On February 20, 2021, the Los Angeles Review of Books presented the LARB/UCR Lifetime Achievement Award to three groundbreaking Poets Laureate of the United States. With their brilliant, humane, highly original verse, their lifelong public service, and their mentorship of younger writers, Rita Dove, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Joy Harjo have not only contributed to the cultural life of our nation but have helped to shape it. As the first Black, Latinx, and Native American poets to hold the title of Poet Laureate, Dove, Herrera, and Harjo have worked to bring the American literary establishment closer to its democratic ideals, ensuring that American writers of all backgrounds can aspire to greater heights of achievement, and that the nation’s unfolding song grows richer, truer, and more profound with each generation.
ALBERT LITEWKA: We want to welcome all those who have logged on to One Whole Voice, this wonderful celebration of poets and poetry. You’ll be hearing a lot more about the program in a few minutes. But first, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Albert Litewka, Chairman of the Board of the Los Angeles Review of Books. And I’d like to add a few things to the perspective for this afternoon. In addition to the wonderful event that we’re having, this afternoon also represents the kickoff of LARB’s 10th anniversary campaign. It’s true. We’ve actually been around now for 10 years. And this year, 2021, we’re going to be celebrating throughout the year, right through December, in a variety of ways. And first of all, we’ll be celebrating in our editorial functions, on our website and our print publications, our radio show, our publishing workshop, our events and in many other ways. We will also be running a fundraising campaign throughout the year and culminating at the end of the year. LARB is small and nonprofit, reader supported. And we need the continued help of our friends and readers to be able to do what we do. When LARB was an idea ten years ago, or eleven years ago, it had no support, no structure, it was an aspiration, set on and founded on a set of ideas. Years later, a friend of ours who is a very good writer, very witty person approached us and said, I’ve got to hand it to you guys. When I first heard Tom talking about the Los Angeles Review of Books, I thought to myself, it’s a great idea, but it will never happen. Well, it has happened. We call it a barn-raising in the beginning. We’ve had thousands of people pitch in; our volunteers, interns, paid part time employees, paid full time employees, writers, editors, and many, many others. And with everybody’s help and hard work, we’ve been able to reach this point. In the follow up to the event today, we’re going to be sending you a link to what we call praise for LARB, which is a collection of very illuminating and flattering statements that have been made about LARB by distinguished authors and publications and so forth. We have managed to become a respected and important voice and venue on the cultural landscape. We’re very proud of that. We’re very appreciative of everyone’s support on every level. And we hope that you’ll follow us throughout the year in all aspects of our celebration, which really has two parts. One is to celebrate what we’ve achieved in the 10 years, and the other is to set ourselves up for the next 10 years. Having said that, I’d like to introduce the person who’s going to take you through the program today. He is a very talented person who is the founding editor in chief, now publisher, of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He’s also an author of many very important nonfiction books, as well as of novels. He is also a distinguished professor and chair of the creative writing department at UC Riverside. It’s my pleasure to introduce my very close friend and colleague, Tom Lutz.
TOM LUTZ: Welcome everyone, to this really extraordinary event. I’m thrilled to be a small part of this celebration of poetry and literary community. Because the job of the poet laureate of the United States, a job that each of our honorees has held, is one of the most communal job a poet can have. And these three giants in our cultural life are not coincidentally, among the most communal of poets, writers who are dedicated not just to their art, but to their community, to their communities. And one side of this communitarian spirit is that they’re here with us tonight, after a beautiful event yesterday at UC Riverside, with many hundreds of people at our annual Writers Week. And although they’re here to be honored, yes, they are here to help LA Review of Books as well, so that we can in turn serve the community of readers. I want to quickly thank our sponsors, including our main partners in the event, which is UC Riverside, our gold sponsor, W.W. Norton, who also happens to be the publisher of some of our poets, and City Lights, also one of our publishers. A special thanks to the people who have made it possible for a number of young poets from the great literacy and literary organization, Get Lit, to join us tonight, Tim Disney, Miranda Heller, Rhonda Gomez, Kim Jonas, Laura Donnelly and LARB Board members Eileen Chang Yi, Chao Lin Thompson and John Leaner. And many thanks to event sponsors, Jenny Williams and John Hanahan, Ron Aureus, Kieran Setya. And to all of you guests who are here tonight, for your support and for being here for this wonderful occasion. And I hope we’ll hear from you young Get Lit poets during our question and answer period. Thanks to to Cal State LA, CSU Northridge and ES LA. Tonight, as I say we’re honoring Rita Dove, Juan Felipe Herrera and Joy Harjo with our sixth annual Lifetime Achievement Awards. And I’m very much looking forward to having us all in the same room for this hour. I wish it was an actual room. But I’m very happy to be in the same Zoom Room. These three writers really need no introduction. They’ve published some seventy books among them. They’ve won every prestigious prize, and been awarded every prestigious fellowship along the way, it would be to take too long to list them all. And you all have access to Wikipedia, published poetry and prose and been interviewed and profiled in hundreds of venues and they’ve all served, as I say, and Joy is still serving as Poet Laureate of the United States. In short, they’ve helped shape and reshape American poetry, American letters, and American culture. And I’ll return to some of this after the reading as we start the question and answer period. But first, as a special part of this evening, we asked a number of poets to say a few words about tonight’s honorees, and Irene will now play for us a short video of their tributes.
