Yona Harvey sits smiling
Award-winning poet and Marvel Comics scribe Yona Harvey at Federal Galley. Harvey will be leaving the University of Pittsburgh, where she has taught since 2013, for a tenured position at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo by Tony Norman.

If you love jazz and playing around with structure as much as the acclaimed poet Yona Harvey does, you can hear echoes of the iconic Pittsburgh jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams’ subtle, but powerful performances in her work. 

Her two award-winning poetry collections — 2013’s “Hemming the Water” (Stahlecker Selections) and 2020’s “You Don’t Have to go to Mars for Love” (Four Way Books) — make the case for Harvey’s quiet virtuosity.

Because her poetry has always explored the sometimes fitful tension between the lyrical and the dynamic, Harvey was the first person who bestselling author, essayist and comics scribe Ta-Nehisi Coates thought of when he was looking for a collaborator to deepen the mythos of Marvel’s “Black Panther” universe in the comics. 

Harvey chronicled the adventures of “Black Panther & the Crew” with Coates and “The World of Wakanda” with essayist Roxane Gay, establishing a story arc for gay characters that wasn’t as predictably exotic or simultaneously pedestrian as it had been in the past. 

Coates didn’t recruit his fellow Howard University buddy to become one of the first Black women to write for the world’s most influential comic book company because he was feeling nostalgic. He reached out to Harvey because he knew she already understood the economy of words the job requires, the power of images and the medium’s potential to tell stories about the kind of people who occupy her imagination.

The cover of Yona Harvey's 'You Don't Have to Go to Mars for Love,'
The poems in Yona Harvey’s “You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love,” follow an “unnamed protagonist on her multidimensional, Afro-futuristic journey.” Cover art courtesy of Yona Harvey.

Harvey earned an undergraduate degree in English from Howard, a graduate degree in English from Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2013, Harvey and her then-husband, poet and MacArthur “genius” award winner Terrance Hayes, began teaching creative writing at Pitt’s English department where she was hired as an assistant professor.

It was quite a coup for Pitt to land the glamorous and intellectually stimulating couple. Hayes had been teaching creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University since 2001, so bringing both on board to teach at Pitt represented something of a homecoming.

Both were staunch supporters of the Cave Canem movement and helped organize major conferences at Pitt and City of Asylum that attracted large audiences for many of the best African-American poets in the country.

When their daughter and son recently finished college and high school respectively, Harvey officially became an empty nester and more open to job and relocation possibilities that wouldn’t have appealed to her in the past. After a year of mulling over her options, Harvey has accepted a fully tenured position at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, teaching writing, poetry and a course or two on comics and graphic novels.

Even though there isn’t much information about the pop culture courses on the school’s website, she’s already heard from students sniffing around for clues about what to expect.

The following has been extracted from a longer Q&A.

The cover of 'Hemming the Water' by Yona Harvey
“Hemming the Water” by Yona Harvey won the 2014 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, was a finalist for the 2014 Ohioana Book Award, a nominee for the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry, and a finalist for the 2013 IndieFab Award for Poetry. Cover art courtesy of Yona Harvey.

NEXT/Norman: So, what’s so alluring about Smith College?

Harvey: It’s beautiful. It’s a small all-women’s liberal arts college that has an incredible library. Sylvia Plath’s papers are there. They also have a lot of special collections, poetry, comics and zines.

Norman: Did you get the call from Smith College or were you looking around thinking: I need a change?

Harvey: I knew when my son graduated from high school I wanted to leave. 

Norman: You’ve already taught in a variety of environments. What are your expectations for Smith College?

Harvey: I feel like this population is going to challenge me in terms of activism and women’s rights.

Norman: In what way? Is it going to make you “up your game?”

Harvey: Yeah, step up my game. My favorite all-time job was teaching at an all-girls middle school in New Orleans. That was a special time. It was very hard to leave that place. We left because my ex-husband got a job in Pittsburgh. That’s how I ended up here. So I’m excited to see if that same kind of magic is there in an all-women’s space.

Norman: You’ve been doing your best writing here in Pittsburgh during the last five years. Your introductory essay to Brian Broome’s book “Punch Me Up to the Gods” is terrific. Are you afraid of losing that at all?

Harvey: No, I think the freer I get …

Norman: [Laughs] What does freer mean in this context?

Harvey: Less domestic. No more husband [laughs]. No more children. I feel like the wilder and freer I can get in terms of time and space to think … I feel like I’m confronted by the thoughts in my own head.

Norman: In exit interviews, there’s always the airing of hard truths about the place you’re leaving. What are some of the best things about Pittsburgh and some of the things you would love to see change?

Harvey: The best things are the networks of writers and artists. It’s a very good place to be a writer. On any given day you can go to White Whale or a university and attend a poetry reading, Drue Heinz lecture series. I mean, you are never wanting for literary or artistic events here. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s also a close-knit group.

The things you love can also be a hair’s breadth away from things that could be problematic, too. I guess I’m a little worried about Pittsburgh’s ability to see and appreciate diverse people. I think there’s a real lack of understanding about that.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.