I TRIED TWICE to arrange a phone interview with Joy Harjo, the artist, musician and U.S. Poet Laureate.
Wonder of wonders, she’ll give a Peninsula College Studium Generale talk via Zoom on Jan. 28; details are at pencol.edu and 360-417-6362.
Having read from her newest book, “An American Sunrise,” I felt Harjo is a poet for this point in history. So I hoped to reach her for this column. But when her agent Anya Backlund told me no, since Harjo is trying to reserve these quieter months for rest and other work — I understood perfectly. The poet turns 70 this year, and bulldog reporter I am not.
Then my local independent bookstore provided me with “Crazy Brave,” Harjo’s memoir, which proceeded to blow my mind.
In a stream-of-consciousness flow she tells of her girlhood, a scene of light and dark. She writes of reading poetry and disappearing into dream worlds. As a teenager, she experiences “the knowing,” that inner voice whispering to her about danger. Don’t get into that busted-up car with the intoxicated friends. Don’t walk alone with this boy.
“The knowing was always right. It could never be disarmed. It stood watch over me.”
“Crazy Brave’s” 169 pages ride like a train through the mountains. Down into dangerous canyons, up onto high peaks. A violent partner. The transcendence of art.
Harjo struggles with frightening dreams and, for much of her youth, with a reality that’s much worse. While she is fearful, she pays heed to her visions. Near book’s end comes a poem composed at a turning point when she releases her fear:
“I am not afraid to be angry/I am not afraid to rejoice/I am not afraid to be black/I am not afraid to be white,” she writes.
“I am not afraid to be hungry/I am not afraid to be full/ I am not afraid to be hated/I am not afraid to be loved.”
Harjo’s Studium Generale is cohosted by the First Nations Club of indigenous students at Peninsula College. It’s a safe place to be, said Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Jericho Stuntz.
“We are super-excited to welcome Joy,” he said, adding the club, which meets online twice monthly, has been preparing for Harjo for many weeks. Encouraged by advising professors Helen Lovejoy and Kate Reavey, members might share their poetry with Harjo during the event.
Others, like Makah Ashley Frantz, look forward to listening.
“I am new to reading Harjo’s work,” Frantz told me, “but have noticed and greatly admire her ability to tackle difficult subjects, such as colonization, in a beautiful and impactful way.”
Jonathan Arakawa, who’s written poetry in his native Klallam language, sees Harjo’s appearance as utterly appropriate. It’s right to have a tribal presence at any American institution, he said, including Peninsula College, which was built on Klallam territory.
Arakawa’s invitation: “Come and be inspired. We want our indigenous students to be inspired. They can do anything.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] peninsuladailynews.com.
Her column appears on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. The next one will run Feb. 3.