JAVIER ZAMORA: Hello. I’m Javier Zamora, I’m a Salvadoran poet and it’s an honor to be speaking here about Juan Felipe Herrera. And I’ll tell you a story about how I first came upon Juan Felipe’s work. And being the natural nerd that I was as an undergrad, I got my hands and the tape of the very first Flor y Canto video ever held at USC. And I believe Juan Felipe Herrera, was one of the poets there. And I was so happy as a brown poet, aspiring poet when I was nineteen, or twenty, to see his work, be part of history, even then, and how he has continued to lead Chicano letters, Latinx letter, whatever. He’s always been at the forefront. And I’m so glad that he’s getting honored. And I finally had the pleasure to meet him at Canto Mondo in 2014, I believe, and being in the same room, as Juan Felipe, is like, it’s like being in a constant party in the best way possible. He’s just filled with so much joy, and wisdom, that he radiates in person, but also on the page, and it has always drawn me to his work. And I just want everybody to read him and to honor him, and it makes me so happy that I can say that Juan Felipe has led the way for people like myself to hold the pen comfortably, and to begin to write myself into existence, because he has already done so. So I’m so happy for you. And congrats, Master.
DEAN RADER: Hello, my name is Dean Rader. And it is a great honor to say a few words about my friend, Joy Harjo, a fellow Oklahoman and the current Poet Laureate of the United States. As a fellow Oklahoman, Joy has been incredibly important to me, not just in terms of being a model for how someone from our state can make it big in the poetry world, but because she is a model for how one lives in this world with a devotion to the aesthetic experience. She is a great ambassador to poetry, yes, but I know of no greater ambassador of the imagination, through her music, her service as Poet Laureate, her very important editorial work, and her enduring poetry. There is no one living, who has invested more in what the imagination can do. And in fact, the last line of her fantastic poem, “a Post-colonial Tale” ends like this, “The imagination conversely, illumines us, speaks with us, sings with us, loves us.” At this moment in history, in particular, I know of nothing more reassuring than knowing that Joy Harjo’s imagination sings with us and loves us, and Joy. I want you to know how much your work has meant to me. I love you. We all love you.
SAFIYA SINCLAIR: Hi, I’m Safiya Sinclair and I’m lucky enough to call Rita Dove, my former teacher and mentor these last nine years. And not only is Rita, an amazing teacher and mentor, brilliant poet, musician, dancer, but she also possesses generosity and elegant grace that continues to teach me how to move through the world. And it’s this generosity and grace that I love most about her incredible poetry. Her poems have an unassumingly expansive nature and her voice sings with a full range of wisdom and lyricism. And she has this nimble way of inhabiting skin-close the private thoughts of, you know, people through history, whether it’s, you know, an 18th century black violinist or her own grandparents in the 20th century in Ohio, or, you know, Trujillo’s genocide of blacks in the Dominican Republic, Rita’s generosity and her way of seeing the world, all aspects of the world and the way that she shows us the private histories and really narrows into the personhood, an unseen spaces of these black people’s lives, and thoughts and she shows us how this too, is a song, is what I find most powerful about her work.
RIGOBERTO GONZAÁLEZ: Juan Felipe, Joy, Rita, it’s your friend, Rigoberto González here congratulating you on this honor. You have blessed the rest of us with your creative spirit. We have crossed paths a number of times, and each of those encounters has been a reminder of the important work that poets do off and on the page. Your activism and energy have led the way for the rest of us and have allowed many communities to experience pride at the recognition that someone out there who looks like us, who lives like us is doing exceptional things. May your light continue to guide us
TOM LUTZ: Wasn’t that beautiful? So one of the one of the strangest things about pandemic events like this is that in those places where normally the people that are all with us in this room are applauding, everything is silent. So what we’re going to try to do is unmute everybody now so that we can get a little applause for those tributes. And, and we’re hoping that this works. And so let’s thank our poets. So far, that’s just the three of us. Maybe, maybe it was just a four-person sharing section for everything. And what we’re going to do is ask you to read for us. And I thought that what we would do is go in the order in which we’re gonna do a little round robin, everybody’s gonna read a poem and then pass the mic as part. And, and we’ll go in the order in which you were installed as PLOUTSes. And so first up is going to be Rita.
RITA DOVE: First of all, I want to thank everyone at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the University of California, Riverside. And all of you at Get Lit, and all of you who have come to experience this today, it’s, it’s really a celebration of joy. And we need all the joy we can get in these times. And I thought that it is true that in a pandemic, in this virtual existence that we have is a bit odd. What one of the joys that I can take from things like this is to be able to actually go into someone else’s home for a moment and see what is around them. And so I thought I would invite you into my study. And this is a place where I most love to be when I’m working. And this first poem is going to talk about how that study actually arose. Because as you see behind me this thing that looks like a tree, it’s part of a bookshelf, it’s, it’s also a sculpture. Many years ago, our house burned down. And in the midst of these ashes, at a time when I thought that there was no way to think about poetry, my community and my neighbors got together. They sought to cheer us up, they took us dancing, and what better way to get to conquer ashes but to dance on them. And that began a whole series of new friendships in a ballroom dancing community, plus another artist came in and as we were building our house said, you need a tree growing out of those ashes and made the sculpture for me. So in honor of all of that love and hard work when we work together, I wanted to read a poem that came out of that experience of ballroom dancing. One of the things about ballroom dancing is that you don’t see many people like me on those floors. Wow. [Reads “Brown.”] And I think at that point, I’ll turn it over to you.
