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First-ever Native American U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo visiting Long Island for day-long residency

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Calling all poetry fans — U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo will visit multiple Long Island communities on April 8.

Harjo is set to deliver a keynote address at Bay Shore High School’s Ethnic Pen Conference that morning, followed by a meeting in the afternoon with Shinnecock Nation cultural leaders out in Southhampton, and then perform a public reading at the Avram Fine Arts Theater at Stony Brook University-Southhampton.

The poet’s day-long tour is organized by Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read Grant, the Bay Shore Union Free School District’s High School Ethnic Pen Conference and the Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund.

This comprehensive community reading program focuses on Harjo’s poetry collection, “An American Sunrise,” which follows Harjo as she returns to the home of her ancestors and sparks a dialogue about indigenous history.

Margarita Espada, founder and executive director of Teatro Yerbabruja, said the poet’s collection also opens up the conversation about the history of brown and black communities on Long Island.

“It enables us to include other communities in the discussion of issues of oppression, allowing us to reflect on our differences and similarities, the power of nature and the nature of power, memory, and our conception and search for a physical and spiritual home,” Espada said. “Harjo’s reflections on identity, home, homelessness and belonging are relevant catalysts for discussion and exploration in the highly diverse and challenged communities on Long Island.”

Joy Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and the first Native American to hold the title of Poet Laureate in the United States.

She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is also a recorded musician, composer and activist. 

Bay Shore-based Teatro Yerbabruja, Inc. is a first-time recipient of NEA funding and one of only 61 organizations in the country — and four organizations in the New York state — to receive an NEA Big Read grant this year. 

The NEA Big Read program is an initiative of the National Endowment of the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. It sets out to enhance people’s perspectives of themselves, their communities and the world through literature.

In addition to Bay Shore Schools Ethnic Pen Conference and Arts Education Fund, some of the other lead project partners include the Hauppauge Public Library, the Shinnecock and Montaukett Nations, Stony Brook University and Fidelis Cares. 

Denise “Weetahmoe” Silva-Dennis (Shinnecock/Hassanamisco-Nipmuc), a multi-disciplinary artist and educator at The Retreat in East Hampton (the only East End Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Agency), said she is thrilled to be able to coordinate an event and welcome Harjo on Shinnecock Aboriginal territory.

“I welcome the opportunity to facilitate the genre of poetry that Joy Harjo so masterfully articulates in ‘An American Sunrise'” she said.

To date, the project encompasses 56 events (including 31 book discussions) and 29 partner organizations, such as the Suffolk County Library System; Brentwood, Central Islip, and Bay Shore-Brightwaters public libraries; Latina Moms; Suffolk County Community College; Suffolk County Office of Cultural Affairs; Head Start; Sound of Justice Initiative; and the Custer Institute and Observatory.

Activities for the “An American Sunrise” program began on Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 17, 2021, and run through June 16, 2022.

This includes readings from the book and Harjo’s works for children, as well as music, open mics, movies, dance events, art exhibits and stargazing.

Tickets for Harjo’s public reading at 7 p.m. at the Avram Fine Arts Theater are free, but must be reserved here.

A live stream of the event can be found for free at www.stonybrook.edu/live

Please visit www.teatroyerbabruja.org for a full calendar of activities and continue to follow greaterlongisland.com for updates.

Top: Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Photo courtesy of Cathy Barbash, president of the Barbash Arts Foundation.