Melinda Palacio, Santa Barbara Poet Laureate. Blog 2. *This post was originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent
National Poetry Month May be over but Santa Barbara continues to bring the best of the laureates to our town. United States Poet Laureate Ada Limón closed out poetry month. Last Thursday, UCSB hosted Joy Harjo, 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. Joy Harjo was the perfect choice for Multicultural Center’s Resilient Love series. To read her poetry, songs, memoirs and plays is to understand how she navigates obstacles and rises above them.
If you are not familiar with our previous United States Poet Laureate, a good place to acquaint yourself with her twelve books of poetry is to start with Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light 50 Poems for 50 Years with a foreword by Sandra Cisneros, a rare insight into the friendship of two once-struggling poets turned literary giants. The notes section of the book is fascinating and tells the backstory and sometimes to whom the poem was written. The Life of Beauty, a New York Times assignment, is also on her music album, I Pray for My Enemies. I’ve spent the past couple of days listening to her songs on Apple music. Sandra Cisneros describes being startled when she first heard Joy Harjo’s singing voice:
“It was a voice as soft as the wings of sparrows, as sweet and transparent as rain, so unlike her deeper speaking voice, a wonder to me. Where had she hidden that voice all those years? More important, why?”
I spent the day with Joy Harjo, first at a lunch with students at the multicultural center and later driving around town. The luncheon was a highlight for Joy because the students shared their stories about who they are, who they aspire to be and how they came to appreciate stories and poetry. During the break before her reading, I took Joy and her husband, Owen, to the pier at Goleta Beach. We witnessed a rehabilitated pelican being released on the beach. There must have been at least 50 pelicans at a nearby sandbar. Joy mused about the stories the bird would share once it reached its squadron of pelicans.
At the I.V. Theatre, Joy began with a song on her flute to acknowledge those who keep the land.
So much of her work has to do with facing obstacles and poems as tools for healing and transformation. She conveyed how poetry can allow you to speak the unspeakable. There’s so much to unpack in her words, a lifetime of books and music. She also revealed her latest picture book, Remember. Judging by the profound questions from the audience, many appreciated how she’s never shied away from the difficult work that is writing.
For Joy Harjo writing is about going into that troubling space and listening. “Poetry can give the mind something constructive to do in the face of grief or obstacles,” she said. Joy spoke about the hard work that must be done before writing: listening. Acknowledging and listening may be painful tools but ‘once you acknowledge the monster’s story, you can choose to release it,’ she said. She read from her poem, I Give You Back, which begins: ‘I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear.’ For Joy, the power of poetry is walking a little lighter, having released burdens.
There’s so much more to find out about the new direction Joy Harjo’s work will take. I asked about her role as the Artist-in-Residence at the Bob Dylan Center. She is the first to take on this position and said she was making it up as she goes. As a fan of Bob Dylan’s music, I hope I get to see some of her projects there.
Upcoming Poetry Events:
Next week, for First Thursday, June 1, I will be introducing our State Poet Laureate, Lee Herrick. We will also be joined by our Youth Poet Laureate Madeline C. Miller at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Paseo Nuevo at 6pm. We will also have music at this event.
First Thursday Laureates at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Paseo Nuevo, June 1 at 6pm.