Last night, Joy Harjo was at Pacific Northwest College of Art, where I teach literature and composition. She was giving the 2014 Edelman Lecture, though she said she dislikes the idea of a “lecture” and, in fact, drifted in and out of “lecture” mode, mixing in storytelling, poetry, advice on making art, and an original song on her flute. Because that’s how Joy Harjo gives a “lecture.”
I was fortunate enough to have met Joy Harjo before, almost 20 years ago, when I was just a first (or was it second?) year student in college myself. She was at Schreiner College (now Schreiner University), and in addition to her lecture/reading/storytelling, she also met with students, went to lunch with faculty, and afterward, signed books. Hers was one of my first author events, ever, and I was already starstruck before I even met her, but then I got to join the crew who went to lunch with her (I was on an end and still too shy to try and join any conversation), and her personality was electric. Later, at the lecture, that aura and charisma got bigger, swelled and crackled to fill the auditorium where she spoke, and the force of her blew my hair back. She was a revelation to my young self. Afterward, though I was a broke college kid and had no idea what her work was like on the printed page, I lined up to buy one of her books (I picked up The Woman Who Fell From the Sky) and have her sign it. Back then, I had never had an author sign a book, so I had no idea what to expect; I assumed we would just file past, assembly-line style, and she would put her name in the book and maybe smile and nod and then I’d be on my way. Instead, she looked into the face of each person she met, said their name like she’d known them all along, and thanked each person. Individually. A different conversation every time. I told her how much I loved her lecture at my college, and she thanked me. Asked if I wrote poetry. I told her I dabbled. (I still only dabble — I am no poet.) In my book, she not only signed it, she also drew a cascade of stars and added the message, “For Sam — for your journey, glad to meet you here.”
I was bowled over by the whole experience. I was never the same again.
I’ve met plenty of writers since then and I’ve become an author myself, so I know this is the drill. This is how book signings work. Especially when they follow a lecture at a small private college where the students are like a big messed-up family, the writer sitting in our living room and getting friendly with us as a matter of proximity as much as politeness. Still, Harjo has a kind of magic about her, and even if she hadn’t been my first signed book and my first big writer, she still would stand out in my memory. She would resonate the way her presence resonates, the way her voice can fill a room.
So it was a thrill not only to see her again all these years later, but also to be able to stand before my students, the way my own professor, Kathleen Hudson, had stood before me 20 years ago, and tell them how amazing was this woman visiting out campus, what a fantastic opportunity this was, how urgently I wanted them to attend the lecture.
I don’t know yet if any of my students took me up on my offer — the room was crowded and it was hard to see exactly who was there, other than “everyone” — but when I was sitting out there in the audience, I was transported back to my own college days. There’s an exhilaration in that, not in remembering my days as a student but in reconnecting with the idea of being a student. It invigorated my desire to connect with my own students, to invite them into the same kinds of mind-transforming experiences I had when I was a student. To pass along the awe and the energy, the inspiration, the yearning to better connect with this vast creative world out there.
(If any of my PNCA students are reading this, be ready to talk about this in class next week.)
It’s easy to kept swept up in a Joy Harjo appearance, so I didn’t take many notes, but there were several moments during the address in which she tossed out bits of advice on the artistic life, notes she’s been making toward a longer piece, and I managed to scribble down several of those inspirational one-liners:
On planning out her writing or her music:
One thing I’ve learned about art is that it’s usually way ahead of me.
I don’t usually know what I’m doing, and if I do, I know I’m going in the wrong direction.
On learning to write poetry:
The spirit of poetry came to me and said, “You need to learn how to listen. You need to learn grace. And you need to learn how to speak.”
On how to balance her art with her work as an activist:
My art is my activism.
On acknowledging the traditions and creative communities you come from:
Know your traditions, and practice your traditions. Also, know your language — and maybe learn another language.
Know that your visions do not belong to you.
On being part of a creative community and sharing what you’ve learned:
If you have knowledge, share it. Of course, it’s important that you share it with someone you know will take care of it.
I wasn’t the only one taking notes. There was also a press on hand, with a couple making one-the-fly broadsides of Harjo’s comments.
Afterward, Harjo sat in the back of the room and signed autographs, just as she had done when I was a college student.
To say that people lined up to meet her is an understatement. The whole bloody room crowded up to the table.
It was an invigorating night, and a fascinating opportunity to relive one of the seminal moments of my own education. I hope my students, if they went, got as much out of last night as I did.