Joy Harjo and Layli Long Soldier share loss and strength in poetry

A figure bends down amidst the rubble and lifts out a gently curved guitar. Somewhere nature is being lost in the wake of towering cities, and the birds carry tales of greed and collapse. Women change diapers and feed their children. Surrounded by the crumbling world, they begin to sing. The world as they’ve known it has ended, and yet there is movement, and growth, and the promise of new life.

In U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s poem, When the World as We Knew it Ended, there is irrevocable loss and disintegration. People are forced to part with the things they have known and loved—the many-colored horses, fishes, and sweet grasses. Yet Harjo carves out space in her work for the sacred, as a voice in her verses begins to sing “about the light flutter/ the kick beneath the skin of the earth/ we felt there, beneath us/ a warm animal/ a song being born between the legs of her;/ a poem.”

Harjo is an acclaimed poet, musician, and vocalist; the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation; and one of the writers who recently shared her work in the Poetry at Bennington series — a program that has brought more than 50 renowned poets to campus from across the country in the last eight years.

Joy Harjo, 23rd United States Poet Laureate, will read her work virtually at Bennington College. Press photo courtesy of the artist
Photo by Paul Abdoo

Joy Harjo, 23rd United States Poet Laureate, reads her work virtually this fall at Bennington College. Press photo courtesy of the artist

Bennington College is deeply invested in their poetry program, which brings students and contemporary poets together through live readings, question and answer sessions, master classes, and even one-on-one conferences on students’ work. The Director of Poetry at Bennington, Professor Michael Dumanis, reaches for a wide range of cultural backgrounds, voices and geographic diversity when he invites poets to come to campus. The program has welcomed writers from across the country, he says, including Poet Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and National Book Award winners as well as young, emerging poets.

Harjo, who read at the college on September 23, has long earned acclaim as an impactful figure in the world of contemporary poetry. Her poetry often fuses art and prayer, evoking a sense of the sacred and the spiritual.

“You will see red cliffs,” she writes in A Map to the Next World. “They are the heart, contain the ladder./A white deer will greet you when the last human climbs from the destruction./ Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our tribal grounds./ We were never perfect.”

Dumanis finds her work remarkable in the ways she draws on Native storytelling and oral traditions, as well as American storytelling and narrative poetry traditions. She is known for the spirituality she weaves into her work, and the way she writes about trauma and remembrance.

“[She’s] been a cultural figure in the United States for nearly 50 years,” he says.

‘Every poem is an effort at ceremony.’ — Joy Harjo

“Harjo’s poems explore personal and public memory, and are steeped in spirit, indigeneity, and careful, meditative joy,” says Luciana Arbus-Scandiffio, a recent Bennington alumn and an aspiring poet who welcomed the chance to hear Harjo read her own work aloud. “I love her attention to autobiography, to cultural inheritance, and ancestry.”

She is especially moved by the spirituality embedded in Harjo’s writing, and Dumanis recalls Harjo speaking powerfully about poetry and spirituality in the Q&A session after her reading. Her candor and intimate directness moved him.

“Every poem is an effort at ceremony,” she said; Arbus-Scandiffio remembers, and she agrees.

“Poems can make space for ritual, for the sacred,” she reflects. “Poems can hold so much. [Harjo] spoke of artists as truth tellers and as witnesses, and of the poet’s duty to see.”

She points to Harjo’s piece, Eagle Poem, as one of her favorites.

In Eagle Poem, Harjo describes the cyclical nature of life and death like an eagle’s circles against the sky. By exploring prayer as an act of pause, renewal, and opening, her final lines enact a meditative simplicity, as if providing the reader with a mantra: “like eagle rounding out the morning/ Inside us. /We pray that it will be done/ In beauty. / In beauty.

As Harjo’s writing moves her listeners, she is also known for her strong presence and performance, moving beyond the words on the page. She is interested in oral traditions and often weaves song, chant or music into her performances.

Dumanis feels that the unique experience of hearing a poet read their work brings the poetry to life in new ways.

“Poetry is a kind of music, and poetry is an art of language, first and foremost,” he says. He feels that there’s something unique about the shared experience of recitation—that it is inspiring and hopeful to hear someone affect many people through the power of their voice.

This fall, Poetry at Bennington has hosted readings with five widely recognized and respected poets—Shane McCrae, Kiki Petrosino, Joy Harjo, Timothy Donnelly, and Dorothea Lasky— leading to the final reading on October 7 with National Book Award finalist Layli Long Soldier.

I have learned to exist and exist without your formality, saltshakers, plates, cloth. … Whereas let us bow our heads in prayer now, just enough to eat.’ — Layli Long Soldier

Long Soldier is an acclaimed, emerging poet whose first poetry collection, Whereas, published in 2017, won the National Book Critic Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The collection has received extensive recognition with the poetry community, Dumanis says, for its innovative use of form and language.

