The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Natalie Diaz talks to poet and musician Joy Harjo. A member of the Mvskoke Creek Nation, Harjo lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has published seven books of poetry, including How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, and the memoir Crazy Brave, a recipient of the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the American Book Award. Her newest collection of poetry, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, will be published by W.W. Norton in Fall 2015, and she is working on her next memoir. Harjo’s writing awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She performs with her saxophone solo and with her band, the Arrow Dynamics, and tours her one-woman show. Currently, she has a commission from The Public Theater of New York to write her musical play, We Were There When Jazz Was Invented, a musical that will restore southeastern natives to the American story of blues and jazz. 

It’s exciting to begin my PEN Ten interviews with Joy Harjo. She has been many things for me and other native artists: a sister, an auntie, a warrior, a voice, a song, a saxophone on fire, a dress with ribbons sewn from jazz, a leader, a teacher, a doctor, a salve, a reckoner, a war-cry, a poet, a story-teller, a creator, a ride to Tulsa, an open hand, a “let me show you how to wear a pair of white cowboy boots.” I could go on for all of my lifetimes and not express what she means to the world and to literature. Much of what I do, much of what other native writers do is in large part due to what Joy has done and continues to do on the page. 

One of my favorite stories about Joy, I heard from Sherman Alexie. Once, Joy was asked by a white reporter why she played sax, since sax isn’t what he considered to be a “native” instrument. Joy’s reply was, “It is when I play it.” 

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Why does it stand out for you?

There was a scene in my one-woman show Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light, that was always excruciating to perform. My protagonist admitted to incest by a stepfather. She tells how it happened, and more importantly, admits that it did happen. Night after night as I acted that character and that scene, I knew the audience thought that I was playing out what happened to me personally. There were autobiographical elements in the play but not everything that happened in the play happened to me. That thought horrified me.

We all have a language and system of images that are our own, that were built into our lexicons from the fragments and musics of places and people we come from. What is a word or image that haunts your writing or that you find yourself revisiting, and what does it mean to you, what or where of your life is it made of?

I go through phases. When I was writing A Map to the Next World, the word monsters was a kind of word-worm. My editor Jill Bialosky questioned me on the word and its obsessive presence. In that collection I was aware of the swirling ruin of colonization as it was going down at the border of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The word world inserts itself too frequently, yet I need a word that will encompass world, that is, all of the worlds we inhabit and how they exist in a continuum.

When I hear the Mvskoke word vnvkeckv, I am taken to that place of great tenderness for the gift of life that characterizes Mvskoke people. I see my elder cousin John picking up a turtle at the side of the road and speaking to her, her mouth red with berries. I hear a prayer in Mvskoke as the sun comes up to the edge of the horizon after we have danced all night. I smell medicine plants.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

Time is an obsession, as in what kind of creature is time. And the sense of layers of time or timelessness. There is a clock world and there are worlds that are eternal in which no clocks have been invented. I have been present at the bending of time when the impossible happened. Each of us is a kind of field of meaning in time, and without time—does writing or playing saxophone count as an obsession? Or sleep? Having enough sleep or not enough? And blue shoes?

Where is your favorite place to write? 

The kitchen table, or upstairs in my writing and music room, my feet up and my computer on my lap. Because I started writing with two small children and have worked jobs, I have learned to write anywhere, almost anytime. I can write on stuffed airplanes if I need to—it’s about entering a space without time or fear.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

I am held to a path that is as solid as stone but is fluid as water. I was given a standard to keep. I know when I’m off, when I want to follow fashion or pattern, what doesn’t resonate from within. I have to take care of what I was given. I am aware of carrying a gift that belongs to my people. It doesn’t belong to me. It’s ancient yet moves into the raw and unknown future.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

Certainly. Writers are essentially truth tellers … We speak what hasn’t been spoken because it needs to live. We are essentially the consciousness of an age, a people. When I say writers I also mean those who carry their literature via oral means.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

I was detained once in Skiatook, Oklahoma, with some other friends. We were partying up after a native conference in the park. I was about nineteen years old. We were let go after drinking coffee to sober up by a kind jailer.

The body is political, especially for women and people of color. Sound and language begin as energy in the body. How do you inhabit or understand your body when you read and/or write?

My body is a house for my soul. It is a terrestrial creature, this body. It is of this earth and I will leave it behind when I go. The body is how we are identified on this earth, by what cultural means, and dictates our place in the ever-shifting and even dangerous political waters. To be indigenous in stolen lands ruled by a settler culture that inherently believes that gun power connotes superiority of person in all aspects of culture makes for a tricky game. To secondly (in all senses of the word), be female is to essentially be a bottom-rung ghost. That is one way to understand the predicament. Another is to realize that we emerged into this place with devastating twists and turns in the story, and must write our way through it so we emerge with dignity. We were given this particular place, these lands, to take care of, even as it takes care of us. That is essentially true of all peoples in their homelands. And essentially, the earth is our body and we are the earth. The female carries an undeniable power. Indigenous consciousness aligns us with the stars. Observe with perspective and you will see. The moon is a relatively close perch. Do I think of all this when I write? No. I am a writer. I follow the path of the spirit of the poem, the story. And where does that path come from and where does it roam? And there is the tangle of female sexuality and how it exists with the male, within and without—and how language emerges from this. And that’s a book-length response.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. Or, From Sand Creek, by Simon Ortiz. But what leader of a government who knowingly imprisons writers will hear? Certainly they would know the power of writers, or they would not imprison. It would have to be a book that terrifies them, or reduces them to a tenderness they have never known. Aren’t we all trying to write that book?

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

Intent makes the difference. The intent of observation is to understand, to catch fresh understanding. The intent of surveillance is to observe with a criminal mind to discover criminal activity.