"Other than teaching, how does one earn a living as a poet?" I ask.
"Right," Yona says and laughs.
I'm not posing the question hypothetically, but in earnest. After filming Yona for my documentary series Healthy Artists -- on the lives and struggles of American creatives -- I am still thirsty for survival tips. How can creatives who freelance, wait tables, and piece together stressful hodgepodge livings achieve security? I figure if anyone has advice, it's a poetry power couple like Yona and Terrance.
"Artists have to be resilient," Yona says.
Yona Harvey is the 2014 winner of the prestigious Kate Tufts Discovery Award for her book Hemming the Water. Her husband Terrance Hayes has a National Book Award, Pushcart Prize, and Guggenheim Fellowship to his name. Both poets have won the academic lottery by today's standards, which is to say they hold full-time professorships.
"How long were you an adjunct?" I ask.
"Eight years and I was also mothering two small children at the time. I had no health insurance or benefits through the university, but I was married so I got health insurance through my husband," Yona says. "Then I thought about what if you're not partnered or married? You can be in a lot of trouble, you know?"
Back in 1969, over 78 percent of college professors were tenured or tenure-track. Students in the arts and humanities could reasonably dream of future stability -- earning a middle-class income, teaching a friendly classroom of upwardly mobile pupils, and thriving with access to health care -- all while writing the next great American novel.
"I'm nervous for my students," Yona says. "They don't get what it means to adjunct. They can't conceive that their professors are poverty-level without health care."
These days, 75 percent of college professors are adjuncts. To top it off, many universities, libraries, and art institutions are deliberately cutting hours, so they don't have to provide their workers with health insurance.
"My question to the country is, 'Why would you want creative people to suffer?'" Yona says. "Artists create institutions that draw people to America from around the world and it's shameful not to support them."
Artist, adjunct, or otherwise, the uninsured should explore their options at healthcare.gov. You can even get coverage "all for what it costs you to pay your cellphone bill," according to Obama's quirky March 2014 appearance on Between Two Ferns. However, no one should feel alone if affordable care still seems out of reach. Nearly five million uninsured Americans are "too poor for Obamacare."
"I am happy for the small steps, but universal health care is the ideal," Yona says. "I want people to keep pushing."
Learn more about how to advocate for single-payer universal health care at Healthcare-NOW!