As the John C. Hodges Chair of Excellence in the UT Department of English, Professor Joy Harjo encouraged her students to pay attention to the details of life in order to speak and write with knowledge, compassion, and fluency. In her new role as poet laureate of the United States, Harjo, who officially retired from the university in July 2019, will help raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.
“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—soul talk, as she calls it—for more than four decades,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “To her, poems are carriers of dreams, knowledge, and wisdom, and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us re-imagine who we are.”
Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position. She succeeds Tracy K. Smith, who served two terms as laureate. Harjo currently lives in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is the nation’s first poet laureate from Oklahoma.
“What a tremendous honor it is to be named the US poet laureate,” Harjo said. “I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem. I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry.”
In 2016, Harjo brought her distinction as a major figure in contemporary American poetry, her expertise in Native American studies, and her background in creative nonfiction, drama, and music to the UT English department. During her time as a faculty member, Harjo won several awards for her poetry, including one of the most prestigious prizes in poetry—the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is bestowed on a living American poet for outstanding lifetime accomplishments.
“We are deeply indebted to her for her many contributions to our department,” said English Department Head Allen Dunn. “Joy’s poetry is about healing. As an outspoken advocate for the rights of women and native peoples, she reminds us of the values that should unite us as a community.”