Female poets are all the buzz now. Awarding-winning poet Joy Harjo (not to be confused with Amanda Gordon), member of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, is the first Native American to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate. She is also a musician who plays several woodwind instruments. On Pray For My Enemies, her first new recording in a decade, she shares languages of music to sing, speak, and play a stunningly original musical meditation that seeks healing for a troubled world. Collaborating with percussionist/composer/producer/engineer Barrett Martin (who we have covered several times on these pages) on this unique new album, Harjo brings a fresh identity to the poetry and songs that have made her a renowned poet of the Muscogee Creek Nation and one of the most authentic and compelling voices of these times. “The concept for I Pray for My Enemies began” says Harjo, “with an urgent need to deal with discord, opposition. It could have been on a tribal, national or a personal level. I no longer remember. The urgency had a heartbeat and in any gathering of two or more, perhaps the whole planet, our hearts lean to entrainment – that is, to beat together.”
Martin, founding father of the historic Seattle music scene, brings a new dimension to Harjo’s soulful musical sound which was already firmly established prior to this recording. See this video of her inaugural reading as U.S. Poet Laureate. Harjo and Martin describe it as “funkified spoken word” inspiring “elegant jazz, urban soul, and inner city, reservation grit.” Harjo sings and speaks her poetry, as well as playing saxophone and flute, on an album she describes as “very much of-the-moment.”
Martin plays multiple roles – playing drums, upright bass, keyboards and handling production duties. He assembled an all-star band to explore Harjo’s work, featuring Peter Buck (R.E.M.) on electric guitar and feedback; Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) on electric guitar solos; Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) on acoustic guitar; and Rich Robinson (Black Crowes) on electric guitar solos. Additional players include renowned Iraqi oud master Rahim Alhaj; trumpeter Dave Carter and percussionist/backing vocalist Lisette Garcia. Harjo’s stepdaughters sing harmony vocals, and her husband Owen Sapulpa plays surdo drum on the album.
The album opens, however, with a traditional Muscogee song “Allay Na Lee No” taught to her by her cousin and featuring McCready on the guitar solo amidst a dense backdrop of keys and percolating percussion that yields to spiritual chanting of Native voices in the outro. Some of Harjo’s defining poems appear here – “An American Sunrise (featuring Rich Robinson and some soulful Harjo sax in the outro),” “Fear (featuring Buck),” “Running,” and “Remember (featuring Buck and Alhaj)” – refracting her own experience as a Native American woman of her culturally defining generation. “Calling the Spirit Back (featuring Alhaj),” from an early collection of Harjo’s poems, three tracks in, is where the album really begins to take hold as Harjo says, “turn off that cell phone, computer, and remote control” One of the newest songs, “How Love Blows Through the Trees (featuring Novoselic and Carter)” was written when COVID-19 reached her home in Tulsa, OK. In fact, the onset of the pandemic infuses the thought and spirit behind many of these selections, as she comments on the title track – “Ultimately, we are one person, which is what Covid has taught us or is teaching ys. This earth is a person. Our difference give life, add story. We, in all our diversity, are one.” In this vein, “Once the World Was Perfect” is based on a version of a Muscogee Creek creation story, which describes a time similar to now. She says, “We lost our way in the dark, forgot who we were, then had to find our way again.”
”One Day There Will Be Horses” is one that she also rendered in the previously cited video. It is a song that appeared in one of her books as a song. She claims to distinguish between poetry and songs, saying that sometimes a poem can become a song. It’s a true story, another that features her alto sax along with strong contributions from Novselic and Carter. Other examples of songs and poems that feature her sax playing (you must love these titles) are ‘We Emerged from Night in Clothes of Sunrise” to the playful “Rabbit Invents the Saxophone.” “Stomp All Night” delivers all the primal energy the title suggests, inspired by Muscogee Creek social dances, and has her daughters on accompanying vocals.
This is an inspiring, amazing project and it would take three times the words already put down to fully describe it. Hence, you are encouraged to do your research on Harjo’s poems, songs, plays, and books. Here is some more information. In May, The Library of Congress will release Living Nations, Living Words: an Anthology of First Peoples Poetry: and in September a memoir Poet Warrior, A Call for Love and Justice, Oprah Winfrey recently picked her anthology of Native American poetry for her book club. Her many honors include the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation; the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award; PEN USA Literary Award and many others. Harjo is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is a Tulsa Artist Fellow. She has been a featured performer on stages around the world, including Def Poetry Jam, the Public Theater in NYC, and the International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia.