Across Time And Space, Poet Channels Other Voices

Feb 22, 2021

In poet Yona Harvey’s latest collection, “You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love” (Four Way Books), several poems feel equal parts composition and collage. And there’s a reason for that.

The 26 poems explore everything from parenthood to America’s legacy of racism. Most are more conventionally laid out. But Harvey says she considers all her work collaborations of a sort. In the case of “Performance Perm / ‘I’d Rather Be A Blind Girl,” it's as a kind of communion with the late blues singer Etta James.

“Something told me My mama waited too long to mention it was over. When I saw you with that girl & yall was talking her neighbor saw you with that girl & yall was talking cueing your music all summer long  Something deep down —scotch  Something deep down & water,” go the opening lines.

“I love the idea that my books aren't written by themselves, on my own,” Harvey said. “It’s not me who alone is fueling this work. I feel like I'm continuing in a tradition and a conversation with Black women, Black artists, people across time, and so I think those voices are in my head often, and so it's important that those multiple voices show up on the page.”

Likewise, the title poem was written when Harvey was one of a small group of participants in a project led by the artist Casey Droege exploring the idea of symbiosis. The poem dissects a fraught marriage: “A powerful. & symbiotic. relationship. / But what about. the sharp blade. / of autonomy. The empty lab. / Was that a squeak. in the engine.”

The technique takes other forms, too. “Hush Harbor” begins:

What does it mean to see a black church burn?

       bear’s breech, bluestar

and, furthermore, I buried my sister

       hushed, white roses

&, furthermore, I buried my lover

and, anyway, he never said, “forgive”

June-yanked yarrow

       barrenwort creeps

Harvey’s interpolation of the simple names of flowers intensifies the expression of anguish and rage.

“You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love” is the second collection by Harvey, an associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she’s currently on sabbatical.

"I love the idea that my books aren't written by themselves, on my own"

Other influences on her work are less obvious. One is superhero comics. Several years back, Harvey became one of the first Black women to write for Marvel Comics. She has worked on the World of Wakanda series, and co-authored, with Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Black Panther and the Crew.” She was also the first Black woman to write for the X-Men character Storm. But the effect of these projects on her poetry has been more visual than verbal, and it’s evident in the unusual layouts of certain poems, in line breaks and images.

“The Dream District / Origins,” for instance, mimics a questionnaire where the answers don’t necessarily match up, and a second column of text runs parallel to the poem’s main body, as if annotating it.

Harvey said that while writing these poems, she was “thinking about that relationship between, you know, image manipulation, time manipulation, when you break a line in a poem, and how that can be similar to panel transitions in comics and page-turns in comics, the surprises and reveals. I really tapped into that in a way that I hadn’t in the past.”

The Black Panther comics (and the hit 2018 film) are often cited as prime examples of Afrofuturism, an art movement that explores the intersection of African diasporic culture and high technology. Some readers, perhaps taking a hint from the interplanetary reference in her new collection’s title, have called Harvey’s poetry Afrofuturistic. Harvey herself is ambivalent about the label.

“I honestly feel it's not really my wheelhouse, but if it's a productive description for people, then I'm fine with it,” she said. “I do love fantasy and sci-fi and I wrote, you know, stories that took place in Wakanda. … Those leanings are there. But I don't necessarily see it as maybe the dominant feature of the book.”

However, her sense that her poems are collaborative does have a tinge of time-travel to it, she acknowledged. “I think the thing that I connect to the most would be time-bending, and thinking about having conversations across time or simultaneously, this notion that the past, the present and the future are occurring all at once,” she said.

Or as Harvey puts it in “Segregation Continuum,” regarding our sense of the future in the present: “we who believe in freedom cannot rest / looking at the way we look looking forward.”