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April 2024 Feature: Yona Harvey

Updated: Apr 5

Yona Harvey is an acclaimed poet and professor. Winner of the 2014 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, her poetry collections include Hemming the Water and You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love. She is also an author of Marvel Comics' World of Wakanda, becoming one of the first two black women to write for Marvel.



Yona Harvey is the author of You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, winner of The Believer Book Award in Poetry, and Hemming the Water, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.  Her poems have been published in various journals and anthologies including Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, The Best American Poetry, Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing, and A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry.  Follow Yona on her website.




P.S. Your little dog is miserable


Beauty is bigger than The Cold

but The Cold is gaining. “The whole

story,” she claimed, I didn’t tell it.

“He said, she said,” something

like that. 

“Tele-,” K. used to call

across The Yard. “Phones,”

O. would answer.


Hot dogs are not a vegetable…

When wounded, the eyes can hear… 


There were no ghosts in the words

I left Miss Thang to measure.

Only a predictable human hurt.

On some: loose black earth, a trail 

of highbrow rubbish— I refused—

a few bones unburied near it.




Sin, Say


In this now moment, the persistent gnats persist, the ones who found a hidden home in

the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the study, in the living room though oddly not the bath

have found a way to survive the winter zipping by in the radiated heat barely making a

mark if the thumb presses down and pins them low, flat-splat on the white kitchen table where sometimes you wonder what sin means except sin is not the right word because

you don’t believe in sin and all the heavy sin weight the word brings in this now moment

and the thousands of moments before now, such tiny beings, these gnats. You don’t want bugs up your nose, or in your mouth or hovering above your dinner plate and therefore

you don’t flinch at all when you clasp your hands and trap what feels like the millionth

gnat this month—black smear, feather-shadow stain, barely a stain, not even a stain at all,

just a silent nuisance that once hovered over a half-squeezed lemon, a half-ripened

banana, seriously what do they even want, what do they even need? You’ve let all the

potted plants dry out, dried the sink, left no dishes or containers of standing water. You

want these gnats turned to spider food for the spiders you’ve spared, the ones sleeping, napping in their undisturbed corners, maybe slow-leg hustling if you accidentally brush

their webs. What’s a gnat’s worth? How does something so small become so annoying?

How does something so small move so fast? If you were to discover that gnats bred in clothing and furry blankets, in the threads of tea towels and cloth napkins spreading

disease could you kill them even quicker, even more thoughtlessly? Three monks wave

from the balcony of your discontent, the ochre sway of their robes mimics a modest flag

or the slow arrival of ghosts, the ones born at sunset on the other side of their human

lives. There are words you feel you have no right to speak, no right to write and so you

skim them over in your mind more swiftly than a glance at a WhatsApp message you

hardly want to read, you’ve silenced your notifications, which says as much but suddenly

at 8:00 AM, there’s a swarm of texts from The Fly Girls or your maternal family

“keeping in touch,” swish, quake, buzz motions wanting to show love. But mostly you

feel mushy and rotten and maybe messed over like a half-eaten apple tilted near a dishpan free of water. When compared to the priest reincarnated as fairy, the ghost has the upper hand, you suspect. But the fairy has the upper hand over the frog, hidden out there in the

low grasses, hoping someone hears its cigarette tinged ribbit, ribbit. You have no right to declare such a thing, but you declare it anyway, the way a three-toothed, Louisiana palm reader might say it with limited grace, hell, no grace at all, without apology, with all the manners opposite of a Rotary Club member or a Mason. The grooves between teeth filled with smirk and the lingering of a decisive and deadly tongue.




For Kiki, High School Class of 1985


Ain’t nothing Jesse Johnson’s Revue gon change, even if Jesse jams about changes.

The band banging those electronic drums. Those shiny curls. Those knees bent  then

snapping back straight as a guitar handle

What of the sigh?     What of the sound? 

She questions herself    on an eastbound

train. She never 80s-pined for light skin

Tho she once wanted   her hair to swing

Little Lady of the Midwest versus Little

Woman on the Prairie. No cap. Correcti

on. No worries. She’s grown now   with

new books cradled at her chest. She feel

s like going on now. She knows she’s be

en a mess that she has been made messy.



The Subjunctive


There are more plastic flamingos in America than real ones. But who cares about the

real? “If I were you,” a politician whispers, “I’d lie low a minute.”  In Tampa, a

tenth-grade teacher’s lipstick slips from her purse. It’s one of those drawstring numbers, cheap & insecure as a rumor rolling across the gymnasium floor.  “If I were you,” one

student says to another, “I’d watch my back.” Cheerleaders & pom-poms shake like some future virus. Anyone heard of a Deep Listening?  The place where we might sit in a

measured manner, palms still, hearts calm & camphor clean & undistracted? Flamingos

in the wild have lifespans of twenty to thirty years. Plastic bobs in the ocean forever.  If I

were you, I’d be worried. A caught politician seems a great catch, an ideal presidential candidate. 




THE INTERVIEW

This interview was conducted between Yona Harvey and Jae Nichelle on March 31, 2024.


In your poem “For Kiki, High School Class of 1985” there’s the line “she questions herself on an eastbound/ train.” Questions—either seemingly rhetorical or that the speaker seeks the answer to—are pervasive in these four poems. Do you enter the worlds of your poems with questions? Do you feel the need to find answers?


