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Imagine Otherwise: Yolanda Wisher on Poetry as Community Engagement

Imagine Otherwise: Yolanda Wisher on Poetry as Community Engagement

retro
September 20, 2017
Yolanda Wisher wearing a black shirt and laughing

How can poetry connect to and grow with a neighborhood? How can cultural workers blend their academic and creative efforts to better serve both their communities and themselves? How might we build more intergenerational community spaces in the places that we live and work?

In episode 48 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, Cathy Hannabach interviews Philadelphia Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher about poetry as a community engagement practice; blending academic, artistic, and activist experiences in one’s everyday work; and how building a world where everyone is able to find and utilize their gifts is key to her way of imagining otherwise.

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Guest: Yolanda Wisher

Yolanda Wisher is the 2016–17 poet laureate of Philadelphia. Yolanda has been a force within Philadelphia’s literary scene for the past two decades, upholding poetry as a public art.

She holds a BA in English and Black studies from Lafayette College and an MA in creative writing/poetry from Temple University.

At the age of 23, Yolanda served as the inaugural poet laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the poetry volume Monk Eats an Afro (Hanging Loose Press, 2014) and co-edited the anthology Peace is a Haiku Song (Philadelphia Mural Arts, 2013) with mentor and first Philadelphia Poet Laureate Sonia Sanchez.

Yolanda taught high school English for ten years, founded and directed a neighborhood festival headlined by youth poets in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and worked as Director of Art Education for the Philadelphia Mural Arts.

She has led and curated many innovative and community-driven programs with local and national partners, including The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Historic Germantown, LiveConnections, and the US Department of Arts and Culture. In April 2017, in collaboration with Philadelphia Contemporary, she organized the Outbound Poetry Festival, the first pop-up poetry festival in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

Yolanda performs a unique blend of poetry and song with her band The Afroeaters, and her writings have been featured in a variety of media including GOOD MagazinePennSoundThe Philadelphia InquirerThe Philadelphia CitizenContemporary Black CanvasHarriet the BlogPoetryNowObsidian, Ploughshares, and CBC Radio. She is a Pew Fellow, Cave Canem Fellow, and Hedgebrook Writer-in-Residence.

She lives in Germantown, Philadelphia.

Yolanda Wisher wearing a black shirt and laughing. Text reads: There's so much energy and vitality in poetry's performance. There's something electric that happens when a poet is willing to go there in front of an audience.

We chatted about

  • Yolanda’s attraction to poetry as a creative form (2:19)
  • Yolanda’s work organizing poetry festivals and poetry in public (4:22)
  • The importance of building a poetry practice rooted in one’s community (7:40)
  • Yolanda’s experience as an English teacher and how she transitioned to a career as a full-time poet (10:53)
  • How educators can make more room for creative and activist work in their lives (13:27)
  • Yolanda’s efforts in braiding together pedagogy, activism, academics, and artistic work (15:13)
  • Imagining otherwise (17:19)

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Takeaways

What drew Yolanda to poetry

I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. I was just one of those freak little creatures who kind of just loved poetry from a young age. I tried to write it, though I was trying to write songs mostly. I got into the lyric, the musicality of poetry, the rhyme and the rhythm of it, before I knew what it could do on the social scale. But I was also drawn as a young person and as a teenager to the truth-telling that poetry provided in my own life. As I moved into workshops, [the appeal was also] being able to hear people stories and life experiences through poetry, and also being able to see people use poetry as a catalyst for change in their lives or their communities. That keeps drawing me back to poetry again and again.

The performance of poetry

It’s fun! There is so much energy and vitality in poetry’s performance. Because of the truth-telling, because of the humor, and the vulnerability that it requires. There’s something electric about the poet that is willing to go there in front of an audience to really explore the full range of the voice, the vibrations that it sends out to other people, and the ways that it feels inside your body. It’s really important to me that poetry operates in public spaces. It isn’t just a private endeavor. I think both of those realms are really important to activate as a poet. And for me to feel complete as a poet, I like to be able to share in that public experience but also retreat sometimes back into the intimacy. I also think it’s about turning the intimacy into a public experience. That’s when I think it gets really surprising and sometime sexy and funky and all of the messy and beautiful things that I think embody humanity.

