The poet’s voice

Author: By Kathryn Lawler ’96

When Joy Harjo was named United States poet laureate in June, the news stirred fond memories. I met Harjo when she appeared at Notre Dame’s 1994 Sophomore Literary Festival.

Before I ever visited campus, I knew about the SLF tradition — students inviting authors to campus for a weeklong celebration of literature, poetry and the craft of writing. I had been babysitting the children of a Notre Dame graduate since middle school, and his stories of the festival stood out — above even football and dorm life.

I served as chair of the 1994 festival and, along with at least 20 other sophomores, worked for a year to prepare. Our committee had to track down authors’ addresses (without the internet), write physical letters asking if they might be willing to come to South Bend in February and wait for correspondence or a phone call.

Often I returned from class to find my roommate concluding a conversation with Chaim Potok or handing me a note to return a call from Nikki Giovanni. The result of this work was that in 1994, Harjo — a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and then a rising-star poet and musician — joined four other authors who had made their way through the cold and snow to South Bend.

Soon after Harjo arrived, an English professor hosted her and a group of students for dinner. A local Native American drumming group performed on the night of her reading at the library auditorium. She shared work from several of her collections, including In Mad Love and War, which had just received an American Book Award.

I had never heard anything like it. Growing up in a small Virginia town, I had never been to a poetry reading and had never met a Native American. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised this summer that Harjo is the first Native American to serve as poet laureate since the post was established under another name in 1937, although I couldn’t help but feel that way. Only now is our nation bestowing the honor on a person whose lineage on this land stretches back centuries beyond that of my own famine-fleeing Irish ancestors?

From her festival appearance, I remember Harjo’s powerful voice, her ability to convey emotion and ideas through words and silence. She boldly shared her experiences and those of her ancestors through poetry and song — and her work has remained an important part of my life.

I returned to her words when my children were learning Native American history from textbooks still littered with stereotypes. When my work studying large-scale community change afforded me the opportunity to learn how Canadians have confronted their treatment of First Nations through their national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I read Harjo on the flights to Vancouver.

Then my mother died from cancer at age 58. I shared “Perhaps the World Ends Here” as part of her eulogy. Harjo writes about a kitchen table around which the cycle of life revolves, with all its joy, sadness and ordinary moments suffused with the transcendent in the company of family members present and departed.

My mother had ruled the world from our kitchen table — settling disputes, reviewing homework, supervising projects, drilling flash cards, consoling breakups, making cookies, serving meals, blessing food with grace and praying again and again for an end to injustice and poverty. Harjo distilled that experience better than I could have. Her words honored my mother’s memory. The poem concludes:

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering

and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are

laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

I stepped down from the podium to the embrace of my Notre Dame roommates who had flown across the country to share in my grief. These were the same women who celebrated with me in 1994 when the SLF ended, Harjo and the other authors had returned home and, by most accounts, the week had been declared a success.

What a wonderful honor now to have Joy Harjo as our poet laureate. I hope this occasion will introduce many more readers to her work, just as the Sophomore Literary Festival once did for me.

Kathryn Lawler is executive director of the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement.