by Jordan Cromwell
This 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.