Imagine Otherwise: Yolanda Wisher on Poetry as a Community Engagement Practice

Headshot of Yolanda Wisher smiling; accompanied by text "Yolanda Wisher Imagine Otherwise Podcast ep.48."

Imagine Otherwise: Yolanda Wisher on Poetry as a Community Engagement Practice

September 20, 2017 Podcast

 

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.

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 B.A. in English and Black Studies from Lafayette College and an M.A. 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 U.S. 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.

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)

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.”
  • On 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 Wisher quote on poetry as performance
  • On 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.”
  • On being an English teacher for a decade: “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. 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. 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.”
  • On Yolanda’s desire to create 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. I think college campuses are great places for them but not everyone gets to the college campus, and not everybody wants to be on those campuses. 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. If I’m not doing one of those things, there’s a part of me that’s in the shadow. And sometimes that’s okay, but for me to be at full strength, I need to kind have all of those wheels turning. I feel like that’s when we’re the most engaged and the most productive, it’s the biggest net to draw in the most people. Just any one of those buckets alone—I don’t think it does the job. When you start weaving those things together, you start seeing the larger things and the systems that make up our world and the histories that inform the present. You get some inspiration about how we can move forward, you kind of need all of those characters at the table.”
  • On 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:

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/episodes. 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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About the author

Christopher Persaud:

Christopher is a Digital Media Associate at Ideas on Fire, as well as a writer and scholar whose work touches on new media studies, queer and feminist theory, and science and technology studies.