Yolanda’s community-based poetry practice

It [began in] a moment, I think in my 20s when I moved back to the neighborhood I was born in. Germantown. which is a historic neighborhood in Philadelphia, has been through a lot of changes that mirror the changes cities have gone through in the United States. Coming back to this place as a poet and as a young adult and seeing some of the issues that were present in the community that are not fixed by people getting around a table and having a meeting about it, I started to really challenge myself and be challenged by the kids in my neighborhood, the educational system in this neighborhood, I was really challenged to think about how I could contribute, and contribute authentically, contribute with something that I knew and could stand up behind. What I knew was poetry. I know poetry really well, I know this up and down and love it to death. I started thinking, “how can I use this? How can I use what I have in my own neighborhood?” That’s the beginning of any community arts work that I do.

Being an English teacher and poet

It was such a stubborn kind of transition because I never expected to be an English teacher. I kind of took it as a job before I got to be a famous poet in my 20s….It grew on me, especially approaching education through the lens of my vocation of poetry. As an English teacher you can engage students through the passion and the fun of language that I feel sometimes, as a poet, is totally killed in the English classroom. It was hard for me to be an English teacher for so long and to kind of suppress my own growth to promote so many others, to promote the gifts of a lot young people. That was really enjoyable and rewarding, and still is for me, to do that work. But there were a lot of times where I just kind of hid behind that work as an artist and didn’t really give myself time to cultivate. There were a lot of long hours on the weekends, late nights where I tried to keep the fire of my poetry going.

Multifaceted sites of community engagement

I’ve always been a person who loved school, school was always a refuge for me growing up. I loved being on a college campus and all of the experiences that invited and the growth. By the time I got to grad school studying poetry, I started to feel that there have to be more places on the planet where these kind of intersections happen, these intersections of art, academia, and activism….It became important for me to create community spaces where you could have these really intergenerational, diverse groups of people coming from diverse backgrounds engaged in academic and artistic work being active in their communities. I feel like that’s what makes me whole as a person.

Imagining otherwise

Whenever I think about big questions, I think about my great grandmother and the lessons that she taught me that I learned as a kid. They’re still the same things that drive me. I remember asking her what her favorite color was. She said all of the colors, she didn’t get into all of the heaviness and the big discussion, at the time I may have been 6 or 7 years old. She taught me about seeing the beauty in all those colors. That’s the kind of thing that stays with me. The other thing she said to me on her deathbed was ‘you have a gift, use it.’ To me, the better world is about people going in search of those gifts, people trying to find out what that gift is. When she said that to me, I was 9 years old. I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought maybe I had some gift of being able to see through walls or thought I was clairvoyant. I’ve thought about that for 41 years. What is my gift? How do I use it? What did she mean? I’ve met other people who were like ‘my grandma said something similar to me like that!’ Maybe it’s a grandma thing that’s passed on. I hope that I’m passing that on as a grandma. I hope that there are children and adults just continually in search of those gifts, and also feeling like how can I use this to make a better world.

More from Yolanda Wisher

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

    [00:22] This is episode 48 and my guest today is Yolanda Wisher. Yolanda is the current Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. Wisher has been a force within Philadelphia’s literary scene for the past two decades, upholding poetry as a public art. A 2015 Pew Fellow, Yolanda is the author of the book Monk Eats an Afro (Hanging Loose Press, 2014) and the co-editor of Peace is a Haiku Song (Philadelphia Mural Arts, 2013). Yolanda performs a unique blend of poetry and song with her band The Afroeaters, and her writings have been featured in a variety of media including GOOD Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Contemporary Black Canvas, Ploughshares, and CBC Radio.

    Yolanda taught high school English for ten years, which we talk about in the interview, and she founded and directed a neighborhood festival headlined by youth poets in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. She also worked as Director of Art Education for the Philadelphia Mural Arts.

    Yolanda has led workshops and curated events in partnership with The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rosenbach Museum and Library, The People’s Paper Co-op, Artwell, Historic Germantown, and LiveConnections.

    And in April of this year, she organized the first pop-up poetry festival in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station in collaboration with Philadelphia Contemporary.

    [01:42] In our interview we chat about the role of Yolanda’s poetry in Philadelphia’s historic Germantown neighborhood, why teachers should do creative assignments alongside their students, and how her great-grandmother’s advice about crayons inspired her approach to imagining otherwise.

