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Joy Harjo wins Yale’s 2023 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry

Joy Harjo in Park City, Utah, in 2005.
Carlo Allegri
Joy Harjo in Park City, Utah, in 2005.

Yale University has announced that Joy Harjo is the winner of the 2023 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. The biennial prize is awarded to an American poet for the best book of poems published in the previous two years, or for lifetime achievement in poetry.

Harjo won on both counts — for her book Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: 50 Poems for 50 Years, and for her lifetime achievement in and contributions to American poetry. This after being U.S. poet laureate between 2019 and 2022.

As a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Harjo was the first Native American to be named a U.S. poet laureate, in 2019. In an interview with the PBS Newshour that year, Harjo said her interests in Native American rights, music and especially history all inform her poetry.

“You can time travel in a poem,” said Harjo. “You can get to know people in a poem, and poetry is the place you can come to when you have no words.”

Harjo grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the age of 16, she enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was primarily interested in painting. Later, as a student at the University of New Mexico, she became involved in the civil rights movement for Native Americans and discovered poetry.

“Poetry came along at that time and basically put a pen in my hand, and it had a lot to do with investigating history and finding a voice when I felt that I had no voice,” Harjo said.

Harjo is also an accomplished jazz musician and playwright. Harjo is the 53rd Bollingen winner, joining such noted poets as Robert Frost, W.H. Auden and Hartford resident Wallace Stevens in the honor. The prize comes with a cash award of $175,000.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.