“Don’t worry about what a poem means.
Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen.”
— Joy Harjo
Teacher Resources and Discussion Questions
- Cultural Safety & Difficult Dialogues Resources for Faculty
- Lesson Plans for Teaching Joy Harjo (from Poetry.org)
- Celebrate Joy Harjo: the First Native American Poet Laureate (lesson plan)
Book Discussion Questions
- The preface to An American Sunrise describes the Indian Removal Act of 1830 from the perspective of indigenous peoples who were “rounded up with what [they] could carry,” and is accompanied by a map showing one trail the Muscogee Creek Nation took to “Indian Territory.” Were you familiar with the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears before reading this collection? If so, did this account differ from or add to what you had previously heard? How so? If not, what surprised you most about this account?
- In “Exile of Memory” (p.6), the speaker is warned by “one who knows things” not to return to her ancestral homeland, and is asked if she knows “how to make a peaceful road / Through human memory.” Why do you think she chooses to return despite this warning? What do you think she means at the end of this poem when she says, “I will sing [my leaving song] until the day I die” (p. 19)?
- “Grief is killing us. Anger tormenting us. Sadness eating us with disease,” reads one section in “Exile of Memory” (p. 10). In what ways can trauma be passed down from generation to generation?
- “We are in time. / There is no time, in time. / We are in a traditional Mvskoke village, far back in time,” the speaker says in one section of “Exile of Memory” (p. 17). Where else in the collection does Harjo challenge assumptions about time and/or blur past, present, and future? Have you ever been in a place where you felt the blurring of past, present, and future?
- The prose section on page 29 states that “Until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for Native citizens to practice [their] cultures. This included the making and sharing of songs and stories.” What are the roles songs and stories play in a culture? Are there songs, stories, poems, prose pieces, or other practices that are important in your culture? How would the future of your culture be impacted without them?
- In “Washing My Mother’s Body” (p. 30), the speaker imagines washing her mother’s body after her death. How does this poem relate to the larger act of historical returning that takes place in the collection? Can you think of times in your own life when you felt you needed to make peace with things “left undone”? If so, did reading this poem make you think about those experiences in a new way?
- Harjo brings up music and song throughout the collection, in “Mvskoke Mourning Song” (P. 51), “Singing Everything” (p. 53), and “Rabbit Invents the Saxophone” (p. 75). “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues” (p. 37), “Falling from the Night Sky” (p. 54), and “Welcoming Song” (p. 104) are labeled as songs. Were there other poems that seemed like they could be songs even if they weren’t labeled as such? If so, why? What qualities do you think music and poetry share? Are there things music can do that a poem cannot, and vice versa?
- Many of Harjo’s poems are about the relationship between humans and nature. In “Honoring,” for instance, Harjo asks the reader, “Who sings to the plants / That are grown for our plates” (p. 68)? What might Harjo be asking us to realize or remember about the natural world?
- One way to talk about a poem is to describe its form. An American Sunrise 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?
- Throughout the collection are interview excerpts, songs, quotes, and poems from outside sources. How did their presence enhance (or detract from) your engagement with the collection? If they enhanced your engagement, which of them most resonated with you? Why?
- In “Tobacco Origin Story” (p. 81), Harjo recounts a tale of how the tobacco plant came to the Muscogee Creek People. In what ways is this origin story connected to—and disconnected from—the present day that the speaker describes? Are there particular stories that have been passed down in your own cultural heritage that you find relevant to your life today?
- “Becoming Seventy” (p. 87) is an exploration of memories ranging from the birth of a daughter to the “Star Wars phenomenon,” presented in lines that get longer as the poem progresses. If you were to write a meditation on memory, what would it look like and what would you choose to include? What do you think the speaker means when she says that “All memory bends to fit” (p. 94)?
- “Beyond” (p. 95) is the only poem in the collection that is offered both in English and in translation (“Ren-Toh-Pvrv,” p. 96). Why do you think Harjo might have wanted to offer this particular poem in both languages? How is language tied to cultural identity, and how can it be a tool for oppression or survival? What did you notice about the ways Harjo approaches both the colonial legacy of the English language and the original language of her ancestors in the collection?
- Untitled prose passages written by Harjo appear throughout the collection, many of which involve Harjo’s grandfather from several generations back, Menahwee. What impact did reading these plainly spoken passages have for you? Did you learn anything you didn’t know from these passages? Did they build on your reading of any of the poems? Which ones and how so?
- The book’s title poem, “An American Sunrise,” appears on page 105. What are some of the different meanings or connotations you can think of for this phrase, here and elsewhere in the book? Why do you think Harjo chose this title for her collection?
- The last poem in the collection, “Bless this Land” (p. 106) harkens back to the song “This Land is Your Land,” a famous American folk song by Woody Guthrie, written after the song “God Bless America” by Kate Smith. How does this poem build on or challenge those songs? How does Harjo emphasize the history of native peoples and the land in this and other poems? Has reading An American Sunrise affected your understanding of American history?