Somer Dice: Mary Lou Williams is one of your known muses. How has living near where she grew up affected your psyche as a poet?
Yona Harvey: Living near where Williams grew up reminds me that art can be born out of all places. Williams was so creative and compassionate. She was a real pioneer. There's a bit of erasure happening in the neighborhood—East Liberty filling up with trendy new spots and restaurants that price out residents who lived here long before it was "safe." When my husband and I first moved to Pittsburgh, I found a copy of the Carnegie Mellon University guide to housing. It wasn't officially released by the university; it was student-produced. There were all these listings and descriptions about neighborhoods, where to find an apartment, etc. And the advice section for East Liberty, of course, had no listings and said something like: "you were warned." In other words, if you move there, we can't help you. I remember thinking how incredibly stupid that particular entry was. And I remember thinking that the kids who wrote it couldn't even imagine a person from East Liberty reading that. And certainly they couldn't imagine how East Liberty is now crawling with students who wouldn't set foot here before. That kind of ignorance is what Williams was up against—and more. Anyway, I just find it funny that over sixteen years ago, Yusef Komunyakaa told me I should write about Mary Lou Williams and I didn't even know who she was. And now I live in her old stomping grounds.
SD: What is your best advice for poets and writers currently struggling and grappling with their work in the university setting?
YH: I'm not sure how to answer that. How are writers struggling with their work in the university setting? Writing is extremely difficult work not matter where it's composed. We writers must create and sustain the safe spaces we need.
SD: Where did the idea to relate fairy tales and myths with femininity and what it is to be a woman/mother/sister/daughter come from? And do you now think in terms of this approach with newer potential poems?
YH: The idea didn't come from one particular place or moment. After many poems were written I looked back and saw a pattern. I always loved music class as a kid—we had music class back then! And we'd learn these incredible folk songs with funny narratives like, "Billy Boy" and "Don Gato." And I had a lively music teacher, Mr. Reese, who talked about the lyrics being distorted because they were passed down orally. Learning those songs at such a young age (K, 1st, 2nd) made them really stick. And when I had children, I was reading "Chicken Soup with Rice" and "Goodnight, Moon." Basically, I made poetry out of the words and sounds that were available to me. But with an edge—because I felt that, too. Frustration, isolation, resilience.
SD: Shaping and Ordering Hemming the Water took about ten years for you. What is it like to have people finally going through, picking apart your work, and finding it enjoyable in classrooms and on their own time?
YH: That's a funny question! I don't think about it too, much. Of course, I want people to enjoy the book—or, at the very least, discuss it! But I'm on to the next puzzle. New poems, new troubles, new obsessions.
SD: Your website has a "Notebook" section where you post happenings of your life. What propelled you to do this? And, how has that turned out for you artistically?
YH: The Notebook is my slow-down blog. I can't meet the pressures of a blog. So the Notebook is a public journal. Little notes here and there. Artistically, the Notebook—the website, really—helps me brainstorm about being a writer in a digital world. But maybe this question leads back to the previous one? People can find me if they need me. Hearing from a stranger about Hemming (or any of my work) is the sweetest thing.
Yona Harvey will present a reading of her poetry at 7 p.m., November 12 in Bucknell Hall as a visiting writer in the Stadler Center Writers Series. She will share the reading with poet Dawn Lonsinger, who is presenting the 10th Annual Drew Darrow Memorial Reading. This and all Stadler Center Writers Series Events are free and open to the public.
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