Yona Harvey is a poet of the speculative, a poet of other worlds—other words—that turns out to be our worlds and words. Her first full-length collection of poems was Hemming the Water, which won the Kate Tufts in 2013, and her second was You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love which appeared when the pandemic was six months old. It’s not just that Mars is far from disturbed Earth, but also that it’s alien, that feeling human sometimes means feeling alien. She works slowly and deeply—there’s a third collection close to finished, but still a ways off—and sometimes she takes time away from poetry to write words for Marvel comics with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hemming the Water is a riff on sound and song, a book that gets in the head of—or into conversation with—figures like Mary Lou Williams, Toni Morrison, Ruth Stone, Pablo Neruda. “A door & the darkness,” a “song in the head of a heathen.” One poem is called “The Riot Inside Me,” one is titled “Chatterblue,” another “Gingivitis, Notes on Fear.” As a book of discovery, discovering the self and its histories and burdens, it registers, in brash delicate gorgeous styles, “The shock / Of your voice.”
That voice finds another level of rue and ecstasy in You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, a book riddled with heartbreak, with the edge that a divorce drives into things, with the bottomless sadness a sibling’s suicide opens up. But those things are beneath the surface, in many ways, of the style, which is almost chipper, always aware, leading us through the sometimes surreal, sci-fi territory like a museum guide—Harvey worked at the Smithsonian when she was younger—and at the same time they have an incantatory music, a Yusef Komunyakaa-like magic. Some of that comes from the fact that Harvey wrote her book at the same time that she became a young mother, and she found herself saying her lines over and over in her head as she looked after the little one, until she could find a breather to write them down. In this sense, the work goes back to the roots of poetry as incantation and memorable song, and though they affect a futuristic air, their ways are as old as poetry itself. Some of them are sonnets, but here’s one in couplets called “The Sonnet District,” whose opening lines remember a time when “woke” was a word that belonged only to the Black community, before it was pirated and turned slur:
“Stay woke,” my ex whispered, easing into boxer shorts
& skittering from bed sheets to backdoor, steeplechasing
the furniture in less than sixty seconds. Turns out he’d been working
for the Federal Bureau of Invisible Women & his real name wasn’t Tyrone,
which I should have known because when was the last time
I’d met a Tyrone in the black-hole atmosphere of post- & -ish?
Turns out I’d been somnambulating most of my adult life with nary a hint
of productive suspiciousness. Turns out I’d been wooed by the red-wine
rhythms of inebriated verse scrawled on napkins & slipped across
the close-quartered dinner tables of out-of-the-way restaurants …
JESSE NATHAN: Your collections feel to me restless, formally speaking. How do they come together? How do you revise?
YONA HARVEY: The poems might seem restless formally because there’s a restless thinking behind them. Also, the time span that tries capturing that thinking has a long and wandering reach. I’ve mentioned in other public spaces and conversations that the poems of Hemming the Water were written over days, weeks, and months when I used mnemonic exercises to hold the lines in my head while mothering. I didn’t have the option of jotting things down in a notebook while grocery shopping, changing diapers, and chasing toddlers. And so I developed a habit of repeating things (probably looked real strange to people) and chanting and literally using the syntax and patterns in children’s books to remember things by the time the end of day arrived and my kids were sleep. I’m not the same person I was when I started answering your question. So you can imagine, perhaps, similar metamorphoses taking place within my poems—from conception or sounding them out, to writing them in a notebook, to typing and revising them, to getting them published. The fragmentary design of the poems comes in part from sitting with the poems at different stages of thinking and life. At first I was completely embarrassed by this process. Honestly, I did not even recognize it as a formal process back then. I thought formal (accepted? conventional?) artistic processes were happening at writers’ retreats, in attic offices, in cabins, and whatnot—none of which I had access to. I just felt “behind” my MFA cohort and other writers who seemed be publishing “orderly” poems or first books. My work felt unwieldy. I remember one editor calling it “inconsistent” because the poems’ design, punctuation, and capitalization were not uniform throughout the manuscript. Very rarely did I sit and write a poem comprised of, say, couplets, quatrains, or whatever in a single session (have I ever?). But I also knew I was on to something. I just didn’t have the language to describe it. When I finally leaned into the restlessness of my mind and life, poetry—the poetry I needed—opened itself to me. That’s where the title, Hemming the Water, comes from. Hemming water is futile. Though it felt painful being alone or unrecognized, I’m so grateful for those many years of untangling the making of a poem in ways that made sense to me. I’d been trying at first to write some other woman’s poems (looking outward, comparing). And then I was like, wait, let me just write mine (searching within). That’s liberation.
When I revise, I fixate on all kinds of wordplay—punning; satire’s cousin, shade; and code-switching. I mean, what’s more playful than cutting up in plain sight? As a kid, I was always pushing the boundaries of talking back. Like, how far could you go without getting a whooping, getting put on punishment, or getting detention or put out of class? And how much did you let loose when you were clearly over the line and gonna get it anyway? That’s also tied to the art of repetition, I think. You have to be targeted in the word choice and delivery. It can’t be some random word or intonation if you’re gonna be slick and skillful about it. June Jordan’s “Letter to the Local Police” captures that intonation perfectly. And teaching Ross Gay’s Be Holding recently, I’m reminded of a great example of over-the-line-ness when Gay invokes Allen Iverson (see the “Practice” video on YouTube). That video has me weak every time. Hilarious. I’m highly attuned to that devilry when I revise.