. Visit her on Twitter: @amjoyeversole and Instagram: @ajeversole