In her poem “Everybody Has a Heartache: A Blues,” Joy Harjo — the recipient of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the prestigious award that honors a living U.S. poet for outstanding lifetime achievement — conjures a familiar scene at O’Hare airport. But she injects it with a subtle hint of the spiritual.

She begins this way: “In the United terminal in Chicago at five on a Friday afternoon/The sky is breaking with rain and wind and all the flights/Are delayed forever. We will never get to where we are going/And there’s no way back to where we’ve been./The sun and the moon have disappeared to an island far from 
anywhere./Everybody has a heartache —. ”

Harjo then goes on to capture more details of life as travelers wait at their gates, from “The man with his head bobbing to music no one else can hear,” to the “Baby girl dressed to impress, [who] toddles about with lace on this and ruffle on that — Her mother’s relatives are a few hundred miles away poised to 
welcome. They might as well live on a planet of ice cream.”

The Lilly Award, to be presented Monday at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, is given annually to a living American poet “whose lifetime accomplishments warrant singular recognition.” Established in 1986 and administered by the Poetry Foundation, the award is not only prestigious, but comes with a $100,000 honorarium, making it one of the nation’s largest literary prizes.

“I’m really not sure how the prize works, but it’s not something you can apply for,” said Harjo, who also is a noted teacher (she joined the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013, and in 2016 was appointed to the Chair of Excellence in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville), as well as a saxophonist and vocalist. “All I know is that one day I got an email saying the president of the Foundation wanted to speak with me. And I was happy that it was in Chicago, because it’s an incredible city and I write some of my best poems there.”

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo, 66, is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation (she uses the term “Indian” rather than “Native American,” but says her preference is to name the specific tribe). She attended an Indian boarding school (part of a controversial system designed to educate and assimilate Native American youths according to Euro-American standards) and went on to earn degrees from the University of New Mexico and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But the true source of her poetry runs far deeper than academia.

“I came to poetry by way of my mother [of mixed-race Cherokee, French and Irish ancestry], who wrote song lyrics on an Underwood typewriter, sent them out to contests advertised in magazines, and was heartbroken when nothing came of it,” Harjo recalled. “She was ashamed that she only had an eighth-grade education, but she loved poetry, especially William Blake. I even have a recording of her singing one of her songs and have put it into one of my own songs.”

The product of a troubled family, Harjo’s stepfather forbade her from singing at home. But at school she played clarinet in the band (“I wanted to play saxophone, but my teacher said it was not an instrument for girls”). Later she began drawing, but wound up doing theater because, as she laughingly says, “I was told I had a voice that carried. And since then, how much any voice, or generation or country, can carry has become something very much in my consciousness.”

Harjo’s connection to her history reveals itself in the way she draws on Native American storytelling, histories and indigenous myths in her poems, and this is combined with her devotion to feminist and social justice poetic traditions. You can hear it in her “Eagle Poem” which begins:To pray you open your whole self/To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon/To one whole voice that is you./And know there is more/That you can’t see, can’t hear;/Can’t know except in moments/Steadily growing, and in languages/That aren’t always sound but other/Circles of motion.”

The courtyard of the Poetry Foundation at 61 W. Superior. (Photo: Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)

“I think what many people fail to understand is that indigenous cultures have influenced all elements of American literature and music, and that this has been woven in from the beginning,” said Harjo, who learned Navajo and proudly notes that six of her seven grandchildren are half Navajo. “Just follow the path of the forced Indian removal: the ‘Trail of Tears’ of the early 19th century under which the government forcibly removed tribes from their ancestral homelands in the eastern United States to lands west of the Mississippi territory.”

Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, has noted: “Harjo’s work pushes vigorously back against forgetfulness, injustice and negligence at every level of contemporary life. Her work moves us because it is in the continual motion of bringing forward, with grace but also acuity, our collective story, always in progress.”

Among Harjo’s recent publications are the young adult book “For a Girl Becoming” (2009), the prose and essay collection “Soul Talk, Song Language” (2011), the memoir “Crazy Brave” (2012) and the poetry collection “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” (2015).

For many years she performed with her band, Poetic Justice, and currently tours with Arrow Dynamics. She has released four albums of original music, including Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears” (2010), and won a Native American Music Award for best female artist of the year in 2009. In addition, she has been performing her one-woman show “Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light” since 2009, and is currently at work on a musical play, “We Were There When Jazz Was Invented,” which suggests how “Southeast Native peoples were part of the jazz story in Kansas City and beyond — something usually left out in the histories.”
As for how she will use her award, Harjo said: “It takes a while for something like this to set in. It’s such an honor, and I see it as the opening of a door for indigenous and women poets to be heard. I do know that I want to find a way to support young poets in some way.”
Extensive examples of Harjo’s poetry can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s website. Visit www.poetryfoundation.org.