Critically-acclaimed poet and musician Joy Harjo will bring a taste of Native American culture to Mississippi State University this week as a part of the A&S Institute for the Humanities’ Writer-in-Residence program.
Harjo is the sixth in a line of notable authors and poets the Writer-in-Residence program has brought to campus to interact with students and professors.
The main event of the Writer-in-Residence program will be Harjo’s public poetry reading at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 in the Turner A. Wingo Auditorium of Old Main.
Catherine Pierce, associate professor of English and co-director of MSU's creative writing program, said she is looking forward to Harjo’s reading, as she said there is something powerful about hearing a writer read their own pieces.
"It's always fun and enlightening to hear writers read their own work–the language comes alive in a new way when it leaves the page," Pierce said. "Readings are also a great chance to hear writers talk about their own work, tell some stories and answer questions."
Harjo, author of seven books of poetry, uses her poetry to highlight the uniqueness of the Native American culture and plight in America.
"She writes a lot about the struggle of being a Native American in America, and the struggle that her people have gone through and the oppression they’ve faced. She also talks about spirituality a lot and having her soul connected to nature. There’s a lot of very classical, Native American themes in her work," said Rebecca Van Pamel, a senior English major and a fan of Harjo’s work.
Harjo said she started writing after getting involved with a Native rights movement as a student at the University of New Mexico.
"I looked around and I didn’t hear any Native women’s voices," Harjo said. "I had started listening to poetry and going to poetry readings, and my poetry emerged from there."
Harjo said her early poetry focused on what was going on in the community and in people’s lives, and then grew from there as she learned more about the intricacies of lyrical poetry.
"What was exciting for me was when I realized that one poem can hold many kinds of time, it can hold all kinds of memories and places, events in just one small intimate space," Harjo said. "That’s what I love about it."
Van Pamel said, as a non-Native American, Harjo’s poetry has broadened her perspective on Native American history—something she did not learn much about growing up.
"Her work was very eye-opening for me, specifically because I’m not native American," Van Pamel said. "I haven’t really read up a lot on what they’ve gone through, just because that’s not really a part of the education system in America."
Van Pamel also said Harjo’s work is unique because of how personal and honest it is.
"It’s so intensely raw," Van Pamel said. "I think something that makes her work stand out to me is that it’s really written all about her own life experiences and the things she’s gone through that maybe you wouldn’t want to admit to somebody, or especially to a network of readers."
Harjo said she is excited to visit MSU, as she has never performed or done a reading in the state of Mississippi. The South is also a special region for her, as her ancestors, the Muscogee people, are originally from this region.
"I think it’s important too that people know that the Muscogee people were all through the South," Harjo said. "We might not appear to be there, but that culture is still the root culture of the South."
Harjo also looks forward to meeting with students, as she said this gives her a glimpse of the future.
"I get a pulse, a sense of what’s to come, maybe even what the next world looks like by talking to students," Harjo said.
Van Pamel said all students, even those not studying the humanities, should attend the public poetry reading.
"I would encourage everyone to come out because even if you’re not a fan of poetry, I think it’s important to listen to the words of people of color and to be exposed to different cultures and learn about American history, even its unpleasant parts," Van Pamel said.
In addition to her public poetry reading, Harjo will also participate in poetry workshops, hold office hours and dine with students and faculty.