Upon logging into Zoom Tuesday evening, students, faculty members and administration across the country heard the sounds of spoken word poetry and musical accompaniment, making a meditative musical piece that aims for a greater meaning within troubling times.
This music was from the album I Pray For My Enemies, the most recent musical release from three-term U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. The album explores “the shared languages of music to sing, speak and play a stunningly original musical meditation that seeks healing for a troubled world.”
Slippery Rock University hosted Harjo on Tuesday at 5 p.m. for a virtual audience of over 340 people. The recording of the event currently has over 80 views on YouTube.
A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo is the first Native American to be appointed U.S. poet laureate. She is the author of nine books of poetry, two memoirs and two children’s books, and she has seven music and spoken word albums.
As participants logged into Zoom Tuesday evening, they immediately heard Harjo’s newest album, I Pray For My Enemies. According to Harjo’s website, the album “digs deep into the indigenous red earth and the shared languages of music to sing, speak and play a stunningly original musical meditation that seeks healing for a troubled world.”
This event was the second virtual event sponsored by We Stand Together, a consortium of 19 presidents and chancellors from public universities, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Hispanic and Native American serving institutions. SRU President William Behre is a member of this consortium. The first event from We Stand Together, a Zoom discussion with former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, was hosted by California State University, Fullerton in the fall 2020 semester.
Students, faculty and administration from all universities represented in We Stand Together were able to attend Tuesday’s event, with Zoom locations ranging from California to Maryland. Harjo herself spoke from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Mark O’Connor, associate professor of English, and Julie Naviaux, assistant professor of English, were co-moderators of the event. In some of their classes, including their sections of Critical Reading, students read Harjo’s work, including her first memoir: Crazy Brave and select poems.
Naviaux said that students in her sections of Critical Reading are typically hesitant of poems, as many of those students are not English majors. But they enjoyed the accessible nature and language of Harjo’s work.
“Students are always really scared of poetry in that class because it’s a lot of non-majors and early college students,” Naviaux said. “But they found that they like her tone and her approach and kind of her breaking down of a lot of poetry form. They found it really accessible.” Naviaux added that students could distinguish the different voices in these poems, which Harjo called the voices of people from her past.
For the first part of the event, Harjo read her poetry and spoke on the background of the works. She spoke of the close relationship she had with her grandfather, Henry Marcy Harjo, before reading a piece from Poet Warrior, her upcoming memoir that will be released in September 2021.
“He’ll help me with words or phrases,” Harjo said. “I wanted to read a little about him because I feel like I need him right now.”
Harjo also read excepts from American Sunrise, a collection of poems published in 2019, the same year she was first appointed poet laureate.
In describing her thoughts on writing poetry, Harjo said that she doesn’t know where her poems will go next.
“One thing I love about writing poetry, I don’t know where I’m going,” Harjo said. “I don’t want to know because that’s part of the journey.”
O’Connor and Naviaux precedented to ask Harjo questions submitted by audience members prior to the event.
Students from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, a Historically Black College/University located in Princesse Anne, asked Harjo about how she reconciles violent histories with a sense of familiarity with her hometown of Tulsa. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre when a mob of white people killed up to 300 people in the Black community of Greenwood and left hundreds injured and/or homeless.
In response, Harjo read her poem “Somewhere,” which was just published by World Literature Today. The poem opens with a description of “brutal winds,” which was inspired by one of Harjo’s memories.
“I was walking down the street, [and] it was really windy like today when it was just flowing and everything, and this woman stopped me on the corner,” Harjo said. “She was beautiful. When I go back in my memory, she was beautiful like an African queen but she was homeless and had made her own little universe at the corner.”
Another question raised was concerning the responsibility higher education and college students have in contributing to social justice. To Harjo, training everyone for leadership is key.
“I think it’s important to train everyone for leadership,” Harjo said. “I’ve come to that because I remember I would hear about leadership training, and I never thought that it pertained to me. But what would happen if everyone was trained to be a leader?”
As one of the co-moderators, O’Connor said the time Harjo to consider each question struck him the most about her visit. Both O’Connor and Naviaux spoke about her reading of “Somewhere,” which was unplanned prior to hearing the question about the Tulsa Massacre.
“She clearly thought about each question and took a long time to give genuine, deeply thought-out answers,” O’Connor said. “A lot of writers will give you an answer immediately, and you know, they’ve answered that question 50 times. In response to one of the questions that came from a student at another university, she read a new poem.”
Reflecting on Harjo’s visit and his own role on the We Stand Together consortium, SRU President Behre said that events like these show the power of working across college campuses.
“By being part of this consortium, we have students who come to things from different perspectives,” Behre said. “What’s really nice is we get to learn from each other.”
While there has been no announcement of upcoming speakers at this time, Behre said SRU and We Stand Together are both in the process of planning upcoming events for the upcoming school year.