The Poetry Center asked, "Which books made you, and which books are making you now?" Poet Yona Harvey offers this narrated bibliography to her literary DNA.
By Yona Harvey
I've always been a slow reader, which makes me, by default, I suppose, a slow writer. When I discover interesting books and articles, I reread them again and again. I enjoy a book that "troubles the water," as my friend and fellow poet Douglas Kearney says. There's little worry about playing nice or writing what others might call appropriate. There's much more curiosity, deep digging, and audacity at work. There’s the occasional discomfort, inexplicable remnants of feeling, and unanswered questions these writers have forced this reader/listener to carry into her own life. There's also the feeling of snapping awake—like when clippers nick the nape, like when a bee buzzes close to the ear. This risk-taking, plus healthy doses of deep and persistent meditation, is what I'm after while composing my second full-length poetry manuscript and first nonfiction book. There's another pivotal book I'm reading; but as the multi-disciplinary artist Vanessa German once wisely told me, "Some things we need to keep close to ourselves."
Als, Hilton. The Women. New York: The Noonday Press, 1996.
"I began trying to pry Mrs. Little out from under the Autobiography by imagining..."
Hilton Als, the essayist and theater critic has taught me the benefits of uncensored speculation and imagination in nonfiction or autobiographical writing. He has also challenged me to think even more about the distinctions, cultural gaps, and misunderstandings among blacks in the diaspora—a journey that for me began immediately after high school graduation and into and beyond life as a Howard undergraduate. Als doesn't waste time begging a reader's pardon or cushioning the subjects about which he writes—including revered writers and his own family members. Als just goes there. He takes a hammer to the assumed unified black experience that sometimes surfaces in American culture. Consider hiltonals.com and"Pryor Love"). In addition to offering strange and fascinating meditations on the women in his life, this book is a great example of writing audaciously. It dispenses with the subtle and not-so subtle slights against U.S. born blacks of slave ancestry cropping up lately (see Terri Gross's interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) and the curious term of "ethnic blacks" in Diana Ozemhoya Ermosele's "The Annoyingly Effective Ways African and Caribbean Parents Get Their Kids to Get A’s" on The Root) and offers its firm opinion. In one of the most curious moments ofThe Women (and, perhaps, the least forgiving), Als questions what he sees as Malcolm X's autobiographical neglect of the activist's West Indian mother, Louise Little, who emigrated from Grenada to the U.S. What specifically, he asks, is Mrs. Little's story? It’s the particulars that make art powerful. The letting go of the projection of a perfect self makes for powerful art, too.
Césaire, Aimé. Aimé Césaire, The Collected Works. Clayton Eshleman and Annette J. Smith, eds. Oakland: University of California Press, 1984.
"The music of poetry...comes from a greater distance than sound. To seek to musicalize poetry is the crime against poetic music, which can only be the striking of the mental wave against the rock of the world."
The gifts of this book are many. There's the care of Eshleman and Smith's introduction (challenging, meticulously researched and organized) and, of course, Césaire’s own writings. I suppose, now that I think about it, Als' writings are in dialogue with Césaire’s. Césaire’s poems feel both intuitive and targeted and, of course, very musical.
Hamblin, James, Katherine Wells, and Paul Rosenfeld. “Single-Tasking is the New Multitasking.” The Atlantic, 2014.
"To be fully present on the Internet at any given moment is a rare thing."
Why do I stay offline and silence my cell phone 9AM to 3PM whenever I'm fortunate enough to have a writing residency? And why do I implement this same practice as often as possible whenever I'm home in Pittsburgh? This video offers some explanation. One thing I have to admit, though: the Internet surfing process Hamblin describes is exactly what happens whenever I go to the library. That’s how I’ve been reading and writing for years. Not even Tabless Thursdays will change that.
Kearney, Douglas. Patter. Los Angeles: Red Hen, 2014.
"I love your body. I hate it."
This is kind of a cheat. Doug, whom I’ve known since we were teenagers at Howard, let me read Patter in manuscript form over a year ago. The book itself, though, is beautifully designed—inside and out. He writes brilliantly about a couple’s infertility struggles and the eventual birth of their twins. There’s a space where love and hate sleep right alongside one another—and this book dares to enter that space.
Kincaid, Jamaica. At the Bottom of the River. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.
"In my dream I can hear a baby being born."
I have read this book at least once a year for so many years, I stopped counting.
Morris, Tracie. Rhyme Scheme. New York: Zasterle Press, 2012.
“My first word was an error. According to the machine I spoke it in.”
