A Q & A with Yona Harvey

by Jordan Cromwell

Harvey-Yona_0This week I interviewed Yona Harvey. Yona Harvey is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has been anthologized in a number of publications, such as A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry, The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-Garde, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Callaloo, and West Branch. Her poetry collection, Hemming the Water, was the recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University. She was also the recipient of the Individual Artist Grant in literary nonfiction from The Pittsburgh Foundation.


HMB: Why did you choose to write poetry?

YH: I think poetry chose me. As an undergraduate at Howard University, I kept missing nursing socials and events (I was a nursing major briefly) because I kept going to poetry ones!

HMB: What is your inspiration for poetry?

YH: News events, family, art—especially art—and people, people, all kinds of people.

HMB: Is there a point where your poetry and your non-fiction collide?

YH: Yes. Writing about the death of my sister causes these genres to collide. So far, it’s the only subject matter like that. I’m still writing through it.

HMB: Is there a difference between how you go about writing poetry and how you go about writing non-fiction?

YH: Yes! Poetry allows me to hide or code some things in language and sound—people can potentially feel their way through poems. Poetry is for people who love poetry or feel drawn to poetic language. But in nonfiction I’m more interested in a broader community. I’m trying to reach people whose interests reside first in a particular subject or topic like Pittsburgh, allergies, depression, relationships, afro-futurism, etc.

HMB: How do you know when a piece is good? And is that any different, to you, than knowing if a piece is publishable?

YH: I never really know when a piece is “good.” Maybe I know when I’m kind of satisfied with a piece. It’s publishable, I think, if I can submit the work without feeling embarrassed about it—no half-stepping.

HMB: When you submit to literary magazines, are there certain things you’re looking for in those literary magazines? Or do you just choose randomly?

YH: I’m looking for publications with diverse readerships and contributors. I’m looking for publications that publish internationally and ethnically diverse writers. I’m looking for a thoughtful editor or editors. I’m looking for publications I pick up and read cover to cover. I never submit randomly; though, sometimes I might take a chance if I think the publication or editor’s invitation is compelling.

HMB: Do you ever find anyone as a rival in your literary world?

YH: Yes! I think every writer has her nemesis.

HMB: How do you deal with rejection?

YH: Very easily. I have a thick skin, as the old adage goes.

HMB: Do you have any tips for aspiring poets?

YH: Keep writing, follow your curiosities, dig deeper—way deeper. Write what moves you to write rather than what obliges you to write.

HMB: Do you have any tips for writers hoping to be published?

YH: Revise, revise, revise, revise. Find a reader you trust and get that reader’s feedback. Revise again.

HMB: How did it feel having Hemming the Water published?

YH: Spectacular! One of the highlights of my life.

HMB: What, if any, are the effects of winning the Tufts Award? Did life change for you at all?

YH: What a shock! Since winning, more people solicit me for poems. This is difficult because I’m writing more nonfiction at the moment. Other than that, life goes on. My kids still need breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The kitchen still needs cleaning!

HMB: How do you balance a life as a writer and a family life? Is it at all difficult?

YH: It’s not as difficult as you might think. I honestly think it’s more difficult to teach well and have a family than it is to write well and have a family. My family impacts and improves my writing and creativity all the time. They are so musical and hilarious! Having a family makes my writing better (sound, depth, content).

HMB: How does your life change as you try publishing books?

YH: My world keeps expanding. My love of people expands. Publishing books makes me think more deeply about having something to say. I don’t just want a book for the sake of having a book. I love the idea that someone might read my books and feel heard or feel spoken to or feel challenged—maybe even uncomfortable. Publishing can be like having a great conversation.

HMB: How have you supported yourself while being a writer?

YH: Through teaching.

HMB: How do you keep laughing?

YH: It’s just my nature. My best friends are side-splitting storytellers. Whenever I cry, though, I flood the joint—I’m never ashamed of my tears. Then I’m over it. Laughing feels better. Laughing feels so damn good. Thanks for these fresh and thoughtful questions!


If you’d like to learn more about Yona Harvey and her work, check out her website. I recommend looking in the Notebook section.

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Poems of Place: Nate Marshall’s Blood Percussion

By Malcolm Friend

This past fall, Chicago native and recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program Nate Marshall published the chapbook Blood Percussion, a finalist for Button Poetry’s Exploding Pinecone Press’s annual chapbook contest. Reading it, I was drawn into how Marshall leads the reader through his hometown, and in particular Chicago’s South Side, the neighborhood where he grew up.

In the poem “dare,” Marshall gives insight into how commonplace violence can be by presenting a dialogue between the speaker and an unnamed figure, opening with the lines “ay folk you got change / fo’ the five?” Innocuous enough, but by the tenth line of the poem, conversation has turned to confrontation:

so you saying if i run
yo pockets right now
there won’t be nothing?

you ain’t finna
run nothing right
here. there’s no change
on me. i’m not the one
you wanna try. i ain’t got
no change.

Blood Percussion is filled with moments similar to this. Deceptively simple and straightforward, the poems paint a more complex picture pointing the reader to situations lived by real people on Chicago’s South Side. Even with increased media attention, these conditions are still foreign to many of us. Take for instance the following stanza from the poem “Mama says”:

when Michelle Obama was
asked about her fear of racists
killing her husband now that he
was running for president
she said he’s a black man
on the South Side. he can die
any day. at the gas station
or grocery store.

In these lines Marshall takes a fear many voiced during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. He makes it nothing out of the ordinary for the Obamas, and allows that to speak to the wider reality of violence faced by Black people throughout the South Side. As “Mama says” demonstrates, at times, one becomes numb to this repeated fact, perhaps the only way to live with it. But at others, it takes everything not to utterly fall apart.

This truth is articulated in the series of poems titled “Chicago high school love letters,” the most compelling addition to the conversation on violence Blood Percussion enacts. Through these poems, Marshall demonstrates to the reader the toll said violence takes on adolescents. They track the private courtship and expression of love from a young man to a young woman while simultaneously tracking the number of homicides in Chicago during the 2007-2008 school year, creating a sense of vulnerability that much of the book attempts to mask through bravado and reluctant acceptance. The last poem of this series demonstrates this best, closing the book with perhaps its most vulnerable lines, a supplication informed by the violence which inhabits its pages:

hold me

At just twenty-six pages, Blood Percussion is a quick read, but calls for many; a single reading does not do justice to the voices Marshall makes heard in those pages. Additionally, it serves as a sort of anticipatory mixtape (no surprise, given Marshall is also a rapper) for his debut full-length collection, Wild Hundreds, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press later this year. In a press release from UPP, Marshall describes the forthcoming collection as “a ‘love song to Chicago’” and as “‘[displaying] the beauty of black survival and [mourning] the tragedy of black death,’” which could also be applied to Blood Percussion.

This chapbook is easily a must-read from a young, up-and-coming writer. If it’s any indication of what’s to come in Wild Hundreds, then readers are in for an engaging collection which speaks to the lived reality of many, and helps give voice to those who are often without.

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Becky Tuch: A Reading

We’re starting a new series on the Hot Metal Blog, where we invite local and visiting writers to read an excerpt of their work. We’re delighted to kick off the series with the wonderful Becky Tuch.

Becky Tuch(1)

Becky Tuch is an award-winning writer and founding editor of The Review Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill, Hobart, Virginia Quarterly Review online, Salon, and others. Here she is, reading an excerpt of her story “The Emperor of Ice Cream” from Eclipse Volume 18, Fall 2007. We hope you enjoy hearing her read as much as we did!

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