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: That’s, that’s right. Well, thank you so much Rita. I remember kind of a downtown ballroom dance experience in San Diego. But I don’t know what it was really, you know, was like, I don’t know, elementary school in Lancaster, uncle’s, my uncle and Abbott go to some little dance place downtown San Diego by Plaza Hotel. We’re in the Plaza Hotel. It was, it was interesting, you know, way back in time. I think it was the only time I saw my uncle at a dance. And I just got in there somehow, but it was like sixth grade, maybe, sixth grade. You know, you know, you know, what came up on the TV today again, was an image of, of, of migrants behind the fence. And you know, and, and a little squashed in fence enclosure. I don’t know, maybe around 200 migrants, migrantes. And I had seen that image already. You know, remember maybe what is that a year ago, two years ago, and I was kind of ready to move on to you know, just move on to something, you know, another kind of poetry because I’ve written about migrantes quite a bit. And then I saw the image today. Well, you know what, I must have been fantasizing because this is still happening. And it’s exactly the same. I was hoping it would be just a little bit different. [Reads “Interview with the Border Machine.”]
JOY HARJO: So thank you so much everyone for this event, for this honoring and all these memories, you know, through the years of the gathering places, and now even virtual will be part of the memory gathering places I really liked. It was the first young man who spoken the tributes brought up Flor y Canto. And when I was a student at the University of New Mexico, just starting to write poetry those were the gatherings that I took part in and heard all kinds of people. And so I was happy to hear that. I’m going to read an older poem, I was thinking of dancing and I love dancing too. I love that poem, Rita, and I know Rita is quite a dancer. This one is called Deer Dancer. It’s a story that happened in a bar in Milwaukee one night I was in the bar but not in when this story happened. I was told to me on one of those nights, like recently in the ice in the snow where nobody should have been out. But everyone was out anyway. [Reads “Deer Dancer.”]
TOM LUTZ: Let’s do our four person cheering section for your first round. Thank you, and I will say that people are cheering in the chat panel. If you call up your chat panel, you can see people doing their best to cheer us on as we as we move forward. Let’s go around and do that again.
RITA DOVE: Thank you both. It was really beautiful. I am thinking back to something that you said Juan about the fact that why are we doing this all over again, why does this happen again and again again. And I wanted to start this one off with maybe a little group of small lyrics because the first one is one of the first poems that I ever wrote published, I guess you could say, and it was, this was, you know, some 40 years ago, and yet it seems that we’re doing it again. And so, though I’ve not even read this poem for many, many years. I think it needs to be here. And then I’m going to go to poems that are in my next book so they’re, they’re not even out there yet. This poem is called “Teach Us to Number Our Days.” [Reads “Teach Us to Number Our Days” and “The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude.”]
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: You know, you mentioned the visibility. And that word sounds like a needle that has gone through all of us, in some ways. And I was looking at a Scholastic edition of awards for high schoolers for art awards. You’ve probably seen that one, right? Let’s see. I’m looking, here’s a part where the poet looks for the information, the National Catalog of the Scholastic Art and Writing awards, and I was checking that out. And I noticed that a twelfth grader Jonathan Maldonado had done some photographs. And they had, I think it had to do with, I am still here and he had a photograph of what appeared to be his father in the photo and who had been deported yet he was in the same space in different positions. And it was so moving. Remember, when Tom mentioned our traveling throughout the United States and being with community, in many communities, which is true. You know how we often meet people that tell us the poem all the time, everyone is in a way presenting a poem to us. And this is true for all of us. Everyone is presenting a poem to us, and whether we are aware of it is another thing. And that was in a classroom, a little poetry class in Jackson, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And one of the students read a poem, his poem, and he said that he still felt like half of him was still in that ranchito or in that pueblo, in that city in Mexico. So he wasn’t complete, he was still missing this other part of him, that was real for him, physically, in this other space. So this is titled “Todavía estoy aquí.” [Reads.]
JOY HARJO: Well, Dean Rader mentioned this poem, so I think I’ll read it, “A Postcolonial Tale.” It seems like we’ve been through several layers of post colonials. You know, like Rita was saying earlier, you know, there’s other incarnations, like things in life, you go through something you think, Okay, I have worked through that, or you know, for the country, you know, as a person, you know, what it was worth to you. Yeah. You know, I thought, you know, I thought our generation, you know, we had solved it and you know, here it is, again. [Reads “A Postcolonial Tale.”]
