The Prairie Schooner Book Prize
is in its final weeks. To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid talks to Prairie Schooner
contributors about the writing life. This week: Yona Harvey, whose essay "On Literacy" appears in our gorgeous Winter issue
First, can you talk about the beautiful cover of your prize-winning book, Hemming the Water?
Thanks for mentioning the cover. The talented and generous Maya Freelon Asante kindly permitted the reproduction of her piece, "Us, Me, We" on the cover of my book. She works with large pieces of tissue paper. The title of the piece and the work itself really spoke to me and felt very in sync with Hemming the Water. I'm forever indebted to Maya for the gift of her art.
Your writing is interconnected with music and sound--both in the music you make as a writer in your poems, and in the music that you return to as subject matter. Can you talk about music's importance to you?
I grew up in a musical household and reaped the benefits of having a music-loving extended family. There are no limits to the kinds of music I'll listen to. Music is such a unifying art. One of the most intriguing things to me about people is discovering the kinds of music they love. If my poems can capture just a flicker of some of the great moments in music--the changes, the lyrics, the pauses--I'd be happy.
In your essay "On Literacy" in our Winter issue, you describe the attraction of reading as something full of mystery, secrecy, and at times (though not always) solitude. I was very struck by the two young girls in the essay reading things that were a bit beyond them, and "discover[ing] a kind of unnameable grimness that drew them in" (54). Do you still encounter that mystery when you read?
I do! That's the joy of having bookish friends who recommend good reads.
How did the essay come to you? Can you take us through the writing process a bit?
The essay actually began many years ago as a prompt from one of my Information Science professors, the late Maggie Kimmel. Dr. Kimmel basically asked, what are your first memories of reading? I found the original response--which was only about a paragraph long--and I decided to expand it. Without charting every grade too literally, I just tried working through the "movements" of literacy. I don't often write about growing up and I'm not a very nostalgic person. But I wanted to tap into those moments of deep feeling. Reading--especially reading the works of my choice--was the pathway to independence and later to consciousness as a young woman and as a black American.
Who are the writers you return to again and again in your own reading life, now?
There are too many to name! I often find myself re-reading Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Jamaica Kincaid, James Baldwin, Toi Derricotte, and Rae Armantrout.
Yona Harvey is the author of the poetry collection, Hemming the Water, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her work has been anthologized in many publications including The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-Garde and Writing Away the Stigma: Ten Courageous Writers Tell True Stories About Depression, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, OCD, PTSD & more. She is currently co-writing with Ta-Nehisi Coates a Marvel comic, Black Panther and The Crew. She teaches in the University of Pittsburgh Writing Program.