Former U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo is a performer and writer of the Mvskoke Nation. Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry, several plays, children’s books, and two memoirs; she has also produced seven award-winning music albums and edited several anthologies. Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade is the illustrator of a number of acclaimed books, including We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and I Sang You Down from the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner. Her latest title, Berry Song, marks her author-illustrator debut. She is a member of the Tlingit Nation. We asked Harjo and Goade to discuss their collaboration on Remember, a picture book adaptation of Harjo’s poem of the same name, which invites young readers to pause and reflect on the wonder of the world around them, and to recall the importance of their place in it.
Michaela Goade: Hi, Joy! I’m so excited to talk to you about Remember. It’s been a true honor to work on this project, and I have so much gratitude to you and Random House for bringing me on board. When I first read the manuscript, I was captivated by your words. They felt so powerful, simple, and timely. But your poem “Remember” has already had quite a life! Can you talk a bit about its background—where and when it came from, and what its journey has looked like until now?
Joy Harjo: That poem was written not long after I started writing poetry, when I was a student at the University of New Mexico in the early 1970s. I was a studio art major and never had any notion that I would wind up writing poetry or being a poet. Around that time, I met several Native poets with whom I became close, including Leslie Marmon Silko, who was primarily a novelist. My poetry emerged from working for Native rights as part of the UNM Native student club, the Kiva Club. Writing poetry surprised me. It was like painting on paper with words. The poem “Remember” came near the end of my time at UNM, when I had changed my major to creative writing. I was asked what I would tell a younger Native poet. In my experience, in any of the creative arts, we are working directly with a larger, wiser field of meaning. This field crosses time and place. The poem came from here. It was something I needed to know as I moved forward.
What about you, Michaela? How did you get your start?
Goade: Well, similar to you, I never could have predicted this particular creative path, although I always loved art, reading, writing, music, and almost always had my head in the clouds! I knew I wanted a creative career but had zero idea what that actually meant. In college, I ended up in the arts school specializing in graphic design and worked for a couple years as a designer and art director at an agency in northern Alaska. In time, two things became very clear to me: I needed more creative, soul-nourishing fulfillment, and I needed to move home to Southeast Alaska. Enter picture books!
I got started with picture books after Sealaska Heritage Institute, a local cultural Tribal organization, put out a call for Tribal member artists to collaborate on their Baby Raven Reads picture book series. The grant-funded series of books aimed to tell Native stories by Native people for Native people. I worked with them on four books in 2017 and 2018. It was a total crash course in picture book illustration! Those projects were a safe place to study the craft while working on meaningful and beautiful stories set in the lands that inspire me every day.
And as you know, these lands are where I set the visual narrative of Remember. When it comes to the authors I work with, I’m always so curious (and nervous!) about what they’ll think when they see my first round of sketches. Joy, what was running through your head when you looked through that first dummy? Were you nervous about inviting someone else into this work and world of yours?
Harjo: Your dummy art was so amazing, it appeared practically finished to me! The concepts in the poems were so imaginatively realized, and you told a coherent visual story from beginning to end. I remember when we started collaborating that you said you could study Mvskoke motifs and design, or would I mind if you went with your own Tlingit cultural sensibility. I felt it was important for you to feel unfettered. I am somewhat familiar with your culture. One of my friends, an elder poet and culture bearer whom I greatly admired, Nora Dauenhauer, was Tlingit. I met her in the early 1980s, when an Alaska Native arts organization sent us on tour all over Alaska to perform together. I consider the book and our collaboration a gift for the generations coming up. I also like to think of it as a tribute to Nora and the many elder mentors who taught me, who looked after me.
And yes, a collaboration demands care in choice. I had seen your art in We Are Water Protectors. And with Remember, there is no doubt that I made the right choice of artist!
I am trying to imagine where you work. What do you see when you look out the window? I know you live in Sitka, a place where humans know how they fit into the natural world, because the water and earth presence is immense. Here I look out to the Arkansas River, which is fairly dry right now. Still we see cranes, bald eagles, and many other birds and animals. I can almost remember writing the poem “Remember” in my student apartment in Albuquerque at the kitchen table, with children playing around me.
Goade: That sounds so special. I love how the books I’ve worked on become time capsules for a certain period of my life, and it sounds like you can relate. And the Arkansas area sounds beautiful. My physical location while I work on a book is important to me and always finds its way into the art. When I was working on Remember, my studio was on the Sheldon Jackson College campus here in Sitka, nestled in the trees along the coast. Frequent visitors included eagles, ravens, deer, and bears. Although the campus now houses a youth fine-arts camp every summer (which I attended in high school!), it is the original site of Sheldon Jackson School, a residential boarding school that my grandmother attended as a child. While I worked on Remember in that space, I couldn’t help but feel a full-circle significance at play. Although the book speaks to all children and all readers, it also aims to empower Native children in exploring who and where they come from. These ideas are, importantly, the antithesis of what schools like Sheldon Jackson represented and practiced, so it felt uniquely meaningful to work on this project in that setting.
Joy, with past and present in hand, what are your dreams for this book? You didn’t write “Remember” specifically for children, yet I feel it speaks to them so powerfully and directly. What are you hoping children feel, hear, experience as they interact with this book?
Harjo: The poem appears to have its own life, as if it came through me to be shared farther and beyond anyplace imaginable. I mean, it’s on the Lucy spacecraft to Jupiter’s moons, and now it is rendered beautifully by your inspired art, carried by the wings of the book Remember. I want children to know they are part of a dynamic world that includes them as part of a story. In this story, everything on this beloved planet is living and has a place and a story. I want them to remember that the words we speak can gather people close to listen and can open doorways to fresh understanding. Even the word remember is a kind of command to stop and listen, to consider who we are and who we are becoming. I appreciate the arc of your story of the place in which you worked on Remember. Many generations have emerged and passed through, leaving their images, their words, their stories behind. The earth, trees, animals, winds, and waters were important to experience, to individual memory, and expansive collective memory. I want them to know that this earth is a living being, that we are a part of the earth.
I keep thinking of mentors these days, probably because so many of them who taught and inspired me are gone now. I mentioned Nora Dauenhauer earlier. Some of my mentors were not human. There was a tree who could sing, a raven who played hide-and-seek, a pet dog who stood guard over me, and even the Pacific Ocean surrounding the island of O’ahu, where I paddled my canoe when I lived there for a time. The ocean took away sorrow, taught me the magic of rhythm and water, and allowed me to see far away in time.
What about you?
Goade: It is indeed the land that helps raise us, teach us, shape us. Today I’m feeling pulled to the trees dripping in lacy curtains of lichen that speak of mystery and magic, the salmon that return every year and offer themselves as sustenance, the gifts to be found in berry picking, and the ever-changing ocean and its reminder that “all is in motion, is growing, is you.”
I love that you describe poetry as painting with words. When I first heard you say that, it resonated deeply. I feel so lucky and grateful that we got to “paint” together in Remember. I hope it encourages readers of all ages to gather close and think about their place in this story that connects us all.
Remember by Joy Harjo, illus. by Michaela Goade. Random House Studio, $18.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-59-348484-5