    [To Yolanda] Thank you so much for being with us today.

    Yolanda Wisher: Thank you for having me.

    Cathy: So let’s just jump right in. You are the poet laureate of Philadelphia, which is incredibly exciting, and you have a really long history of work in the arts here in Philly. I’m curious what draws you to poetry as a form. How did you get into poetry?

    Yolanda [02:23]: I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. I was just one of those freak kind of creatures who loved poetry from a young age and tried to write it when I was trying to write songs. Mostly I got into the lyric, the musicality of poetry, the rhyme of it, and the rhythm of it before I knew what it could do on a social scale.

    I was also drawn as a young person and as a teenager to the truth-telling that poetry provided in my own life. As I moved into workshops, I was able to hear people’s stories and life experiences through poetry, able to see people use poetry as a catalyst for change in their lives or their communities. That keeps drawing me back to poetry again and again,

    Cathy [03:08]: These are in many ways issues that you explore in your performance work but also in your book Monk Eats an Afro. And that book is really fantastic in the range of issues that it addresses. I mean, you’re talking about gender, you’re talking about racism, you’re talking about motherhood and mentorship and how all of these things intersect with one another. I’m curious how poetry helps us understand how those are connected.

    Yolanda [03:34]: It’s a lot about form and content for me. Poetry is a container for me to explore all of those elements that you described. Those are parts of my life experience, so it’s a place for me to hold and to understand and to process those intersections in my own life and the way that I see them operating in the world. For me, that kind of intersectionality is key to me feeling whole as a person. That’s about form too. That’s about the form of me, but it’s also about spirit and about how you see things connecting everyday in this really magical way. They give you a sense of purpose and a sense of place in that what you’re doing is connected to a larger scheme.

    Cathy [04:21]: So one of the things that you’ve done quite a bit of work on in Philadelphia is poetry festivals. You founded the Germantown Poetry Festival. You’ve also done the Outbound Poetry Festival, which is more of a kind of pop-up type event, which is really fun, emphasizing serendipity and poetry literally on the street in everyday life. I’m curious about the connection that you see between poetry and performance. What is it about the kind of live interaction that you find so exciting?

    Yolanda [04:52]: It’s fun. You know, there’s so much energy and vitality, I think, in poetry’s performance because of the truth-telling, because of the humor, because of the vulnerability that it requires. There’s something electric I think that happens when a poet is willing to go there in front of an audience, to really explore the full range of the voice and the vibrations. It sends out to other people in the ways that it feels inside your body.

    It’s really important for me that poetry operates in public spaces. It isn’t just a private endeavor. I think both of those realms are really important to activate as a poet and to feel for me to feel complete as a poet. I like to be able to share in that public experience but also retreat sometimes back to the intimacy. I also think it’s about turning the intimacy into a public experience and that’s what I think it gets really surprising and sometimes sexy and funky and all of the messy and beautiful things that I think embody humanity.

    Cathy [05:54]: You also perform with a band, right?

    Yolanda [05:57]: Yeah. I love that. It’s like being on a team, you know? It’s like the sense of improvisation. You get to play with other people. It definitely makes you feel young all the time and it reminds you that art is about that kind of playful collaboration that can be planned, that totally hinges on your energy and the kind of vibe that you give off when you walk into a room and your willingness to be open to other people’s creativity.

    Cathy [06:26]: Do you find it’s a different kind of experience when you perform with your band mates with that hybrid song/poetry/combo type thing? Is that a different experience than when you’re performing your poetry by yourself, even if it’s in a group of people?

    Yolanda [06:43]: Yeah. I try not to make it be because I feel like in some ways when I’m performing solo, sometimes it can be a little bit more intellectual and it’s like, “Here’s what I’ve been doing in my little hermit world of poetry” and I’m sharing it. But when I’m with the band I have to laugh. I have to giggle. We make mistakes and we kind of all look at it and give each other these looks and there’s just this unspoken language that makes you operate on so many different levels when you’re in performance. So I don’t know.

    I enjoy having the opportunity to read solo because you can hear yourself, you can listen deeply. You can hear how the words are connecting. It brings me back to being a basketball player and being on a field hockey team. There is nothing like the excitement and the thrill of a team that’s on the fast break and that’s what I feel like every time I’m with a band.

