During a pandemic overlaid with protests over systemic racism, fear is something with which we’ve grown comfortable, like our masks and our distance. And perhaps our racism.
Joy Harjo, this nation’s National Poet Laureate, is acquainted with racism and fear, but she doesn’t accept them. The first Native American to hold the national position with the Library of Congress, Harjo has been writing poetry, playing music, dancing, and painting since she was in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma.
She visited HoCoPoLitSo in October 2005, playing her flute and reading poetry at the Howard County Conservancy, in a time that feels like another universe.
This May, Harjo got a call from Cheryl Strayed, who writes the Dear Sugar column in the New York Times. During the pandemic, Strayed added a podcast to her repertoire and named it Sugar Calling.
The two authors had a talk about writing during a pandemic. The conversation turned to the poem in this week’s Poetry Moment, “I Give You Back.
“This is one of the earliest poems I wrote,” Harjo told Strayed. “And I’ve begun to think that a lot of these poems have come to me because they’re coming through me. And then I have to do my part. I have to bring out my hammer and nails, and build a place for them to live. So this one came when I desperately needed it. It’s called “I Give You Back.” And it’s helpful, I think, during this time because it’s to get rid of fear. And we’re in a pandemic, something we’ve never been in before, in a time like the times we’re in now. And what does that mean? And what’s going to happen to us? So this poem is to get rid of fear. I think it comes out of the tribal tradition of writing poems to be useful to go out into the world—OK, poem you have work to do. And you have to go out and help people not be afraid.”
Harjo, whose name translates from the Muskogee (Creek) as “so brave, you’re crazy,” told me in an interview a decade ago that as she was coming of age, so was the Native rights movement. And while she tried to resist writing poetry, instead trying to concentrate on her visual art, music, and dancing, she found she had to write.
“The revolutionary times in Indian country demanded that my spirit learn to sing with words,” she told me. And while she still makes music and writes songs, poetry has become her medium.
I Give You Back” is one of those foundational poems that Harjo’s audiences ask for again, and again. Addressing fear as a foe, the poem has at its heart a line I return to, “I take myself back, fear.”
In the interview Harjo gave with poet Barbara Goldberg in 2005 for The Writing Life, Harjo explained that she still got letters about “I Give You Back.”
“The poem has served me well since the 1970s. I get a lot of letters and emails saying this poem saved their life,” Harjo explained.
She went on to say that she believes poems live beyond the page, that they have a purpose in the world, and that they create change.
“Poetry for me was soul talk, crafted soul talk,” Harjo said. “Words literally had power to change the weather, to make things happen. Poetry was a way to document the spirit of people.”
Giving fear back, rejecting racism, hoping for revision. Those are words to change the weather.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer