NEA Big Read
How We Became Human

How We Became Human

by Joy Harjo

We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.

  1. Some of the poems in How We Became Human are named after places, e.g., Anchorage, New Orleans, Santa Fe, and Honolulu. Many also refer to other places within the poems themselves (e.g., Nigeria and Cambodia). How are places connected to memories of events, emotions, or people? How does your own familiarity, or lack of familiarity, with the places Harjo names affect how you think about the poems?
  2. Journeys are common in Harjo's poems: going places, leaving places, or experiencing places in between. The poem “3 A.M.,” for instance, begins “in the Albuquerque airport / trying to find a flight”. The poem “Crossing the Border” describes a tense passage from Michigan into Canada. In what ways might the journeys mean more than the places themselves? How has a journey in your life changed the way you think about a familiar place?
  3. In the poem “Bird,” Harjo refers to the life and music of bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker. Harjo, who also plays the saxophone in her own band, writes that “All poets / understand the final uselessness of words”. What is the relationship between music and poetry? What do you think Harjo feels music can do that a poem cannot?
  4. Many of Harjo's poems are about the relationship between humans and nature. In “Remember,” for instance, Harjo urges the reader to “remember the earth whose skin you are: / red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth / brown earth, we are earth”. What is it about the natural world that Harjo asks us to realize or remember?
  5. Poems like “For Alva Benson, And For Those Who Have Learned to Speak” differentiate the native languages of American Indians from the languages of the Europeans who colonized the Americas. How is language tied to cultural identity? How can language be a tool for oppression or survival? How does Harjo approach the colonial legacy of the English language in her poetry?
  6. Certain animals show up frequently in Harjo's poems, including horses, blackbirds, crows, deer, and snakes. Did the way she describes these animals and their personalities surprise you? Do the same animals mean the same things each time they appear in her poetry?
  7. In poems such as “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window”, “She Had Some Horses”, “For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash”, and “The Flood”, Harjo writes about the experiences of women, including the often conflicting demands that society makes on them. How do women navigate gender roles in Harjo's poems? In what ways do you feel the pressure of gender roles in your own life?
  8. In “A Postcolonial Tale,” Harjo writes that “it was as if we were stolen, put into a bag carried on the back of a white man who pretends to own the earth and the sky”. How does she emphasize the history of native peoples in her poems? Has reading How We Became Human affected your understanding of American history?
  9. Beginnings, endings, and “the next world” all play a large role in Harjo's work. How does she challenge assumptions about time? What is more influential in shaping the world, continuity or change?
  10. “Returning from the Enemy” begins with the lines “It's time to begin. I know it and have dreaded the knot of memory / as it unwinds in my gut”. Just a few lines later, the poem continues: “The wake of history is a dragline behind me.” Where do memory and history overlap, and where do they diverge? Do the two serve different purposes?
  11. One way to talk about a poem is to describe its form. How We Became Human includes poems in a range of forms, distinguished by elements such as line length (short lines, long lines, prose), line breaks (where a line starts and ends), stanza shape, capitalization, and punctuation, to name just a few. Are there places where one or more of these choices affected how you read a particular poem? How have Harjo's forms changed over time?
  12. “Song for the Deer and Myself to Return On” is dedicated to one of Harjo's former students, and in her note to the poem she explains: “My workshop was the first time he realized that he could abandon the strict metrics and patterns of European forms and take up more organic forms, forms that fit his Muscogean subject matter”. When you think about poetry, what kind of poem first comes to mind? Do Harjo's poems match your expectations for what a poem should look and sound like?
  13. In “A Map to the Next World,” Harjo writes, “We were never perfect. // Yet, the journey we make together is perfect”. What is her outlook on the future? What does she envision for humankind? Who is the “we” in this poem?
  14. In the book's final poem, “Rushing the Pali,” Harjo describes the “mythic roots” that are present everywhere, even in daily life. What place do myths have in your own life? Do you want myths to teach you something, or to entertain you? Whom do myths belong to? Are they universal, or do their meanings depend on the cultures that created them?
  15. How We Became Human takes its title from a line in one of the book's last poems, “It's raining in Honolulu”. How is the phrase used in that poem? What does it signify as the title of the book? Are there any other individual lines that stood out to you independent of the poems they come from, or any that you think sum up what the book is about?
  16. How We Became Human includes more than 30 pages of notes that explain and give context to the poems. If you read the notes, did they help you understand the poems? Should poets and other artists explain their work? Can a poem mean something different from what its author says it means?
  17. After reading this book, is it possible to generalize about what makes a “Joy Harjo poem”? Do you think you could recognize other poems by Harjo, based on the poems in How We Became Human?
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