Three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo performs with Larry Mitchell at the WYO Theater in Sheridan Feb. 25, 2023. Harjo first visited the area as an artist-in-residence at Ucross. (Daniel Kenah/WyoFile)

Joy Harjo writes about land and voices, life cycles and love, avarice and ancestors — poems stitched together with wisdom, wit and clear-sighted perception of human fault. 

The musician, painter, wordsmith and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation just wrapped her third term as the poet laureate of the United States. The first Native American to hold the post, she has authored books, taught widely and performed around the world. 

She visited Sheridan last week for a performance and free community workshop in collaboration with Ucross. Harjo first visited northern Wyoming 10 years ago to spend three weeks as a Sundance Institute artist-in-residence at Ucross’ ranch, and on this visit a decade later the organization feted her with an award for distinguished achievement in the arts. 

Harjo called Ucross a place “rich in spirit food.”

Joy Harjo’s hands rest on her saxophone at the WYO Theater in Sheridan, where she performed Feb. 25, 2023. The poet also plays flute and harmonica. (Daniel Kenah/WyoFile)

She never planned to be a poet, she told WyoFile backstage at the WYO Theater. She came to it through music, which she didn’t start playing until she was 40. 

“The poetry caught hold,” she said. “Poetry became the core.”

That core grew into a rich body of books, albums and diminutive works, like this one: 

This land is a poem

This land is a poem of ochre and burnt sand I could never write,
unless paper were the sacrament of sky, and ink the broken line of
wild horses staggering the horizon several miles away. Even then,
does anything written ever matter to the earth, wind, and sky?

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. Joy Harjo’s performance at the Wyo Theater had an elegance and persuasive power that held us entranced for an hour plus, but I’m disappointed that this article doesn’t mention the truly fluid performance of her guitarist–Larry Mitchell. I know people went to see and hear Joy Harjo’s work, but the effects of the performance would not have had the velvet beauty had Larry Mitchell not contributed his part in both his playing and his production backgrounds. A wonderful getaway from winter with two fine performers.