    Cathy [07:40]: You’ve done a lot of workshops in Philadelphia and elsewhere and you’ve foregrounded, as you put it, the public nature of poetry or the importance of that and the community arts aspect of it—poetry that comes from neighborhoods that comes from people, that comes from communities, rather than poetry as this dead thing that isn’t purely written form and doesn’t have that kind of live interactive community connection. I’m curious, why has that community arts or neighborhood-based approach has been so compelling to you? What does a community arts approach to poetry or to any other form of art bring to a city?

    Yolanda: In my twenties, I moved back to the neighborhood. I was born in Germantown, which is a historic neighborhood in Philadelphia that has been through a lot of changes that mirror what changes cities have gone through in the United States. Coming back to this place as a poet and as an adult, a young adult, I saw some of the issues that were present in the community that were not just immediately fixed by people getting around a table and having a meeting about it.

    [08:52] I started to really challenge myself and be challenged by the kids in my neighborhood, the educational system in this neighborhood. I was challenged to think about how I could contribute—and contribute authentically—contribute with something that I knew and that I could stand up behind. And what I knew was poetry. I knew poetry really well. I love it to death. How can I use this? And so I started thinking about how could I use what I had in my own neighborhood. That’s the beginning of any kind of community arts work I do.

    [09:37] It’s really important that people here in my neighborhood, where I’ve lived now for twenty years, know that I’m a poet. They know that I’m actively involved in my art. They know that they can come to me and asked me to show up and do a workshop with kids. It’s important that I’m sitting at the table with city planners and community nonprofits and people who run the special services district and facilitate the business districts. It’s important for me as an artist to be able to sit at those tables and talk passionately and intelligently and informed about what’s going on in my neighborhood. That makes me feel good about waking up every morning and it makes me feel good about, you know, just walking around my ’hood.

    That early engagement with my own sense of guilt and shame and inadequacy and insecurities—I don’t think is just relegated to your twenties. But you can get over it then and it was done for me. It was like real wrestling. I feel like I’m still wrestling with that. What’s the best way that I can show up for my community? That balance between your family and community and when they start to merge in some really powerful ways that help you understand why you’re here, why we’re supporting each other, what we’re supposed to really be doing with our gifts.

    Cathy [10:53]: So you also have an interesting history in education, right? You were a high school English teacher for a long, long time.

    Yolanda: I was, yes.

    Cathy: How did you make that transition from the English teacher classroom to poetry as a full-time gig? Did you find that there were things that you brought from your teacher training into your poetry performances or vice versa?

    Yolanda [11:19]: Oh boy. It was such a stubborn kind of transition because I never expected to be an English teacher. I kind of took it as a job before I got to be a famous poet in my twenties. I thought that was how it was going to work out, so I never expected to be in it for a decade. And then it grew on me, especially approaching education through the lens of my vocation of poetry and thinking about how as an English teacher, I could engage students in the fun and the passion of language that I feel as a poet that sometimes totally killed in the English classroom. And so I guess, yeah, it was hard for me to be an English teacher for so long and to kind of suppress my own growth to promote so many others, to promote the gifts of a lot of young people.

    [12:08] But that was also enjoying and rewarding and still is for me to do that work. There were a lot of times when I just kind of hid behind that work as an artist and didn’t really give myself the time to cultivate. There were a lot of long hours on the weekends and late nights where I just tried to keep the fire of my poetry going.

    At some point I did leave that job and went into nonprofit work with the Mural Arts Program, which was kind of a step towards the full-time work that I’m doing now. I felt like I needed to learn how to manage a budget and figure out how to run the business of me through the work that I did at Mural Arts. But I think the educational piece for me is a lot about planning.

    [12:51] I think teaching is such a great profession to teach you about planning, about public speaking, about how to hold the attention of a room and also the reflection that it invites. I would go home every night and be like, “Did I do that right? Did I harm any children, did I like crush any egos today? What did I do right? What did I do wrong?” It made me very introspective and critical about the work that I was doing and how it was impacting everybody in that room. And I carry that with me everywhere. That’s the kind of preparedness and willingness to engage that you have to do as a teacher.