Somewhere around 1994, Tracie Morris facilitated a writing and performance workshop at Howard on Ethridge Knight. She recited Knight's poems (I can still hear her chanting "ka-doom," "ka-doom," "ka-doom-doom.") and I was hooked. And I'm still marveling at the poetry and sounds this woman creates. She sent me on a crazy journey to unpack the mysteries of rhythm and musicality in poetry. Listen to her work and commentaries on Penn Sound. You will be blown away. Morris (and Thomas Sayers Ellis) has deeply affected the way I hear poetry.
Rambsy III, Howard. “Coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Case for Reparations’.” Cultural Front: A Notebook on Literary Art, Digital Humanities, and Emerging Ideas.
“A year ago, I heard Coates mention that he was working on the piece; I've been interested watching the roll-out and commentary.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about annotating, mixing, collaging. The Internet is ripe for all of that. But I don’t think anyone can mature as an artist by “borrowing” everything. Who said, good poets borrow, great poets steal? Some people have taken that idea way too literally. I absorb information like crazy. But I also recognize the difficulty of being alone with my thoughts, anxieties, and processes. And, for goodness sake, give credit where credit is due. Cite sources.
Anyway: among so many Internet black holes, I'm thrilled to see someone documenting and organizing an important conversation like the one Ta-Nehisi Coates initiated with his Atlantic article. Rambsy is not surfing the Internet and posting others’ work as his own. He’s documenting an entire process. That takes time and discipline.
Williams, Mary Lou. “The Devil.” And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. The Roots. New York: Def Jam Recordings, 2014. MP3.
“So don’t it strike you funny when you look him in the eye? The devil looks a lot like you and I.”
Every artist needs a muse or a patron saint or whatever you want to call her. Mary Lou Williams is mine. When Doug Kearney called and told me Williams was on The Roots’ latest record, I couldn’t believe it! “The Devil” is actually from the composer’s album, Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes (1964). You must listen to the original recording in full. Interesting how the great voices of women like Nina Simone (also on this album and on Kanye West’s most recent) have become the anchoring samples on hip-hop albums. Mary Lou Williams composed songs for and took good care of many male jazz musicians in her lifetime.
Sedaris, David. “Now We Are Five,” New Yorker. 28 Oct. 2013: 26-30. Print.
"A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling?"
Years ago, the poet Kristin Naca recommended I read Sedaris’s work. After my sister’s death, Naca sent me a talisman. Unable to read poetry, I was reminded again of Naca’s recommendation and purchased Me Talk Pretty One Day. Like the talisman, Sedaris’s work has stayed with me for many years now. He’s the go-to author whenever I feel my writing taking itself too seriously.
Now We Are Five arrived at my doorstep with perfect timing. I was beginning Lee Gutkind’s “Writing Away the Stigma” workshop trying to get a handle, once again, on why exactly I felt compelled to write my sister’s story. I love the way Sedaris writes compassionately about his sibling, but without turning the woman into a clichéd saint. His sister was difficult, he admits; and arguing with her, he writes, was exhausting. So much so, when Sedaris’ sister died, her brother hadn’t spoken to her in six years. Of course, there’s humor in this essay; but its heft is in the perfectly timed zingers of seriousness and sincerity. Reading and rereading this essay is like listening to a beautifully composed song. I know the changes that are coming, but they floor me every time.
Zucker, Rachel. MOTHERs. Denver: Counterpath, 2014.
When I read with Rachel Zucker in the KGB Reading Series in New York last spring, Zucker gifted me a copy of her new book, MOTHERs. At home in Pittsburgh, I devoured the book in less than a week—and the reading only took that long because I kept returning to certain chapters before moving on. Zucker’s writing is at ease with itself; but, to be sure, the prose is not “easy” reading. Reading MOTHERs is like following the odd path of Zucker’s thought-patterns, the starts and stops, and the uncertainties. I’ve always been suspicious of know-it-alls, bristling beneath their lectures and facts of life. Zucker is not that writer. In her work resides so much searching, so much contemplation and the risk of second guessing oneself. And the battle with the Great Mother.
Yona Harvey is the author of the poetry collection, Hemming the Water, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University. Her work has been published and anthologized in many places including Callaloo, jubilat, The Volta, and A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry (ed. Annie Finch). Her work has also been commissioned by poet and visual artist Vanessa German as part of German’s museum installation “It’s Out of My Hands,” 21st Century Juju: New Magic, Soul Gadgets, and Reckoning.” Harvey also created a audio poem for visual artist Casey Droege’s Six x Ate project (MOCA Cleveland). She directed the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University before coming to The University of Pittsburgh where she is currently an assistant professor in the Writing Program. She lives with her family in the Pittsburgh neighborhood not far from where jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams grew up. Her website is yonaharvey.com