What a thrill it was for me to be able to attend the welcoming ceremony for new students at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe on August 16th. Teachers, students and staff all gave very emotional speeches welcoming and inspiring the new art students and it was hard not to be moved, even if you are someone like me, not Native American but with a somewhat fractured cultural identity that includes both Mexican and Native American culture...a long story that involves where both of my parents grew up, but one that might explain my being such a visceral fan of Joy Harjo. (A quote from Harjo closes out my wedding program!) So it was doubly thrilling that she would be at the welcoming ceremony as the keynote speaker. She just has this energy that is hard to describe. I felt similarly about Alice Walker when I saw her read in New York City. They're both very demure I guess which is an energy that jazzes me up.
Harjo said two things I found interesting. One, she talked about the value of failure, saying this was primarily what her memoir Crazy Brave is about. The book talks about her early struggles and mistakes from early childhood up through attending IAIA as a high school student (saying the school saved her life) and early relationship abuses. The book talks briefly but emotionally about how writing poetry saved her soul, but the book does not give us a happily-ever-after ending, on purpose I think, to illustrate the value of struggle through failure.
Failure is something I feel poets fear to such a great extent it keeps them from forming close relationships with one another. Because any other poet's success ultimately reflects back on another poet's failure. And so mutual encouragement is virtually nonexistent. If a poet can't be actually discouraging, he can be silent.
Failure in poetry has many levels: the failure of the respect in both the culture and academia, the failure of sales, the failure of the individual poet (before and after publishing), the failure of an individual poem. It's a sad state. And the paradigm has to change, maybe by reinterpreting failure.
Failure, as Harjo says, teaches you everything. You learn more from failure than from success.
Taking on my first book project, I feel at peace with its failure because this practice teaches me the entire road map of assembling a book. And inside that cloud of failure lies either the secret to success or the path to the next enlightened failure.
Secondly, Harjo also implored students (and aren't we all students?) to ask for help. Another difficult thing for poets because we believe ourselves to be the magic, embodied kernel of all enlightened thoughts (even when we pretend to question ourselves). To admit we need help is to admit we are not ordained by God to speak the truth.
Can we accept the idea that each of our poems is a community project and that maybe we didn't build that business by ourselves?