Oh, for sure. Yeah. As long as I can remember, people—especially adults—baffled me with their behaviors, especially their behaviors contradicting their words. Questioning led me to art and writing to cope and make sense of the world. I don’t think I need to find answers all the time, at least not in a literal sense. The satisfaction is in the seeking. And as far as questioning yourself goes, after a while you just have to trust and decide, take action. Even if that decision might be wrong. When you’re young (graduating, transitioning, whatever) that can be difficult. You don’t want to be judged or ostracized. You doubt yourself.  I was trying to remember what that felt like through writing this poem. Also, shout out to my undergraduate Introduction to Poetry class at Saint Mary’s College of California last spring!  Camila Krenn invented the rules for this “Graduation” form.


You mentioned in a recent McSweeney’s interview that the poems in your previous collections, Hemming the Water and You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love have “a restless thinking behind them.” Would you say the same about your upcoming writing projects? How would you describe the thinking behind what you’re working on now?


Wow, thanks for that question.  I wouldn’t say the same about my upcoming writing projects. I mean, the thinking is always there. But the restlessness of my previous work had a kind of anxiety attached to it (if I’m remembering that McSweeney’s response correctly). So much uncertainty—about relationships, parenting/mothering, teaching, art making, about my basic human needs, you name it. Hemming was published in 2013 and Mars in 2020. In 2013 I started meditation training to deal with what felt like unbearable stress. But I had all these wrong perceptions about meditation—that it was supposed to be peaceful, that I would suddenly feel or be peaceful, that my life and relationships would instantly be improved. And so, I was shocked when I sat down to meditate in those early months and years and felt pure, unmitigated rage. On the regular. I was like WTF is this?! One of my teachers explained that it was the stress melting away. But what was I supposed to do with that? Needless to say, it was a bumpy, uncomfortable journey. And I’m grateful for all that struggle and restlessness because it led me to better decision-making. When the Covid lockdowns came, I accelerated in making tough choices. Toxic relationships, jobs, communications, habits of consumption (food, alcohol, media, social media)  had to end. Best decisions I ever made.  And that ushered in the new work. The thinking behind what I’m working on now is more solid and free. 


What has surprised you most about your experience in the Marvel world, having written for Marvel Comics?


The Marvel fans surprised me most during my Marvel writing experience. Writing for Marvel puts you in conversation with such diverse readers!  You’re just nerding out all the time.  Folks are so joyful about their favorite characters, favorite runs, or—if they’re older— their memories of collecting before some parent made them trash their comics in the mode of “put away childish things.” But that’s also a misperception—that comics are for kids.  Sigh.


Speaking of Marvel, I so love how you mentioned in The Rumpus in 2017 that writing comics has connected you to a greater audience of Black women. In general, as a writer, when did you first start thinking about audience?


Yeah! Well, generally speaking, Black women are very well-read. In the United States, we’re the most overlooked group because some folks can’t imagine us beyond their limiting stereotypes. Of course, it’s important to “be seen,” as is repeated ad nauseam these days. And I’d trouble the waters by saying not being seen also gives us incredible imaginative flexibility. Creativity and ingenuity off the charts. My God. Racism has no imagination. My ideal audience recognizes the hilarity and razor’s edge in that. So as a Black woman, I feel light years beyond the enemy lol. Troubling the water more: I’ve always been seen by the people who love me most. People who don’t show love? Please keep it moving. Don’t see me. Leave me the fuck alone. I definitely credit writing for Marvel as a moment when I began thinking about audience on a more complex (larger?) scale. And before that, Howard University. Because from semester one you’re reading all these incredible black authors—like, in every class—and having these nuanced and revelatory conversations about audience and the disregard for “explaining” yourself to white audiences. That’s power.


In an alternate universe where you have one superpower that you can only activate once a month, what would you want that power to be and what would you use it for?


This is tough to answer!  My son and I have this ongoing joke about teleporting whenever we haven’t managed our time well or feel a time crunch (we stay procrastinating). So, I’d say teleporting. Getting somewhere far in a hurry. I’d use it to be with my friends and family as soon as they need me. No train, plane, or automobile required.


You’re in Massachusetts now, right? Have you come across any hidden gem spots you can recommend? 


Yep.  I’m in Northampton. Hidden gems (or probably not-so-hidden gems because I’m still a newbie!): Smith College’s Neilson Library rooftop (beautiful); the walking trail around the Paradise Pond; the scenic drive to MassMoCA and MassMoCA itself; Montague Books and the surrounding area (river, farm stands, book stands, a blue Tardis!!); the W.E.B. DuBois Library and Center at UMass Amherst.  The vegan eats at PULSE—the Southern Comfort Bowl (like, whose grandmama did they steal the collards recipe from?). But let me not instigate.


On top of everything else, you’re also leading Cave Canem’s Cultural Preservation Project. What aspect of this project are you most looking forward to?


I’m most looking forward to people—everyday people—accessing those incredible recordings! It’s gonna sound cliché, but those conversations capture the heart of Cave Canem, its soul origins—as a feeling, as a need, as a balm—which is different from an institution.


How can people support you right now?


If there’s a burning question about writing, the writing life, or whatever you’d like me to think through with you, contact me!  I’ll make a point to address it personally or in my newsletter. This also forces me to recommit to that damn newsletter. The procrastination is real. In the meantime, ask a Black woman in your life how you can support her.  And then do it!  It will have a healing, rippling effect on us all.  


Name another Black woman writer people should follow. 


There are so many!  For starters tho: Gabrielle Rucker and Jalynn Harris. Complicated, devilish, progressive. Community builders. Community givers. Change-makers. They will lead you to more.



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Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.

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