Poet, Saxophonist, Visionary


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When poetry cannot adequately illustrate, music comes into play. Author, poet, and musician Joy Harjo expresses the aspects of her soul through these arts.

The Writers’ Workshop alumna ventures back to Iowa City as an Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor for a performance at 7 p.m. today in 1505 Seamans Center. The free event will be followed by a book signing.

Harjo’s performance will include several poems, a few songs, and a reading from Crazy Brave, a memoir that won the Creative Nonfiction PEN Literary award.

The saxophonist, who also writes music, gets inspiration from her poetry, and vice versa, saying writing brings her to a new and exciting territory within language.

“Poets are the soul singers; it is a language, a mathematic philosophy, a rhythm, a song, and a mysticism,” Harjo said. “It is the spirit of your art, and my spirit demands only the best. What art is, is taking care of the soul of the history and the people.”

The native of Tulsa, Okla., native is known through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because of her interest in Native American culture when she began writing poetry at age 23. Her interest was sparked when she was an art student of the University of New Mexico after becoming involved in the native-rights movement.

Currently, the saxophone player for her band, Poetic Justice, Harjo took up the instrument at age 40. Although her interest began when she was 14, she was told that girls couldn’t play the saxophone.

Harjo’s works, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and In Mad Love and War have received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award, an American Book Award, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. Some of her honors include the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The 62-year-old is working on a musical based on her tribal group’s contributions to the origin of jazz. The feature will involve blues, R&B, and jazz.

Paul Ingram, the book buyer for Prairie Lights, said Harjo’s visits to Iowa City create a large amount of buzz.

“She can write essentially anything and always brought a sense of ethnic diversity to the Workshop,” Ingram said. “When she comes to town, everybody shows up; she is an extraordinary cultural figure.”

Linda Bolton, a UI associate professor of English, says Harjo’s work to be visionary as she speaks compassionately on the ideals of justice.

“She is one of our lustrous, indigenous poets whose work speaks,” Bolton said. “She creates paths that lead toward a greater sense of justice in this culture.”

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