RITA DOVE: Those tributes were so moving. I agree with Joy and with Juan that they just, I think for me, they also gave me this hope because sometimes you feel like you’re singing into the wilderness and you hope that someone hears and then someone says, I am, I am here. And they answer and those tributes were very, very, very, I don’t know, nourishing and uplifting because of that I because Safiya, dear Safiya, my wonderful student. Every time I see her, my heart just kind of explodes out of my chest. And she mentioned this poem, and so I thought I should read it as well. It is an older poem. It is a poem called “Parsley” which deals with the massacre of Dominicans in the Independent Dominican Republic 1937. And it takes place in the Dominican Republic, it’s the massacre of the Haitians. I’m sorry, I misspoke. I’m so moved by all of this, and in communing with two of my wonderful fellow poets. This poem is in two parts. [Reads “Parsley.”]
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: There’s so much in your poem, and you made me think of a song that my mother would sing to cope better here and I hadn’t thought of that song until this very moment. But what a word, what a word. Yeah. So you remember, we all remember, that moment when the mother and the child were separated at that strange place called a border which seems to be everywhere, actually. It used to be a little line I used to cross with my uncle and my mom and my aunt Layla and he would say, and this was in a car, his Plymouth, and he would say, Juan, Juanito? Yeah. Can you put this little bottle of whiskey in your cowboy boots? Okay. That was way back in time, yeah. But this time around we all saw that image of footage for that live video remember where the little girl, little tiny girl is standing on the side of her mother and her mother is being interrogated by the Border Patrol and then gets taken away. I mean, that was just, we all felt it really, really deep. And then inside, the whatever it is called, you know this is no longer it can have a name because that name will never cover what the reality, the cage or that aluminum box or that chicken wire room. And the little girl is crying. And the border guard says, “Stop crying, don’t be crying.” And all the children were crying. Remember that? And the guard tells her, “Stop crying. Can’t you just enjoy the symphony?” So this is called “Border Fever, 105.7 Degrees.” [Reads.]
JOY HARJO: Thank you, for reminding us of this part of the story. This is called “No.” [Reads.]
TOM LUTZ: Let’s, let’s um, everybody can now unmute themselves as it turns out. So let’s have a round of applause for all of that wonderful poetry. Take a minute for everybody to get unmuted, but once they are, we’ll have a rousing round of applause. Thank you. Thank you all so much, I know Rita mentioned earlier that it was the one of the beauties of these zoom events is that we do kind of invite each other into each other’s homes. But I’m actually coming to you from my brother in law’s orthodontic office in Baltimore, which is why I have this background instead. And I’m here for family funeral. And so, Rita your poem about the relation of grief as a possibility of wisdom? It was not dark, it was hopeful. Juan Felipe, separation and still here. And Joy, this is the first world and the last. You poets are the legislators of my world. And I thank you, we all thank you. So let me start off the question and answer period with a kind of long and somewhat complicated question. Maybe, maybe not. It’s about the other work that you all do. Not the writing itself, not the poetry, poetry is obviously a communal activity. But from the 1930s to the ‘80s. There’s a position that was known as the Poetry Consultant of the Librarian of Congress, and it was held by William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Frost and other luminaries who are, by the way, 90% Anglo and 80 something percent male. And in 1985, the position was reconceived as a new kind of position, as a larger position, as the poet laureate of the United States. You’ve all also served on innumerable prize juries, as poet laureates of your states, as editors of major anthologies, as board members and directors of the AWP, the Academy of American Poets, the Culver Center of the Arts, of the For Girls Becoming nonprofit, as well as holding positions in other organizations in your various universities. And I’m sure that that’s far from including everything. And of course, Rita, you are the first African American PLOTUS, as well as the youngest ever in either role. Juan Felipe, you were the first Latinx PLOTUS, Joy, the first Native American PLOTUS. And I’m guessing this was in each case, a particular kind of responsibility. But in any case, I’d love to hear from you how you conceive of these extra poetic positions, what you consider to be the best use of such positions. What you hoped and thought the best possible outcome might be, and Juan Felipe since you kind of started this discussion a little bit with your poem about the young person who brought their poem to you, perhaps you can start us off?
