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.”

Where’s the Humanity in STEM?

Lynnette Tibbott

Humanity⁠—it’s a word we use to describe our innate ability for love, compassion, and the arts⁠—but when did humans actually develop these characteristics? Did it begin with our logical, rational brains, developed once the gift of our opposable thumbs helped our ancestors to make spearheads? Travel back in time to the Paleolithic era, where we see the first instance of what we would recognize as art made by our ancient human ancestors on cave walls. Paleontologists and ancient anthropologists alike argue over the theory of what sparked modern human behavior. What was the start of humanity as we know it, and why does our perception of humanity seem to be changing?

When I began college, I knew where my passions lied. I loved writing, and I also loved chemistry and biological sciences. When it became time to choose my major, I mixed both of my interests. I became a writing major with a chemistry minor, and if I had a dollar for every time someone commented that my choice was “surprising,” I would be able to pay off my tuition by now. I placated myself by saying that I had mixed interests, and I was planning on becoming a medical or scientific writer, yet I knew in the back of my mind that it shouldn’t have been surprising. Why are we forced to cooperate in a limited scope of passions? Why is it so surprising to be studying both sciences and humanities? Why should we have to choose one?

We’re seeing a pattern in American society where people are becoming less compassionate, and will strive for their own personal gain. It’s not inherently bad to care about your future, but a social hierarchy in employment and careers can create disparities between jobs that are considered more “valuable” and “important,” leading to bias and putting others down for a chosen career path. People complain that we are just cogs in a never-ceasing machine. Our lives are filled with the humdrum of routine work. School and work are both just a means to an end, but to what end? College students everywhere may be realizing that hard work, determination, and this embedded strive for success may not be all that it seems.

But this pattern doesn’t just start in college.

From a young age, we’re told to have favorites, we’re told we’re either “good” at something or we’re not. We’re taught in early education that we have to pick a career. This mindset follows us through middle school, where we’re pressured to do well for high school. In high school, we’re forced to do well for college. In college, it gets more complicated. We’re obsessed with the idea of majors, yet we’re burdened by the financial responsibility of becoming adults. We’re told that every action and decision we make matters, and usually young adults have no choice but to choose financial stability and practicality while what truly makes them happy is forced to take a back seat. This pressure forces college students to believe they must choose science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers to achieve higher paying salaries in comparison to other career paths. In turn, choosing a major that is not of full interest can create an unhappy lifestyle. Others choose a job that may get them a high-paying salary, but is it what they truly want? The pressure to live the American Dream is embedded in all of us, but the reality is it might not be worth it. In fact, some college students are realizing the American Dream may not even exist. Instead of chasing after a false and idealized reality of their own future success defined by society, college students need to realize there is freedom to choose a custom path instead of a cookie-cutter mold.

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In recent years, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) has taken priority over humanities courses. STEM classes are valued highly in society, include more difficult technical application and content, and yield better job security after college as well as a higher paying salary. Although the world revolves around money, that does not mean money has to be the sole purpose of our lives. Humanities—such as literature, writing, history, philosophy, and music—earn the stigma of being useless and unproductive. This stigma has been growing for years and does not seem to be shifting, even though the humanities are vital parts of human nature, culture, health, and individuality. Participating in and de-stigmatizing the humanities does not require a whole career change, but can be supplemented and mixed with other passions for an overall more meaningful lifestyle. 

Not all college students are forced to give up their creative passions for STEM. Some have found that combining both gives them an outlet to grow not only as individuals but as professionals. Biological sciences major Saikeerthana Chodavarapu is a 2022 senior at Pitt who is also earning  Creative writing and Theater minors. After college, she will attend medical school. Chodavarapu said that her love for creative writing and theater have helped bridge the gap between healthcare and understanding.

“I got excited about the humanities, specifically in writing and theater, and what I like most about those both is that they force me to take on different perspectives,” Chodavararupa said. “I think it’s a really visceral way to get into the mind of someone else, especially going into healthcare. It’s really important because you will be interacting with so many different patients from different backgrounds.”

Chodavararupa also said that creative work helps her to better understand the intersectionality of a person’s life, which in turn can help her to provide thoughtful healthcare.

“It’s important to understand that their background is just as important to their treatment plan as are the symptoms that they’re showing. It [a person’s background] influences a lot of the types of treatments people can afford or what they’re allowed based on cultural values, whether it’s accessible to them. Understanding a person’s background is very important to healthcare.”

Not only is understanding different perspectives invaluable for patient understanding and empathy, but Chodavararupa also said that her love for the arts has helped her personal growth and communication with patients. 

“I think I’ve always just loved people in general. I think the coolest thing about human existence is how common everyone’s experiences can be,” Chodavararupa said. “We all have these shared threads of emotion even if we don’t experience the same exact things, we all know what incandescent joy is, we all know what anxiety is like. Connecting with people based on those shared threads is the solution to so many things wrong with the world. Just trying to see more of yourself in other people and more of other people in yourself can solve a lot of problems.”

Another Pitt student, Gayatri Gupta-Casale, is a 2022 junior earning a Neuroscience major and Gender studies minor. Although she has a love for STEM, she also finds passion in the arts, specifically through dance. Gupta-Casale said that her path to public health would not be the same without her intersectionality with the humanities. By studying the humanities, she intends to gain a broader view of science and public health overall.

Gupta-Casale also emphasized that the humanities are inescapable when talking about policy, healthcare, and public health. She notes the importance of well-rounded interests in both humanities and STEM to improve communication.

“With public health, it’s broader and you get a lot of disciplines, so you get a lot more viewpoints. You can create more equitable policies in healthcare,” Gupta-Casale said. “I’m also doing a Global health certificate because it’s a good combination of health and humanities. We have writing and papers that are also health based, and it’s important to have a background in both so that you’re easily able to communicate with everyone.”

Gupta-Casale and Chadavararupa both exemplify what it means to break boundaries between STEM and the humanities. We, as humans, are able to compete with dual interests in our minds. Neither should we place emphasis on scientific brains or creative brains. There’s no such thing. There is only being human. 

Although some people may be more adept at one subject, that does not equate to a lack of knowledge in the other. Science and writing are considered polar opposites, yet they have a lot in common. Both require analytical skills, complex concepts, attention to detail, application processes,  as well as creativity and empathy. Science—healthcare especially—is dependent on writing because of the importance of written and verbal communication. In fact, the healthcare field has just as much writing and communication as any humanities class. Proper communication can be to explain concepts to patients, students, or the public. Having scientific knowledge is half of the battle, and the other half is translating this information in different mediums of communication and expression.

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To communicate effectively, a strong degree of empathy and compassion is required. The people who cling to sciences and neglect humanities often have lower levels of compassion and empathy. In a medical setting, this lack of compassion can lead to a sterile, unwelcoming environment. However, the humanities can be helpful in strengthening communication skills and consequently our ability to be empathetic and compassionate. Furthermore, the humanities encourage us to practice creativity, which equates to better problem-solving skills.

The humanity debate has been tainted by the way society functions. We are encouraged to pick one desire and to follow it, but people forget that humans are not meant to pursue one goal, or one passion. Despite society’s growing trend to shame the humanities in favor of STEM, the world we live in will never truly be able to take the humanity out of individuals.

This article poses the question: where’s the humanity in STEM?

The answer, I believe, is in the current generation, and the future generations who help to break the barrier between STEM and humanities.