Joy Harjo is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a two-time American Book Award winner, mostly recently for her memoir, Crazy Brave.She is a Guggenheim recipient and winner of the Wallace Stevens and Ruth Lilly Poetry Prizes, and will succeed Tracy K. Smith as the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate this fall, making her the first Native American poet to hold the position. In her latest collection An American Sunrise due out August 13, Harjo—a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation—explores themes of beauty and survival and injustice. She has exclusively shared a poem from the collection with ELLE.comtitled, “Advice for Countries, Advanced, Developing and Falling,” and written an introduction, below.
This poem departs from my usual mode of poetry which leans toward lyric, or lyric narrative. The form is call-and-response, which has origins in our Muscogee Creek culture song forms.
The lead voice is the voice of all those mentors and teachers who include poets, healers, philosophers, artists, homemakers, and those wise ones whose names no one will ever know because wisdom usually resides where few people roam. Many are Muscogee Creek or from other tribal nations. They are from teachers from all over the world. They include Vine Deloria, Jr., Wilma Mankiller, Emily Dickinson, Audre Lorde and Phillip Deere. What is common among them is that they treat all equally. There is no hierarchy based on culture, religion, color, sex, or economic status. They teach that hate begets hate, that we will be known by our actions. Primary is that children are our most valuable resource, that they are all our children. They remind that we are the earth. We are not over the earth. Earth is within us and we are within the earth’s body.
The responding voice is the prevailing voice that would have us forget our common humanity. It is the voice of those who destroy the earth with greed while calling it economic opportunity, the voice of those who separate children from their parents at the border because they believe they have the right of dominion over all and will cause harm to anyone not like them.
The question the poem doesn’t answer, as the voices move back and forth and appear to run parallel, is, how do they come together? The common root is a concern for a supportive place for our families, our communities. This country is essentially a person. How do we move forward ethically and morally in a way that sustains our collective home, nourishes our collective heart? Poetry is my way of trying to assist in making that road.