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Well, you know, it was it was all walking into. It’s like, walking into Nordstrom’s for the first time. Yeah, it, it was all it was all just radically different. And even though we, we’ve been doing poetry, all our lives. Let’s ee, so what happened when I walked into the, to give an example, what happened to when I walked when I walked into the, to the laureate office to the literature and poetry center, what is it the second or fourth floor in the Library of Congress? Is that right? Is that the right building? The right floor? So when I, when I finally made it there, for the first time, and actually before that, in the hotel that the evening before, let me rewind a little bit, Rob Casper, the director of the program, he says, at the lobby of the, of the hotel that evening, I just had a ride at night, waiting for the next day. And he said, Juan Philippe, your life is going to change, don’t you know your life is gonna change. And I said to myself, well, you know, that’s a lot of change, man. It was gonna change a little bit, you know, but yes, a lot of changes, my whole life is gonna change, that’s a lot of change. That was my kind of inner reaction, you know, like, what do you mean, my whole life is gonna change? That was my reaction at the very first split second, you know, that I had to contend with my life changing. And I had never even imagined that. Fast forward, again, I’m in the Laureate’s office, on the second or fourth floor at the Library of Congress. And it must have been a few minutes or so. And in comes, a small group of librarians from the Hispanic division, and they’re really warm and, you know, great, beautiful, you know, people, and the head librarian, she, she comes up to me of the Hispanic division, she says, comes right up to me, like, like really slow, slow, slow, really close, close, close, close. And she says, we’ve been waiting for you, we’ve been waiting for you, we’ve been waiting for you. And that, that was the overall reality. And that was the feeling that there was this, this, our community, our communities, were waiting for us. And kind of a very deep way, or very expansive way, or a very personal way. And in many ways, so that was, that was the first major reality immediately. And I had to deal, I had to contend with that too. I go, you’ve been waiting for me. I think I know what you’re talking about. But that’s kind of big, okay. It’s kind of big. And so, I had to just go, you know, except that, that beautiful, finally seeing each other, finally, meeting each other, finally coming back to coming together for the first time. And that’s what it was. That’s what, it was time. It was that everywhere I went. It was everywhere I went there was really open home, family greeting and the doors just flung open. And that was the same, that was the same tone, the same open arms. And it was very beautiful. It was a very beautiful moment. And it’s from all people, from all people that was in the kind of, you know, I buy rings everywhere I go little, little artisan rings, and you know, since I’m from the 60s, so I buy a lot of things like that. So there I was at an artist collective in Milwaukee, next to the Oriental theater, imagine that title. And then there I was inside. And these two these young, these young guys in their early 20s. Hey, that’s what Juan Felipe. Are you Juan Felipe? Yeah. Hey, are you going to talk about climate change? We came all the way from Racine. We can’t wait to hear you. Are you going to talk about climate change? So there we go again, you know, these things that need to be talked about. And people feel that we talk about those things. They had been blocked out, banned, suppressed, buried, denied. And all of a sudden we’re here, I’m there. And they came all the way from Racine. They drove all the way from Racine to Milwaukee. And the first thing we say to each other. Yeah. Hey, we from Racine. Oh, well, green green. Oh, good. Hello. Are you going to read something about climate change? I’m okay. You know what, I’m gonna do it right now. You know, I’m going to write it right now, as we saw, and we’re going to see it when when it happens tonight. And that’s what I did. I wrote, I wrote a song. And we sang it that night. So that was really kind of like the, the depth of it, that my life was going to change. I go, you gotta be kidding. And then we’ve been waiting for you and I and those are the two ongoing spirals throughout two years to two and a half years of reflection and reality, giving and listening and expanding.
TOM LUTZ: Rita?
RITA DOVE: When I was named Poet Laureate, I still remember very clearly being totally knocked off. I just did not expect that coming. Because up to that point, most Poet Laureates had been considerably older and it was considered more of an honorific. I remember, though, that that it just…Well, let me back up a little bit and answer the first part of your question, Tom, which was, you know how I did other work. I never felt that the work that I’ve done in the community or anywhere else outside of writing poems, was any different than the work I do when I sit down to write a poem, it is part of my life, it is seamless. And the only difference is that you have to kind of make time for everything. But, but whether I, as I said, you know, whether we’re talking about climate change, or working against illiteracy or, or trying to piece together a kind of torn apart community, like what happened here in Charlottesville a few years ago. This is part of my work as a human being and I would feel lost, and, and fake, I guess without it. So when I was asked to be Poet Laureate, I remember I was in Chicago, I had just got through presciently enough, I guess, doing a reading with Gwendolyn Brooks. And I had seen her a few years before that when she was one of the consultants before they changed the title to Poet Laureate. I saw her in Washington working with young, elementary school kids, and ask them to come to the Library of Congress because she said they need to be able to walk in these halls, they need to know that they can enter here. And that still stuck with me. So when the call came, I knew I was going to do this. And no, no question. I also knew that I thought that it was going to change, I was going to, to do something and I wasn’t just going to sit here in the portrait office. Now when I went there, when I remember it, the office was under construction. So every time we had to get to the portrait office, within the very top of the dome of the, of the library of Congress, I had to go through about three different elevators and they were, you know, exposed, exposed wires everywhere. So I went through the construction I went up to padded elevators to enter into this incredible dream, I guess, you know, the dream of what, what could happen if a culture could blossom. And that that lift, you know, from the, from the underground, the nitty gritty of it all the way up into that, that pinnacle was always with me every time I entered that office, and then to cycle back down to show that kind of seamless, that circle of it all. I began to get letters. And those were the days when people got letters and email, but I got letters from total strangers, who simply because they had heard that there was this young black woman who was Poet Laureate thought that the doors had opened for them, but some don’t. And it wasn’t just African Americans, it was also just young, young people, it was girls, women, and lawyers, and all sorts of people. And the one thing that they had in common was that they wanted to share how a poem or poetry in general, helped them change their lives. And they did this with powerful apologies, like, I don’t understand poetry, or, you know, I really don’t know much, but then they would follow this with eloquent stuff. And I realized, you know, this, this country has made poetry into an elitist thing, as opposed to being the song of everyone. And there are all levels of songs and all different kinds of songs, but