Voices of Pitt Poetry: An Interview with Pitt Professor Yona Harvey

Pitt is home to many forms of creative expression. The Pittsburgh community is bustling with outlets to explore the creative arts — concerts, museums, and art exhibits can always be found somewhere on campus.

Nestled away on the Cathedral of Learning’s 5th floor is Pitt’s English Department, which hosts Pitt’s experienced and talented literature and writing faculty. Yet, not enough credit is given to the dedication and passion of the Pitt professors that foster creative outlets and inspire their students.

One distinguished professor, Yona Harvey, has a particular love for poetry as it has significantly shaped her life. Poet Yona Harvey is author of the works, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love (Four Way Books, 2020) and Hemming the Water (2013), which won the Believer Book Award for Poetry and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award respectively.

Yona Harvey worked with professor Roxane Gay as co-author of the Marvel Comics’ World of Wakanda. Harvey currently works as an associate professor at Pitt, and was in April this year was named a Guggenheim fellow.

Yona Harvey spoke with me about her experience with writing poetry and being a part of the Pittsburgh community.

She discussed writing poetry for the first time and the value it holds in her life. She also shared her creative process that inspired her previous poems, and she gives advice for those who wish to write poetry.

Yona Harvey, Image Source from creativenonfiction.org/people/Yona-harvey/

How did you first start writing poetry?

I think I first started writing it in middle school. My mom took me to a reading. I was supposed to see… Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, and Nikki Giovanni couldn’t make it that day so I just ended up seeing Margaret Walker, who is also phenomenal.

She was the first black woman to go to the Iowa Writers’ workshop. She read this poem, and it made my aunt cry. And I just thought, “what is happening?” I had never seen anything like that. 

I just felt like, “I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to write things that move people.” That’s my earliest memory of being connected to poetry.”

Did you instantly start writing poetry in middle school, too? Or was it a process throughout the years after this experience?

I think it was a process. I did have a really good Language Arts teacher who would let me read little stories for the class. It was a process because living in Ohio, even though I knew who Nikki Giovanni was and even though I was introduced to Margaret Walker, I still didn’t feel a writer was anything that I could be. I didn’t even know how that happened. So yes, it happened over time. I had to leave home to actually do it.

How has your experience in Pittsburgh shaped your writing, if it has at all?

I think it shaped my writing in that it’s a city that you can kind of disappear into. I lived in New Orleans before living here, and New Orleans is not conducive to writing. There is so much to get into there. [In] Pittsburgh… the winters are clearly longer and colder and there are a lot of other writers here.

And I feel like even though I can be isolated,  I feel like I’m burrowed in alongside other writers who are burrowed in, so I feel like it’s conducive in that way.

Have you written any poems about Pittsburgh or the Pittsburgh community?

That’s a great question. Yes… I have a poem in my first book called “Hurricane” and it actually blends New Orleans and Pittsburgh together. So my daughter was born in New Orleans, but in the poem we’re actually at the little carnival that  Carnegie Mellon used to do every year.

I’m not sure if they do it anymore, but my daughter wants to ride a ride called the “Hurricane,” so I let her get on that ride in Pittsburgh and in the poem i have a flashback to New Orleans when she is a baby… a hurricane is coming and we’re in the house, and so I just blend those two scenes together.

How do you think poetry writing, or writing in general, transfers over to comic book writing? Or what’s the intersectionality between genres of writing?

I think for poetry and comics, I always say the line break, the panel break, and the page turn in comics are connected. You get one impression when you’re on a line in a poem and then you can manipulate that image when you break the line and add additional information to the poem, and the same thing happens in a comic book. 

[Say] you’re looking at a close up of a scarf and all you see is maybe the color, and then the neck, and then in the next panel you see “Oh, it’s the Marvel character Storm,” or whatever. You can manipulate in that way, and I love that connection between the two.

Did you like writing comic books more than poetry or does poetry still have your heart?

It’s apples and oranges, you know? Poetry satisfies a certain kind of feeling. It tends to be more internal. In comics I feel much more aware of the audience and community. So it’s just a different part of the brain, a different kind of activity.

I do love the reach of comic books. To me it’s more intergenerational, so I love getting teenagers’ perspectives, or middle schoolers’ perspectives. I feel like we’re all more united in comics, [at least] certain comics, than is the case for poetry.

How do you choose your words, or the structure of your poems? What inspires you?

I think it usually starts with sound. I grew up in a deeply Pentacoscal family; it was very noisy at church and [there was] lots of music and sound before I could even speak. I was surrounded by music.

So I think that is where all of my writing comes from — sound. Even if I hear someone on the street, or music, or when people make little clicking sounds with their mouth, or their pencils are tapping, it comes out of that. And then the poem takes shape from there.

Could you tell me how you decided the structure of your poem “Gingivitis, Notes On Fear”?

That one is more of a departure, so it just came from a long meditation on September 11th. It’s one of the few poems of mine that starts visually. I’m literally observing my daughter run her tongue over her teeth in the bathroom mirror. So I’m helping her get ready for school in the morning, and then when I saw the one tooth next to the space, that’s what brought the towers. 

It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, but I couldn’t write about it in a way that didn’t seem cliché, easy, uncomplicated. It suddenly came to me when I was watching her in the mirror. That one was definitely more visual.

What do you wish people will take away from your writing?

That’s a good question. I don’t know that I want them to take away so much as, “Be still for a minute.”

I feel like I can’t totally control what they take away, but I hope that I can capture their imagination, or their sensibility. Or maybe even disrupt… some pattern in their lives, so that they’re just still for a minute and able to think differently.”

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

I probably would add — you don’t need anyone’s permission to write. You don’t need your professor’s permission, you don’t need my permission, you don’t need Marvel’s, and that is the most beautiful thing about writing. You just need a notebook and a pen and you’re good to go.

So just be persistent and trust all the stories and all the poems you feel are inside of you.”

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