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'Crazy Brave' author charms at One Book, One Region

With virtual events becoming the norm, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo made an unseen audience of Connecticut College students and readers across southeastern Connecticut feel perfectly at home Monday evening. Speaking with charm and frank wisdom via Zoom, the poet, author and musician discussed life and art through the prism of her memoir "Crazy Brave," the 18th and latest selection in the area's One Book, One Region reading initiative.

With a gentle smile, Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Nation tribe of Oklahoma and the country's first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, was seated in the Makeshift Theater at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington as she spoke, shared anecdotes, recited poems, read memoir excerpts and answered questions for about 45 minutes. Throughout, themes of perseverance, hope, nature and love, and the ways in which art can be a delivery system for all those things, resonated.

The evening was hosted by Conn College officials Jefferson Singer, dean of the college; John McKnight, dean of institutional equity and inclusion; and school president Katherine Bergeron. "Crazy Brave" was the Summer Read selection for incoming first-year students at the college. In a deserved homage, there were also brief comments from Betty Anne Rieter, retired director of the Groton Public Library and the visionary force behind the One Book One Region initiative.

A National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Guggenheim grant and the Wallace Stevens Award for Poetry are just a few of the dozens of awards and honors Harjo has won over three-plus decades of work. Known as one of the main voices of the Native American Renaissance arts and literary movement, Harjo grew up in Oklahoma and New Mexico, received an undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico and a creative writing masters from the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has taught and traveled widely, published over a dozen books of poetry, and recorded several albums as a saxophonist and band leader. Harjo is working on a follow up volume to "Crazy Brave."

"I'm happy to be here in the east, the direction of Beginning, and to talk once again about 'Crazy Brave,'" Harjo said at the outset. She then read the first lines of the memoir: "It was a dream, because everything eventually starts with a dream. Even children; their parents dream. And maybe the earth started as a dream ... "

Part of the seduction of the evening was in Harjo's tendency — perhaps reflecting her improv as a saxophonist — to veer off-script (if she even had a script). In the way of great conversationalists, Harjo wasn't afraid to stop in mid-quote or mid-stanza to support the words with a thought or anecdote.

"Should I read this story or just tell you?" she asked at one point.

This oratorical cross-stitching, if you will, made for fascinating listening and suggested why Harjo is highly sought after at readings and in lecture halls.

For example, Harjo admitted she didn't really want to write "Crazy Brave."

"Maybe I could write a memoir, but I won't be in it," she said. "But I figured out that wouldn't work."

When she did finally set her mind to working on the memoir, she said it was incredibly valuable because "going back in time to write this" taught her that living is a pliable experience; that kids, for example, often instinctively know more about living than adults.

She also spoke about the transformative experience of attending a Bureau of Indian Affairs school that featured both the BIA military-school construct with a faculty full of incredible Native American artists. This resulted in Harjo being the sole student in her own English class — a perhaps improvised solution given her tendency to write dirty limericks.

Harjo also credited the spirit of revolution at the time — the late '60s — as an invaluable doorway for native arts students. "All of us found a commonality in creativity," she read from the memoir. "We were all skins traveling together in an age of metamorphosis, taking the same traumas from colonization and dehumanization. We were direct evidence of the struggle of our ancestors. We heard them and they spoke to us ... "

One incredibly poignant story Harjo shared concerned a time when she was a young and impoverished mother, struggling to establish herself as a painter and poet and also just to make ends meet, who took her small son to a circus. There, Harjo caught the eye of a trapeze artist. Her thought was the circus performer shared skills with Harjo's husband who, she said, "had the dancing grace of Nureyev." Harjo's plan was that, if she could get the trapeze artist to meet her spouse, who was working, then maybe a connection could be established that would lead her husband to a circus career. Ultimately, she realized the trapeze artist's interest was merely a ploy to be with her.

"What an idiot," Harjo said of her younger self. "I was trying desperately to think of ways to improve our situation..."

Throughout, Harjo's genuine sense of self-deprecation was balanced by bright insight and the knowledge that she's worked hard at her numerous gifts and made the best of circumstances, and emerged with cautious hope for all of us.

To conclude, she read from the final pages of "Poet Warrior: A Call for Love and Justice," the soon-to-be-published follow-up to "Crazy Brave." The titular presence, with ancestral wisdom, blesses a newborn and welcomes her to the world.

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