For him, Whereas redefines what a poem is. When he began reading the collection, he says, he felt that he had never read a book quite like it, and he thought, “I needed to leave my assumptions behind. I need to start over, and I need to consider how she is making the choices she is making on the page.”

She writes: “I have learned to exist and exist without your formality, saltshakers, plates, cloth. Without the slightest conjunctions to connect me. Without an exchange of questions, without the courtesy of answers. This has become mine, this unholding. Whereas, with or without the setup, I can see the dish being served. Whereas let us bow our heads in prayer now, just enough to eat;”

Her lines move with dexterity and experiment, Arbus-Scandiffio said: “She engages the visual culture of poems and their surfaces, making her words into shapes, inserting partitions and experimenting with both emptiness and density on the page.”

In her poem Obligations 2 her words appear on the page in a diamond shape, and each sentence seems to branch off into multiple versions of reality, inviting a reader to follow parallel lived experiences. Each path feels like a consequential choice, and yet all choices exist simultaneously.

In her innovative language, Long Soldier takes on a wide range of themes as she engages with the cultural, philosophical, historical, and political consequences of language.

“Her poems enter critical and interrogative spaces,” Arbus-Scandiffio said, “questioning language and examining etymology, looking closely at the meanings of words themselves in order to reveal their legacies, and the roles they have played across time. She pays close attention to legal language, and to the jargon that has been used historically to displace Native Americans.”

Dumanis says he is particularly struck by the ways in which Long Soldier breaks down and reconceptualizes language, complicating and disrupting its structures, breaking her lines mid-word, combining discrete words into compound new ones, infusing the English text with words from Lakota, “collaging historical document and the bureaucratic vocabulary of treaty and legislation with personal lyric.”

In her title poem, Long Soldier explores the meaning of the word “whereas,” tying together the legal ramifications of treaties with the idea of connection or invitation. She writes, “WHEREAS the word whereas means it being the case that, or considering that, or while on the contrary; is a qualifying or introductory statement, a conjunction, a connector. Whereas sets the table. The cloth. The saltshakers and plates.”

By setting formal, bureaucratic language beside the daily things on the dinner table, and emptiness, and hunger, Long Soldier ties a history of national violence to the immediacy of individual, lived reality.

As innovative and bold as it is, Long Soldier’s poetry also has the simplicity of raw humanity at its core—a deeply personal pain and joy in presenting small moments of daily life. In Whereas, she speaks in the voice of a mother raising her daughter: “what did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces. Until a friend comforted, Don’t worry, you and your daughter will learn together.”

Long Soldier speaks to the contemporary political moment, Dumanis says. She brings her background as a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation to bear, exploring the United States’ history of violence, treaties, and injustices perpetrated against Native nations. In confronting culture they have had taken away — music and language, knowledge, deep roots and connections in family and place — she simultaneously dismantles and reshapes the English language.

“Long Soldier’s work pushes back against indigenous erasure,” Arbus-Scandiffio says, “asserting her voice, her history and her lyric power. Her poems resonate with me in how she constantly disorients the reader, challenging us to read closer and to attend to more.”

‘To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands. I watch her be in multiple musics …’ — Layli Long Soldier

Her poetry evokes political urgency as well as lyric and musicality, Dumanis says: “This poetry is at once deeply personal and rigorously philosophical and unabashedly political and dazzling in the multiple ways it plays with poetic structure and the possibilities of sentence-making, and the white space of the page.”

Today she stood sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight to share a song in Diné, her father’s language,” she writes, as a mother watching her daughter. “To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands. I watch her be in multiple musics.

Poetry can be many things. It is the beauty of words lovingly caressed, or anguish given form. It can be an exploration of trauma or a remembrance, a source of solace, reflection, or prayer. At Bennington it has become a source of community and a way to seek out connection in a strange, distanced world.

In a time when many people feel disconnected, Poetry at Bennington offers a new way of forging togetherness—one that is accessible to people all over the country, including alums like Arbus-Scandiffio who are able to continue attending now that the program has gone virtual.

“There’s a different kind of community that’s being created,” Dumanis says. “As we all log into our little boxes, there’s a sense of all of these people taking a pause in their day to listen to poetry together across space, across geographic space and making space and making time for this.”

It is a connection formed out of words, existing in the space between people who are often hundreds of miles away.

“What is poetry,” Dumanis reflects, “if not a communication between the interiority of one person and the interiority of another, across time and space.”

Harjo and Long Soldier’s poetry, like so many others, seeks out a space for community, and for connection, and for the sacred. Their words contain the trauma of destruction and the loss of culture, but also a striving towards beauty, survival, and hope.

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