Harjo Moves Audience | Beaufort County Now | U.S. Poet Laureate impacts students, public while at ECU

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Lacey L. Gray.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo visits with students during a class prior to her public event at East Carolina University. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

    East Carolina University welcomed United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo with a full house on Wednesday in the Main Campus Student Center Black Box Theater. Harjo, the first Native American poet laureate, performed a couple of songs, read from her works, and participated in a short question-and-answer session.

    Harjo, who said she spoke at ECU approximately 27 years ago, thanked the audience for the opportunity to be back.

    "I'm still alive," she smiled and laughed with the audience.

    Beginning the event, Harjo performed an instrumental song that acknowledges the keepers and caretakers of the land, thanking them "for this gift of life." Through the remainder of the evening, Harjo sang and read about tricksters, dealing with war and personal hardship, coming together, having fun and remembering our roots. Most of her readings came from her book, "An American Sunrise."

    An audience member from Kansas City, attending their first event since arriving in Greenville two weeks earlier, said Harjo's performance and words really resonated and they hope to hear more.

    Dr. Kirstin L. Squint, Thomas Harriot College of Art and Sciences Whichard Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and Native American literature specialist in the Department of English, began planning Harjo's visit to campus in the spring of 2020.

    "It was an incredible honor for ECU to host Joy Harjo and for our university and local and regional communities to have the opportunity to experience her powerful writing in person," Squint said.

    Harjo's visit also served as the culmination of a six-week series of events funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Big Read - Greenville, awarded to Dr. Marianne Montgomery, associate professor and chair of the Department of English. More than 650 copies of Harjo's "An American Sunrise" were distributed free to the public.

    "I am delighted that so many members of the community were able to attend the reading and welcome Joy Harjo back to ECU 27 years after her last reading," Montgomery said. "Joy shared her experiences as a Native poet and showed the power of poetry, stories and music to connect us to each other."

    In addition to her public event, Harjo met with ECU students and creative writing faculty during a class and luncheon on March 29.

    "It was such an honor to spend time with Joy, share a meal with her, and listen to her stories and wisdom. What she shared regarding being an artist and a writer of difference, standing up for the Indigenous community and advocating for herself and others like her was especially impactful to me," said Ashten Shope, a graduate student in English with an emphasis in creative writing. "She advised us to stay true to our voice, even when the establishment tries to snuff it out - 'Don't ever give up.' It was such timely advice."

    Squint said, "I am so thankful that ECU students were able to engage with such a thoughtful and important figure in American literature in both the class she visited and the luncheon she attended. It is an experience that many of them will never forget."

    Born in Tulsa, Okla., Harjo is an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She is the author of nine books of poetry, several plays and children's books, and two memoirs - "Crazy Brave" and "Poet Warrior" - which invite readers to experience the heartaches, losses and humble realizations of her "poet-warrior" road. In 2019, Harjo was appointed the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold the position and only the second person to serve three terms in the role.
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