    Cathy [13:26]: A lot of our listeners are making that transition themselves or figuring out ways that they can expand their creative side or make some more room for their creative selves in their professional lives as teachers and as professors. Do you have any advice for folks who want to make a bit more room for their creative sides?

    Yolanda [13:51]: Well, one of the things I always did was write with my students. When I complained about not having enough time to write at home or I was just too tired, I would assign students to do free writes and they might be writing to jazz and it would be this cool exercise and they would write these awesome poems. And I would wonder, “Why didn’t I do that with them?” So if you’re going to assign it, be willing to go there and do it with them.

    It’s also about you challenging yourself as a writer and keeping your tools sharp and also modeling for the students what it looks like to engage in this delicate balance. It’s not easy and it does take real willing discipline, like just getting up in the morning and wanting to exercise it. But sometimes it’s about setting small goals for yourself, like saying “I’m just going to write 15 minutes every day.” And sometimes it builds up into a wave of something.

    Oh yeah, use your summer off to really go deep into it and explore everything you couldn’t do in the year.

    [14:51] I would say also to all of those folks who are struggling with it to not beat yourself up about it, to know that there are a lot of people doing that juggling act and there are not that many people who have the luxury of being able to do that full-time. Use those experiences to inform and enrich the work that you have.

    Cathy [15:12]: So much of your work combines the power of education with creativity and community or social justice activism. What draws you to that braid? What’s so powerful for you in combining critical thinking or education, teaching, and pedagogy with your more creative or activist side?

    Yolanda [15:35]: I’ve always been a person who loved school. School was always a refuge for me growing up. I loved being on a college campus and all of the experiences that invited in terms of growth. By the time I got to grad school when I was studying poetry, I started to feel that there have to be more places on the planet where this these kinds of intersections happen, these intersections of academia and art and activism. I think college campuses are great places for them, but not everybody gets to the college campus and not everybody wants to be on those campuses. So it became really important for me to create community spaces where you could have these really intergenerational, diverse groups of people coming from very different backgrounds who were engaged in academic work, artistic work, and being active in their communities.

    [16:31] That’s what makes me whole as a person. If I’m not doing one of those things, I feel like there’s a part of me that’s in the shadow. And sometimes that’s okay, but I feel like for me to be at full strength, I need to kind of have all of those wheels turning. That’s when we’re the most engaged and the most productive. It’s the biggest net to draw in the most people. Any one of those buckets alone I don’t think does the job. But when you start weaving those things together for people, you see the larger truth and in the systems that make up our world, in the histories that have formed the present, and you get some inspiration about how we can move forward. You need all of those kinds of characters at the table.

    Cathy [17:18]: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of the kind of work that you do. I get to ask guests what the world is that they’re working towards when they step in front of a classroom, when they step on stage, when they start their choreographic work, when they produce whatever it is that they produce in the universe. So I’ll ask you, what kind of world are you working towards when you get on stage at a poetry performance or when you teach a workshop? What kind of world do you want?

    Yolanda [17:53]: A big question! Whenever I think about this question, I think about my great-grandmother and the lessons that she taught me as a kid. Those are still the same things that drive me. I remember asking her what her favorite color was and she said, “all of the colors.” She didn’t get into all of the heaviness of a big discussion. I think I was like six or seven years old. She taught me about seeing the beauty in all of those colors. I think that’s just something that stays with me.

    [18:35] The other thing she said to me on her deathbed was, “You have a gift. Use it.” For me, the better world is about people going in search of those gifts, trying to find out what those gifts are. I remember when she said that to me, I was nine years old. I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought maybe I had some gift of being able to see through walls or maybe I was clairvoyant. I’ve thought about it for 41 years. What is my gift? How do I use it? What did she mean? And I’ve met other people who, like my grandma, said something similar to me. I don’t know, maybe it’s a grandma thing that they pass on. I hope that I’m passing that on as a grandma and I hope that children and adults are just continually in search of their gifts and also feeling like, “How can I use this to make a better world?”

    Cathy [19:11]: That sounds like a pretty good system, I think.

    Yolanda: I hope so.

    Cathy: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing a bit about your approach to poetry and how you use it to imagine otherwise.

    Yolanda [19:26]: I appreciate the time to talk about it.

    Cathy [19:32]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud,  Michelle Velasquez-Potts, Alexandra Sastre, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

    You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]

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