Philadelphia’s new poet laureate, Yolanda Wisher is looking out the window as she finishes a response. The Happy Bread Café in Germantown, where we’re sitting for our morning interview, used to be a Dunkin Donuts, and has large windows that allow you to see all of Germantown and Chelten. She’s noticing a man passing. His walk? Think Antonio Fargas. His facial hair? Think Mr. T, but with gel. “Oh, I like this brother’s outfit,” she says. He’s got on a blue and white printed set with a multicolored patchwork style jacket. He sees us watching, points and gives us one of those prideful nods. “That’s why I love this corner, because you get to see all kinds of Germantown,” she says. “It’s a crossroads. I love crossroads.”
Wisher has been writing poetry for 31 years, since she was 8. In North Wales, where she grew up, her mother and teachers noticed she had a talent, and encouraged her to pursue it. She’s been an English teacher, a poetry festival founder and a director of art education of Mural Arts before joining the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, which is not an actual federal department, but rather an organization of artists and arts advocates, where she serves as “rhapsodist of wherewithal.” (She came up with the title herself. “There aren’t any other rhapsodists yet, but I may have an assistant later this year,” she explains by email.) In 2014, she published her first book, Monk Eats an Afro, some its poems dating back to the late ’90s. The collection follows her course from a girl looking up to the women in her family to a woman preparing for motherhood.
Her appointment as Philadelphia’s third poet laureate was announced Friday. “You have to be a really strong poet, and she really is, on the page and in performance,” Beth Feldman Brandt, poet laureate governing committee executive director, told the Inquirer. “And you have to buy into the fact that this is a position of civic service. And she has already done so much, in Germantown and throughout this area, using poetry to get people to think more deeply about the community. We really felt as if we were hitching up to what she was already doing.”
“My Facebook page is just like exploding a little bit,” says Wisher. “I’ve been thinking about [my path] a lot. An honor like this makes you think about how you got here — all of the people, all of the things — that got you here.”
Over the course of her two-year term, she will read poems from Monk, but also plans to compose original work for particular occasions.
A good example of what makes Wisher unique as a writer can be found her poem “Diane.” “I heard it was/ bad luck to attend/ a funeral so heavy/ but I went/ to see you off/ anyway/ my body was full/ of somebody/ I didn’t know yet” — that’s the first stanza; here’s what made me tilt my head while reading: “as they wheeled you / to the front of the room / the sheet slipped away / and revealed a leg / ashen as a burnt log / slim as a dead stem / a leg I knew you / be ashamed of / a leg I knew you had / wrapped around a man once / the preacher said / spirit lived on / but I saw how / your leg had assimilated / and succumbed”. I had to ask her about that.
What inspired you to include moments like that? There’s so many moments where you’re talking about something serious, and then it goes sensual, or humorous, or goes another way. What draws you to those juxtapositions?
I think there’s something about the essence of poetry that is that juxtaposition, and finding the connection between things that don’t belong together. The distinctness of your voice really could be found in those juxtapositions or what you put together. T.S. Eliot isn’t going to put together things I would put together, and I’m not going to put together things that Billy Collins would put together. It gives me a way of having my own flavor. It’s also about that age old two sides to every story. And also about the hues of human experience.
For me, juxtaposition is like a weight, like a balance. One image kind of counterbalances the other, and reminds you that there’s this mix of emotions. Like when I was sitting there… Diane was such a life force to me. You know, I didn’t see her wrap a leg around a man; I didn’t see her do that. But I could imagine who she was before this illness came to her. The truth is I only knew her for a tiny bit of the time when she was “healthy.” There was a part of her that I would never know, just like there’s a part of every person that I may never be able to dive into in that way. So I try to account for that humanity in those juxtapositions, the other humanity, whether it’s the vulgar or the saintly. They all live in the same place for me because they all lived in my family.
What are your favorite poems of yours?
I love the poems about my son. I had all kinds of assumptions about being a mother and being a writer, if it was possible. I read all kinds of weird stories and myths. Even just recently, there’s this article about the key to being successful as a woman writer is to have one child only. I know a ton of women writers who have two, and it’s like, ‘Oops, guess I did something wrong.’ But [with those pieces] I’m trying to figure out my own way to be a mother and a poet. And poems like “Love is Like a Faucet,” where I’m breastfeeding and listening to Billie Holiday, and I’m still composing a poem. Like, ‘Ooh, I got this. I still I got it.’ Because I remember for a while that I didn’t know if I was going to be inspired to write, and I didn’t know if I’d have time to write, being a new mom. So those poems are achievements to me. They’re also kind of documents. The book is dedicated to my son. I hope that he’ll appreciate these poems one day.
After performing Ruby Flo, a poem on menstruation, in a Mennonite church, is there anything in your collection that you’re scared to recite at an official event as poet laureate?
Not scared, I always feel like I want to be respectful in places and appropriate. So I do think a lot about tone, striking the right tone for an audience. And what do people need to hear at this occasion, or in this space? Sometimes it’s about what I’m feeling or what I want to share, but it’s also often about, a lot of times, showing up to meetings and feeling out the room. I take in the energy, and I also want to give it back in some way.
I like being able to show up and code shift. I have a lot of tongues, a lot of different vernaculars. To me the beauty of poetry is all those different voices, and how to wear that when you walk into different spaces, with kids, with seniors, with government folk or corporations. It’s something I’m really excited about. Poetry has to enter all those different spaces to really affect culture shift. There’s still a lot of work to bring value to these arts in all of these different sectors of society. I get to be around folks who celebrate the arts. I’m immersed by that. But there’s still a lot of people who feel threatened by the arts, who don’t see the value. They haven’t been touched by the spirit of art in the way a lot of us have. I think we’re in danger of having more people like that when we don’t have the arts as a presence in our education system. Our civic institutions, where people are, art needs to be more than a decoration. It needs to be more than just a little piece of the entertainment at the beginning. It needs to be more than a house band. It needs to be front and center.
I’m not interested in doing it alone because there’s already a lot here to work with. It just needs to be seen, and heard and lifted. I’m interested in going into those spaces that people don’t necessarily think poetry should be in, could be in, deserves to be in. Yeah, there’s still a lot of work to do.
I think you may have just answered what was going to be last question to you, which was what you hope to bring as poet laureate.
Well, that’s more specific. (She stops to think.) You know there’s a question I read on a comment thread, I think it was that 6ABC posted a story about me. And then I decided to read the comments of the article.
That’s a scary thing to do.
Bad idea. But it gave me a poem. It was something like, ‘What does a poet have to do with changing society or impacting society?’ or something like that. But I was like, ‘That is the reason why I am the poet laureate,’ because I know the answer to that question. I’ve been shaped, transformed by poetry. Poetry saved me. I grew up in an abusive household. There were drugs in our house. I didn’t feel safe all the time. I was a black girl in a predominately white school and environment, and I felt isolated, and it was my voice. And there were teachers who knew that, teachers who knew that that’s how I was going to get somewhere. And I’ve seen kids using poetry to get out of some situation similar to mine. I’ve seen that. So it gets me going when I read a comment like that. Because I’m like dude, you just don’t know. You don’t know. You haven’t been watching Brave New Voices. You’ve never been to a Philly Youth Poetry Slam.
There are poets here who are teachers social workers and social counselors and politicians, who are civically engaged and writing, advocating for all kinds of causes in their poetry. You hear that in every single poetry reading across the city. So you can’t tell me that a poet can’t impact society. Society is us.
If there’s anything I can do, it’s to answer that question and make it a question not worth asking.
This interview has been edited and condensed.