Interview with Joy Harjo about Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

Elle Magnuson
July 20, 2017
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How did you come to the idea for your book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, that humans were made from a mistake—in that some have forgotten how to be human beings?

The “idea” for a book isn’t how they arrive. Books generally emerge from something forming, like clouds gathering for a storm or how a crowd gathers or a notion builds and carries through a community. An idea is not always a stable event. It might just be a seed. The title came later, and the title poem was one of the last to go in. “It’s a process,” has become a cliché, but, it is . . . a process. That riff in the collection: “Humans were created by mistake/someone laughed and we came crawling       out . . .” is a micro origin story, not the founding block of the collection.

Do you see your own conflicts, whether craft or personal, rise up in your work? 

All potent stories, poems, or perhaps any artifact or construction embodies challenge and conflict. We cannot see ourselves except for the other. Conflict makes the heft, the muscle in any construction. As to whether or not they are mine or personal brings up a larger concern. Poetry is nearly always viewed as personal or even autobiographical. Yes, the impulses and obsessions are personal, whether you are a scientist-researcher or a poet, but the scientist is viewed as objective. Conflicts are always a part of the human equation. There could be earthly creation without them. Humans are gifted with making conflict. Conflict might be the striking of the match for impulse. A large conflict is what to say and what not to say. What will fit in the line, the phrase, the rhythm, the arc? Some subjects are too personal, or even taboo, in my culture. We do not write about ceremony or sacred things. To put them into English would subvert them and could cause harm. I ran up against many conflicts while writing Crazy Brave, my memoir, which makes sense. There’s the craft of storytelling, which is up against the framework of family and history. How much do you tell? And how do you speak it? I did not want to cause more destruction. Laboring on the poetry road has taught me that words are powerful and are activating agents in sometimes potently subtle ways. As my stepsister said when she read the story, “It was much worse. You kept a rein on it.” I was guided by the alternating tensions in the story which made a kind of weave. I was weaving so many elements, including ethics and responsibility.

Your book is structured with title-less vignettes between the poems of the collection. Can you talk about what the writing process was like while you constructed these vignettes or how you decided their placement?

This format had its origins when I was figuring out the construction of my book The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. I was concerned with how to recreate the experience of orality on the page. Essentially all literature has roots in orality, but not all of it is driven to be spoken. Poetry is the quintessential oral art. I wanted to replicate my experience of live performance on the page. I wrote vignettes to go with the poems. They were not meant as explanations or explication, rather accompaniment, in the same manner as I perform poetry, in which I might tell a story, give a note, or play saxophone. When I had them in place and gave the manuscript to Brenda Peterson to arrange (she was my arranger on my first three full-length collections: She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War, and The Woman Who Fell From the Sky) the vignettes proceeded each poem. She recommended inserting them after each poem so the poems could exist first and they would not be read as explanations. I agreed. The next book of poetry was A Map to the Next World. I took the concept further. The vignettes became longer narratives. One poem, “Returning From the Enemy,” embodied the concept, and the final poem, “In the Perfume and Stink of the World,” further embodied the idea. With Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings I consider the vignettes as saxophone riffs and knocked them out after I had assembled the poems. They wind through the collection as a kind of call and response.

Much of Conflict Resolution centers around listening, and the understanding of poetry (and humanity in general) comes from listening. As you say we should thank our eyes for their bravery in seeing, how much bravery would you say comes with listening? 

Listening is the essential skill necessary for any knowledge and science or art. We go back to the kitchen table. Along with listening is acknowledging what you’re hearing and following through with the knowledge or instructions or insights given. To learn to listen is one of my life’s lessons. Pinocchio’s nose grew longer from lying. Lying was his downfall. Mine has to do with failing to listen carefully or once listening, not following through on what I hear. My poetry spirit has had quite a task with me. And writing poetry is one of the best ways to learn how to listen. Maybe that’s where bravery comes in, because hard truths are difficult to hear and to move forward or innovate in an art or a life requires a kind of bravery or fortitude. I am not the best at it: listening or being brave, but I continue to learn with each poem, song, or story that I write and listen to—

We always move with your poems—anticipating where we are going, remembering where we have been. There are moments your speaker says we will find our way, we will find our place in the world—how do you suppose we get there? Have you found your way?

Everyone is finding their way somehow or the other. We take detours, explore, give up, then take it up again. This process can happen within a second or take years. A single poem can embody this process, or a book of poems can do the same, even a life of poetry. What attracts me about poetry is that a poem makes a concise universe within which you can move, with time, timing, rhythm, with words and meaning.

Your speaker is always traveling, in that much of her landscape seems to wander across North America—how much writing do you do on the road? Do you find inspiration from new places, from traveling?

I travel frequently. As a child the only travel place was shopping for groceries up the road andwhen my dad was aroundto the lake or to the tribal capitol of Okmulgee. I used to (and still do) travel in dreams, in the experience of reading and the arts. My first flight was from Tulsa to Los Angeles. My dad worked for American Airlines and traveled as an employee. My first road trip was to Indian school, which was a drive from Tulsa across the Texas panhandle to Santa Fe. My first international journey was to Amsterdam in the Netherlands for the One World Poetry Festival. I haven’t stopped. Yes, I am inspired or I would not travel. I have learned to write on the road, to work. I am working on this interview in the Norfolk Airport in Virginia, heading to Chicago.

I love the line “Our earth is shifting. We can all see it” because one hundred years from now this will still be true—do you think we will ever find a steadiness, a constant in our society? 

Everything is always changing. If it becomes static, it no longer has life. There is a continuum that can be found in our arts, in poetry—a kind of vision that affirms that no matter what happens we will sing, speak, paint it. Our art is a kind of road or ladder to the next world. In our indigenous communities we know that the constant is the natural world, even as it changes. We find the truth there. Everyone descends from an indigenous community, that is, there were (could be “are” in some cases) indigenous communities in France, England, Italy. Our roots descend into a mythical timelessness.

How much has the role of your speaker changed throughout your work—from when you began writing poetry to now (a sort of prophetess)? 

My poetry is a particular voice. It does not exist always in the now. It roams time. It is sure. It has left me before. In early 2000, I had a hard time writing anything. I felt like my poetry voice had left me, and maybe it did for a while. Everyone needs a rest. I’ve changed more than my voice. I began writing during the typewriter and dial phone age. There was a different kind of experience with time and attention. We wrote letters. We spoke to each other. Now we are Internet, cell phone, and no one has time anymore. Attention is cut into small sections.

Some of the songs in Conflict Resolution, I noticed, haven’t been on any of your last CDs. Do you plan on laying down another album with the songs from this book? 

I am working on a new album now, or will be, once I am home from this next round of travel. “An American Sunrise” is my newest song. It isn’t on Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, rather, it is a new poem. Some of the songs will emerge from elsewhere, the tremendous elsewhere that defines our existence as poets, as humans.

Elle Magnuson is an MFA candidate at The University of New Orleans, concentrating in poetry. She is an emerging writer and musician.

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