A Lesson in Resilience and the Teachings of Poetry
Spending Time with Joy Harjo, Plus Upcoming Poetry Events and a New Poem by Shelly Rosen
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, and then last Thursday, UCSB hosted Joy Harjo, 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. Harjo was the perfect choice for the 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 12 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.
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 Harjo, first at a lunch with students at the MultiCultural Center and later driving around town. The luncheon was a highlight for her 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 Harjo 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. Harjo mused about the stories the bird would share once it reached its squadron of pelicans.
At the I.V. Theatre, Harjo 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 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. Harjo 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 also read from her poem, I Give You Back, which begins: “I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear.” For Harjo, the power of poetry is walking a little lighter, having released burdens.
There’s so much more to find out about the new direction 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 Art upstairs in Paseo Nuevo at 6 p.m. We will also have music at this event.
This Saturday, May 27, The Mission Poetry Series features award-winning authors from Gunpowder Press. Catherine Esposito Prescott, whose collection Accidental Garden won Gunpowder Press’s 2022 Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, selected by Danusha Laméris and the co-winners of Gunpowder’s Alta California Chapbook Prize; and Gabriel Ibarra and Florencia Milito, both selected by Francisco Aragón. It takes place at 1 p.m. at Santa Barbara Central Library Faulkner Gallery.
I’ve enjoyed meeting readers at poetry events and through your submissions to the Poetry Connection. Keep sending your poems to firstname.lastname@example.org. This week’s poem comes from Shelly Rosen, a local actor who has lived in Santa Barbara since 1974. He holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from UCSB. The themes of his poem have haunted him for years. Thank you, Shelly, for submitting your poem.
by SHELLY ROSEN
Make parts around the globe
ship things just-in-time
to cut cost and boost share prices
The apparatus wending across the world
twists up to the heavens
Connections are complicated
convoluted and hard to discern
fragile and subject to failure
The mechanism balances on slippery cogs
Still everything is silk smooth
until the hungry dragons of war and pandemic
sever the veins and arteries
that nourish our collective corpus
Conduits clog factories close
Products are not produced or cannot be delivered
due to lack of workers to unload ships or drive trucks
After a long slumber, Inflation, the beast, awakens
In horror I scream in silence
Confetti laced with Chanel N5 Eau de Parfum billows from the sky
The sweet odor calms all alarm
but only hides the rot seeping
into the pores of our blue planet
Devised by clever devious minds
to spread confusion and delusion a web of deceit ensnares me
I believe oil company lies and illusions that we can recycle plastics
Swelling human populations and corporate greed
send waves of waste over the planet
I try to do my share to deal with the problem
With religious fervor I wash and dry yogurt containers
chili cans, plastic fruit holders and other items
Then learn the vast majority of recycled articles
ends up in landfills, poisons ground water or contaminates oceans and rivers
The mess is out of control
We need products designed to be recycled
Despite my attempts to be a responsible consumer
my efforts are for naught
The mess is beyond my control