On the River with Joy Harjo, Our New U.S. Poet Laureate
Six years ago, 18 of us gathered on the Colorado River with Joy Harjo. We laughed. We bathed. We danced. We wrote in our journals. We asked, "How do we know when a story ends?"
In "Eagle Poem," Joy writes about eagles that soar over rivers, sweeping our hearts clean with sacred wings. She writes about the eagles that "round out the morning" in each of us.
On Day 3, we watched an early morning wake of turkey vultures perched atop old creosote poles ten feet in the air, their wings spread wide. Each, in identical fashion, faced east as if in prayer. A wildlife biologist would tell you that they were actually drying the damp morning dew from their sleek black feathers, but sometimes the truth reaches farther than we can see.
After the vultures, we climbed out of our rafts and walked to a massive red rock grotto, where we sat encased in silence within the curved walls. The clear notes of Joy's flute broke the silence, rising from the floor of the grotto more than a hundred feet up, over the rim and into the wide expanse of sky above us. A black raven answered and we listened for several minutes to a duet - Joy and her magical flute, the raven and her ancient song. As Joy's breath became the air in which the raven flew, the raven's wings became the resounding beat of all our hearts.
Our first night on the river, Joy talked about the story matrix and the idea that we are all living within a grand story. Later, we asked ourselves, “What is our relationship to the spin of the world?”
Eleven days ago, on a much grander scale, something else rather wonderful happened, and the literary world is spinning with the news. The Library of Congress announced that the next U.S. Poet Laureate would be a Native American woman, Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoki (Creek) Nation.
In "Eagle Poem," Joy also writes "That we must take the utmost care/And kindness in all things."
How do we do this?
On the river, when we asked each other how we, as writers, know when a story ends, we spoke about the sacred moment that opens, allowing the space for a story to be told. We talked about the moment when that space closes and encircles us. "It's like sitting in the beauty of that dark place, like being in God's eye. That's when you know."
But the story has not ended. We are only circling back to its beginning, which might be the path that will lead us to a more hopeful ending. Perhaps, in a hundred or a thousand years, we will better understand our relationship to the spin of the world.
Notes: Read more about Joy Harjo on her website. Read about Joy Harjo's appointment as first Native U.S. Poet Laureate on Huffington Post and watch video. Listen to Joy read "Eagle Poem."