it’s what keeps us what buoys us above the morass of, of, of all the grief and all of the, the wars and contentions. And so that became part of my, my mission. And I guess, I could say that everything that I do is fueled by that, that feeling that, you know, we are all connected and that poetry, or any of the other arts, music, of course, in all the art, that, that this is a way for us to express this beyond, beyond language, in a way. I mean, in a way poetry is speaking beyond language we cannot write. And so that is part of what, what happened with me, I, because it was such a construction site, because everything was, no one knew exactly what to do. I at that point, I remember asking what my budget was, and they just looked at me. And I, and I tried to figure out what the hierarchy was, and I get another blank stare. So I thought, okay, then, if you can’t tell me, I’m going to ignore it. And I just went out, and figured they’d find money if they could. And, and one of the things, the education, on the opening of the doors happens both ways, because it’s not just saying that you are welcome in this world of poetry, and this, this library is yours, it is the, it is the chronicle of all the peoples of all of this country, but also to educate, or to open the doors of institutions to the world and say, see that world out there that you’re not looking at. So, you know, I would, I would bring poetry to unlikely places to the, you know, Naval Academy to Sesame Street. And you know, at the same time, bring jazz musicians into the library to play alongside poets, or the Korean, Indian children who came down to read their poems, but had conditions which I thought was only fair and they said, We want to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We want to bring our parents. I said, we’ll find it, we’ll find the money for it. And to have them enter into those halls. And so it’s an ongoing thing. I don’t have a platform I don’t have a particular program, but it’s, it’s seamless for me.
TOM LUTZ: Joy?
JOY HARJO: Yeah, it was not something I was expecting. But what was quite amazing is the door, the flood that happened with the appointment of an indigenous person to that position, because in this country, rarely do you have an indigenous person in any, any place representative or at the table anywhere. Anywhere. And part of that is because to recognize that native people are still alive and many Americans think that we’re not or we don’t exist if we’re not wearing our ceremonial outfits and it means that origin story of the country is deeply flawed. And so usually we exist at the edges of the imagination or in another time or around massacre or, you know, all these stereotypes that happen. So what was so amazing and quite beautiful is that native Indian country was celebrating. Everybody was celebrating, you know, anyways, it is it wasn’t just about me, it was about us. It’s like well, here we are. You know, we have a lot of poets, you know, there are many, many poets, I just, my second Norton Anthology will be out in May on native poetry. And each anthology could be three or four times as big. No, it’s, it’s, but that’s the position is about, it’s about us, you know, it’s about Native people, and then other people who write poetry that the you know, what you’re saying, it’s not necessarily academic, the poetry is something that’s much larger than, than a particular institution or place. It’s something that moves about, almost like the wind through all of us. And so, so I do believe that every position is a service position. You know, we’re, I feel like I’m in the service of poetry. It’s a calling, I’ve never thought of it as a career. If you do, you’re not going to get very far with it, generally. It’s about, it’s a calling because who would do this? I mean, who, nobody has any idea, you know, the poets, artists, you know, what it demands of you. It’s, it’s so demanding, and it’s so precise. And it will, and it does not lie, right, and you’re there at the truth of it all. And sometimes it can be difficult to deal with, and you can’t really explain it. But, you know, I just, you know, give up and say, you know, I’m in service to you, there was a period when I said no, I just want to have fun. You’ll have to read my new memoir, that will be out in September, to find out what happened. And I said no, because that’s what I learned, okay, this is a real thing. And and it’s, I don’t understand it. I don’t know why I became a poet. I love language, of course. But it kind of took over. And it’s like, it became my teacher, my most exact teacher, and most demanding teacher. It still is, you’re always learning. And, you know, and so to have this position, of course, it’s a big service, it’s what we’re here to take care of, you know, I feel like I’m doing what I’ve always done. But I’m here, you know, it’s here to serve poetry and what poetry brings to all of us, you know, in times, especially, well now here we are in a pandemic. You know, everybody, you know, where do you go? Where do, where does everybody go when there’s a birth? Where does everyone go when there’s a death, when there’s a question, and there’s, that there is no answer for where do we go at marriage? Where do we go when we fall in love? And where do we go when we fall out of love? It’s, it’s because poetry holds when can’t quit, can’t be held. Now, in the way I think about it, too, is that I mean, it’s that we, when we’re learning something, there’s this period of time, not like initiation, that you build up your skills, you learn you, you’re always in a period of study. But there’s a building up and then you establish, you establish, well, to keep that moving, the energy moving, because we are in kind of a, there’s a bio system that stays alive, because there’s movement, and sharing, you know, from building up, there’s this whole process. Well, the same thing happens with creative process. And the same thing happens with mentality or spirituality, it’s where all that same kind of process is at work. So it makes sense that you know, that you share, I know, when I was teaching at the, I went to Indian art school in high school and it was a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, and a Bureau being in a School for the Arts. And you put those things which don’t quite mesh. So there was a lot of, you know, things that happened at the border of that. But later I went but it saved my life, it saved a lot of our lives. Because we were around all Native students, and we could talk, and we had, we were making art and get students from all over and it was very exciting and deep and but later, I went back and taught there. And right after I left Iowa, I went, I got a job teaching and I loved it. But I would use this process when we’re here we’re learning something, or establishing something. We had a little magazine called Corn Soup, and then I took the students down to teach. I figure that’s how, that’s how I learned things actually, by teaching. You know, there’s something that I want to learn or study. You know, that’s what I would do when I was in the classroom is you know, okay, let’s, let’s do this. Like, I’m going to make an anthology of native poetry. Well, let’s do a class on it. You know, and have the students work. I have students who are assistant editors for the big Norton poetry Anthology, and all native poets who were editors. So anyway, I would take my students down, I’d load them all, well, they couldn’t fit in my truck. That’s another story. I used to load my students up in my little truck. And we would, I would take them all over. But we got a rental, the school trusted me to drive a van down, and my students taught. Because it’s part of that, that to keep the energy and to you know, we give back the ancestors have given to us. I feel like that the work I’m doing is the fruition of ancestors. I’m stepping into a role, it’s not, you know, it’s not really about me. It’s really about you know, there’s so many that have come before us. And we become the representative.
