This beautiful gathering showed poetry from Philly’s Black women and femmes is vibrant — and necessary | Opinion

The Score was the closing event of ConsenSIS, a Monument Lab initiative led by Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta B. Mayson.

Doing the Electric Slide as part of The Score, a ConsenSIS listening party and celebration at the Johnson House Historic Site in Germantown

Doing the Electric Slide as part of The Score, a ConsenSIS listening party and celebration at the Johnson House Historic Site in Germantown

Tieshka Smith for ConsenSIS PHL
mayaarthur

When I came across ConsenSIS, I felt a wave of inspiration.

As a poet, much of my work has dwelled on looking within. When I moved back to Philadelphia several years ago, I spent a lot of time walking around the city. These solo trips made me consider what my Blackness and womanhood look like in Philly. What does it mean to be simultaneously hyper-visualized and ignored?

The more I wrote about melancholia and isolation as a Black woman, the more withdrawn I felt. I yearned to connect with others who also write about Blackness, womanhood, and sisterhood. Poetry has long been used by Black Americans to express, cope, and form community together. I wondered if I could have a space to share with others, too.

ConsenSIS, which held its culminating event The Score last weekend, offered that space. Formed by former Philadelphia Poet Laureates Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta B. Mayson as a part of Monument Lab’s Re:Generation project, the initiative dives deep into Philadelphia’s legacy of Black women and femme poets.

ConsenSIS organizers Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta B. Mayson, both past Philadelphia poet Laureates

ConsenSIS organizers Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta B. Mayson, both past Philadelphia poet Laureates

Naomieh Jovin / Monument Lab

The project publicizes the work of women like Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker, and praises them for their impact on future generations. It works to create a new pillar with this project — one that represents poets like me.

“In our reimagining of monuments, we sought to put Black sisters at the center,” Mayson told me. “We also wanted to offer a ‘monument’ that highlighted not just our past as traditional monuments do, but also our present and future through poetry and music.”

This monument can even offer more, Wisher noted, because it’s not geographically constrained.

“With the materials we use as poets and spoken word artists, we found a unique way to make a monument that feels very much like Philly but can also travel anywhere,” Wisher said.

A gathering infused with the complexities of sisterhood

ConsenSIS emerged into the world with The Survey — interviews with Black women and femme poets across Philadelphia, asking how they began writing, their process, and identity.

The project’s first physical gathering took place last July. Called The Clearing, it was a retreat at Germantown’s Awbury Arboretum that focused on themes of nature, relaxation, and Black joy.

Participants dance during The Clearing, a ConsenSIS retreat at Awbury Arboretum

Participants dance during The Clearing, a ConsenSIS retreat at Awbury Arboretum

Tieshka Smith for ConsenSIS PHL

At the event, I felt heard. I felt a sense of togetherness. Despite our different backgrounds, incomes, and writing styles, The Clearing’s participants reached out to one another with a mindset of acceptance and appreciation.

These feelings bubbled up in “walkshops” like the one led by Angel Hogan, which let participants write as they walked the Arboretum trails. The experience drew inspiration from the poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who is known as the first Black woman to publish a short story.

“We aren’t reminded enough of the Black women and femme poet luminaries who occupied and continue to occupy this city. We don’t celebrate enough,” said Hogan. “The Clearing was a day full of these reminders.”

A public reading from prominent Philly writers, such as Pat McLean Smith, Kai Davis, and both Mayson and Wisher followed the retreat. During The Clearing, we showed that Black women and femmes can have booming and large voices, evoking matriarchs like Toni Morrison, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, and beyond.

The retreat allowed participants to find joy without being othered or invalidated. When the workshop ended, I was freer. I felt grateful to witness the vast layers of Black sisterhood, relishing and rejoicing in our complexities.

Poets write during The Clearing, a ConsenSIS retreat at Awbury Arboretum

Poets write during The Clearing, a ConsenSIS retreat at Awbury Arboretum

Tieshka Smith for ConsenSIS PHL

Validation through listening and embodying the soundscape

The Score was the final event for the project, an intimate salon held Oct. 8 at Germantown’s historic Johnson House. The date was chosen to mark the month when Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland followed the North Star to Philadelphia. It’s also the 29th anniversary of Toni Morrison becoming the first African American women to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

When I passed through The Score’s bright orange balloons onto the Johnson House lawn, I was instantly reminded of past gatherings like The Sisterhood, which June Jordan and Alice Walker used to network with other writers and create pathways for their work.

It was also a listening party for “Sisterly Affection,” a commissioned musical soundscape by Philadelphia composer Kendrah Butler-Waters.

In “Sisterly Affection,” Butler-Waters accounted for the layers and diversity of Black women and femmes.

“The challenging problem for Black women is our necessity to navigate the multiple layers of our identity, especially as it relates to our gender and our race,” the composer said. “Having a space to celebrate the complexities of our identity as beautiful Black and femme women in a literary creative space is powerful.”

Philly's Black women and femme poets celebrated one another at The Score, a listening party and celebration at the Johnson House in Germantown

Philly's Black women and femme poets celebrated one another at The Score, a listening party and celebration at the Johnson House in Germantown

Tieshka Smith for ConsenSIS PHL

To help bring The Score to life, ConsenSIS’ Wisher and Mayson enlisted choreographer and dancer Germaine Ingram to lead the audience in a set of simple movements.

This helped us hear Butler-Walters’s music through our ears and bodies, our arms cutting through the air as we danced out of our seats. We swayed to the sounds of the first names of poetic ancestors-Frances for Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Nellie for Nellie Rathbone Bright

We two-stepped, linked our arms, and rocked side-to-side. Some danced in the middle of our circle, improvising as they listened to the music. Eventually, the sun came out as we did the Electric Slide to the final notes of Butler-Waters’ piece.

I teared up as I listened to the soundscape. I found myself overjoyed by the movement, the work, and the Black women and femmes around me. It was special. We were only validating ourselves.

Trapeta B. Mayson, a past Philadelphia poet laureate and co-organizer of ConsenSIS, speaks at The Score

Trapeta B. Mayson, a past Philadelphia poet laureate and co-organizer of ConsenSIS, speaks at The Score

Tieshka Smith for ConsenSIS PHL

ConsenSIS showed that poetry from Black women and femmes in Philly is alive and vibrant, showing how necessary we are to Philly’s culture and history.

For Wisher, the project has shaped her as a poet.

“It represents a core identity and a path I walk through life-poetic Black womanhood,” Wisher said. “This project has been a gift and an evolution.”

Indeed, ConsenSIS has.

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