TOM LUTZ: It’s, it’s the it’s the question that you, that you asked so wonderfully in that, in that publisher. What, what are we doing in a place like this?
JOY HARJO: Yeah. Still asking that.
TOM LUTZ: We have, we have some questions. I know that Yoko would like to ask, ask a question. Irene, I’m, I’m afraid I don’t remember, is Yoko going to ask her question herself? Or am I gonna ask it for her? If we can have Yoko ask it herself. I think that’d be best.
YOKO: Oh, hello. Is it okay, if I ask a different question from the one that I put in the chat?
TOM LUTZ: Absolutely.
YOKO: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here. So, I think with everything that all three of you beautiful poets have brought up, I’m really thinking about history, in the sense of power for the people. And in protests, especially since this last summer. So I’m really reflecting on the Olympics of 1968 with john Carlos and Tommie Smith, I’m really thinking about Colin Kapernick. I’m thinking about Muhammad Ali. I’m thinking about Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, with their activism within the music industry. And I just wanted to ask, like, how do all three of you believe poetry will change in order to empower the working class, in order to empower trans people, in order to empower queer folk, brown, black, Asian folk? So like I’m really curious how you see, dissent within the corporate poetry industry happening in order to combat capitalism and colonialism.
RITA DOVE: You know, I would say that, first of all, to know the history of something is going to also empower you to know how to move forward. And to know that there have been as Joyce said, you know, this is the work of the ancestors, there have been people who have been fighting all along, and they have your back and if they are not alive anymore, they have your back spiritually. I know that in terms of the splits, let’s just talk about the poetry, corporate establishment, that those boundaries have been breaking down gradually over the last, I would say that since the 70s, something like that. And it began to happen when more and more, oddly enough, when more and more creative writing programs started out, because that gave more and more people access to publications or knowledge of how to do it. So you get more poets whose voices are being heard. And I can’t stress enough this idea of being heard, being heard, so that you have such, you have perhaps too many writing programs right now, but I don’t know I don’t believe there can be too much of anything that that that is of joy, and honesty work. And so you have so many more voices, which then exert pressure on the quote unquote elite groupings in poetry. I often felt that that, and I know that Joy felt this way, too. We were in school together at Iowa, and we were the only ones representing our particular culture, we felt isolated, we felt incredible pressure and lack of understanding on, on all sides. And it does my heart just so much good to see young people today who are the proliferation of voices, that variety of voices, voices which are sometimes singing together, and also debating, this is all part of the vibrancy we need. So to know that that history is there, to know that we’ve got your back. Fills me with hope. Anyway, hope it does with you.
JOY HARJO: Yeah, I was gonna say those people you were knowing have been my teachers, and, and I’ve had incredible, I had incredible teachers, you know, in, in, in my life, and, but sometimes, you know, and I’ve been part of native rights movements, in my poetry. I became a poet, I started writing poetry, because of that, you know, writing, started writing about what I was seeing going on around me. And but I, not all voices will be forceful at the forceful political front, there are many kinds of voices and sometimes to even take up a pin, or to be quiet, or to be quiet or present, to be present is the word I need in an atmosphere, say, like Iowa, like Rita and I were and Sandra Cisneros, that it, that breaks, it’s, you know, there, it’s, it’s kind of an intimate, and even quiet thing, but it broke open so much, it may change. And sometimes the fiercest change happens in intimate moments, you know, of someone standing up so that it’s, it’s something we all hold that power. You know, whether we use it, we write poems with it, or, you know, we say to notice somebody or we do not allow someone’s hateful attitude toward us to destroy us for a day or two, because they looked at us and then we go back into hating ourselves more, those moments make a huge, they make a huge, huge difference. And I honor you know, I honor those people who, you know, who stand up and put their lives on the line. And, you know, we’re all part of that. We’re all part of it.
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: That’s a big question. And yes, we are all part of it. That is right. You know, it’s, it’s something that we, on the road, we discover what’s going on, and what poetry is, and who we are, and what it’s all about. So that’s, that’s kind of one of the cores of, of the poetry road, it’s also the core of our lives. You know, who are we and what is this thing called reality? Or what is reality? And how do I contend with power? And how do I contend with history? And how do I contend with, with, with my communities? Or how, is that how I see things, my communities and their communities? Am I going to continue that dichotomy? Or am I going to, what’s my next step? So that is what we all do, and, which is great. And the concerns are real, you know, your concerns are real, power, corporate culture, corporate industry. The book has a product, the poet as a product, and the ladder of power in poetry, and prestige and letters. I remember being on the road and I was at a museum somewhere in the United States. I think it was a museum. And I was asked, you know, with kind of eyebrow went up in a really elegant manner when eyebrow went up in a very elegant manner. And the question was, can you name, this is the last time I’m going to tell this story, can you name a Victorian poet? I said, I can talk about Jose Montoya. And then I’ve been thinking of, I really want to get to kindness, I’m going all over the place right now, I really want to get to kindness. I was gonna step sideways right now and talk about what is it, Henry Louis Morgan, Tom is it Henry Louis Morgan, the father of anthropology, or the grandfather of anthropology, in his book, Ancient Society of 1877, he creates this grid of the savage, and then the bar, the bar in terms of progress, in terms of progress, human development, and there’s a savage at the bottom, then there’s the Barbarian that’s one level higher, and then there’s civilization. And so then I looked into that book. It’s called Ancient Society 1877. I said, Well, what’s, what’s, what is this? What’s, what’s the criteria there. And you know, what the criteria is, the literary product. So we have a society or a group that has literary products, then it, it ranks in this civilized sphere, if it doesn’t have literary quote, unquote, products, quote, unquote, then it’s, it could be in the Barbarian dimension, or in the savage dimension. So that’s what’s odd about the term literary product, and kind of gets really utilized at that moment. But you know, for me, I’ve gotten to the point of poetry as a as a bowl of kindness, a bowl of kindness. And then, and I think that’s perhaps the most, we’re going to talk about power, the most powerful force there is. We look at Martin Luther King, we look at Gandhi, we look as I said Chavez. And on and on, we don’t even have to look that way. But we can. So that’s, that’s where I am at. And it is also an offering. Poetry is also an offering, an offering of joy, and an offering of, of your voice, which is the same thing. And it can also be an enlightenment, something that’s revealing to you, where you, everything really kind of falls apart. And you see, for the first time what life is. So that’s, so that’s, that’s where I’m rolling, you know that that’s, that’s where I’m trading these days. So, so that’s so if you want to kind of contrast that or put that up within this industry of, of literary products or power. That would be interesting. But for me, it’s about kindness, it’s about compassion. And it’s about getting to the core of things. That which really unites us all, and beyond. And, other than that, the rest seems like furniture to me, you know, old furniture, but those are big levers, the levers of power, those are big, crushing levers. And we do have to talk about them and contend with them in terms of poetry, in terms of the larger questions, the larger questions for me, that exist. It’s quick, it’s kindness. Because otherwise, we’re at war. Otherwise, we’re at war. And war leads to war, violence, or, you know, battle, you know, hateful battle or angry battle. I’m working with it. So right now, for me, it’s offering a ball of kindness and compassion. And that’s it.
YOKO: Thank you for answering my question, it was a big one, and I’m thinking of so much, so thank you so much.
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: You’re welcome, you must be a poet.
TOM LUTZ: I can’t believe that we have gone an hour and forty minutes already, I feel like we’ve just gotten started. I’m so, I feel bereft already. We have to call it, come to a bit of an end. This is where if we were live, I would be handing you your awards. Yeah, there’s Juan Felipe’s. Yes, thank you for holding them up. This conversation is exactly why we wanted to give you, all three of you, the Lifetime Achievement Award from UCR and from LARB. This is the conversation I knew we would have, I didn’t know any of the details of it, but I knew the contours of it and the power of it and I thank you again, for being part of it and for accepting these awards. I know Albert wants to say something, to say thank you again.
ALBERT LITEWKA: Thank you, Tom. I need Irene or whoever is controlling, to put my video on. Oh here it is. Thank you so much, Tom, I was very moved by the poets, but also by your being moved by them. Thank you to Rita and to Joy and to Juan Felipe, and I think that this was such a wonderful afternoon and wish it could go on. Rather than go to too many thank yous, I just want to join Tom and Irene in thanking everyone who was involved in every way, but in particular Rita and Joy and Juan Felipe. And this is what LARB is all about, an afternoon like today, celebrating poetry and all these wonderful poets, and as Juan Felipe said, emphasizing compassion and kindness. So thank you very much everyone who was involved in any way for this wonderful afternoon.
TOM LUTZ: It was an absolute honor to be in your presence.
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Thank you, Tom. Thanks for everything.
RITA DOVE: I feel really uplifted. Thank you all. I can feel the love even in the virtual universe.
JOY HARJO: Thank you so much.
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Let’s form a club or something.
TOM LUTZ: Thank you to all of the attendees for coming, for supporting us and for being part of today, we really appreciate it all. And with that, for me and Rita good night, for everyone else good late afternoon.