Q&A: Yolanda Wisher is Philadelphia’s Poet
by Joseph Master
Yolanda Wisher has superhuman diction. She could describe the contents of her refrigerator, and you’d be on the edge of your seat, spellbound by milk and eggs.
When Wisher speaks, time slows down and your heart starts beating to the rhythm of her words. If you’re a skeptic, a simple YouTube search will make you a believer. And if you need any more proof, watch her perform live.
In 2016, Wisher was named Philadelphia’s third Poet Laureate. The honor comes with an obligation to mentor young poets, give readings and perform community service projects. However, if you know Wisher, you know that she’s been fulfilling the duties of the job long before she earned the title.
The laurels are well deserved. The epithet sounds fine, too. But not nearly as fine as her verses, her voice, or her performances.
When you graduated from Temple, you earned an MA, not an MFA, right? Because I’ve seen it listed as an MFA ...
Yeah, it was definitely an MA. I’d love to get the “F” on there, although at this point I don’t know if it really matters. Because I left with the MA feeling like I should have probably stayed with the PhD. And at some point, I realized that I just had to get out of academia — or out of the sphere of being a scholar. I knew that life wasn’t necessarily the life that I wanted to lead. So I ended up teaching English with the MA, which was perfect preparation for what I was doing as a 10th grade English teacher.
This was in Germantown?
Germantown Friends School.
And when did you stop doing that?
I taught there from 2000 to 2010.
With your background as a writer and performer, what do you think is the most important skill high schoolers need to learn before embarking on a college career? Or, any next step, really …
Passion. They need a passion to understand literature. I mean, I had a passion to understand literature that I could share with them. Or maybe it wasn’t even a passion about literature so much as about language. And that was what I was always kind of excited about with them. That —the passion — came across and when they come back and I see alumni they say, “oh, you were so crazy about poetry” or “you were so passionate, you know, you cared about it.” When I became poet laureate they were like, “wow, we saw you on your grind even then and we knew that this is what you did even outside of school.”
I was pretty adamant about keeping that part of myself alive.
Do we really need more Hemingway? There’s plenty of Hemingway to read.
How did teaching inform your craft?
It was everything. It was like re-teaching myself. Every time I had to teach something that was foreign to me — Oedipus Rex or Moby Dick — these are books that I had read in high school or had to read for graduate school …
You can’t leave out Beowulf. At least 10 times …
Yeah, Beowulf! All kinds of Sophocles. So I had to find a way to find myself in that work while I was reading these people. I’m reading them as texts, but I’m also reading them as lives of writers.
So, when there’s a perception that studying Melville doesn't necessarily lead to a career, what’s your response?
It still enriches your life, you know? It still offers you that momentary escape or that moment of solace. I mean, that’s what reading has always been for me. And then when you can translate that into writing to share your own story or to tell your own story … it can become more than just enrichment. It’s like power. It’s agency in the world to be able to have control over your voice that way.
Right, it’s inspiring …
Yeah. It is.
I read one of your interviews where you mentioned something about a moment that you just knew you were a writer. And a performer. Can you tell me about that moment?
Yeah, there were lots of those moments and they aren’t all related. I saw myself as a writer much longer before I saw myself as a performer. But I probably wanted to be a performer longer. That was kind of smacked down out of me, you know, the standards for performers and singers were so high, and so the very first poem I wrote was about Harlem, I think, and it was meant to be sung. I ripped it out of my little brother’s typewriter and it was this own like, you know, homage to Harlem. But I didn’t necessarily see myself as a singer then.
But there were lots of moments. There were moments when people just lifted that up for me. Teachers who did that, who took me aside and said “you have something,” or my mother, who was, like, ferocious about nurturing this gift. And then there were people in my family who just identified that in me. So, I had that identity and I carried it, but it was something that I didn’t necessarily make the forefront of everything that I did. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be my first career choice to be a poet.
Having read your poetry and then seeing you perform, it’s impossible for me to separate your actual voice from your written voice. So when I read a poem, I hear you singing it. Even if I haven’t heard you recite that particular poem, I hear your voice. So, to all the young, aspiring poets out there right now who are writing and trying to find their voice, you’re someone who has found hers. How did you do it?
I listened. Which means sometimes you have to remove yourself from the cacophony of other people’s voices and you just really have to listen to what is yours. And sometimes you have to go back and claim the voice of the people that you came from. Your first voice, like how everyone has kind of a first language, even though they might just have been raised here in America on English — but everybody has this first language of talk in their family. And how people use language, the tone and the cadence and all of that …
There’s a Jayne Cortez poem called “Find Your Own Voice,” and she says the voice of a barracuda is not the voice of the unicorn. You know, like everybody has this unique voice. So yeah that’s one of the first things I’m always trying to tell young people, young writers, is to find your voice. Don’t try to sound like somebody else.
Well, if you start trying to write like Hemingway you sound like a fourth grader …
Yeah, you sound crazy, you know? Or, do we really need more Hemingway? There’s plenty of Hemingway to read.
We need more…
Yeah we need more whatever. It’s not just your voice, it’s also about what is it about your experience and your life that is singular and unique and not necessarily makes you better than anybody else or makes you more tragic, but just more unique or distinct.
More tragic! That’s a pitfall that a lot of writers fall into, where they think “oh, because I don’t come from this point of view, you know, I have to try to go there …”
Oh yeah, people try to go there all the time …
Hearing you perform … you go down low and guttural … you go up high … you scat. I hear Ella Fitzgerald. I hear Holland-Dozier-Holland. I hear Motown. I hear Goffin/King Brill Building song structures in your guitar playing. On a craft level, you’ve got meter, you’ve got what it looks like on the page, and then you have the timbre and cadence of your voice. When did you find that amalgam that becomes your work? When did you find that voice? When were you like, “This is not just how I wrote it; this is how it’s meant to be performed?"
I mean, it takes a long lime. It cooked for a long time inside of me. I don’t say that one day I just woke up singing, because I was classically trained. In kindergarten I started playing the violin and then in third grade I started playing the cello. And my mother had a really extensive record collection with the Motown and the Michael Jackson and OJs, all of that stuff.
Who was your favorite?
Michael Jackson. Off the Wall. I used to look at that album and stretch it out, you know, full length just so that I could look at him and I just thought that he was beautiful, and I thought the songs — I was so entranced with liner notes and album cover art — it was always like this visual and written experience. And to just imagine that you would have a bunch of songs like that or that you could even have a voice that people would recognize.
So yeah, I didn’t wake up one day with a voice. I just got the courage to start singing because it was a lot about comparing me to people, wanting to sound like other people, you know? And how do you define singing? Is it singing like Patty Labelle? Is it Whitney Houston? Is it Marianne Anderson? Somebody who was really key, I’ll tell you, is when I first heard Abbey Lincoln, who was a jazz singer/actress. When I first heard her album Straight Ahead and then, later, the album, Afro Blue, I heard somebody’s voice sound like what mine might sound like if I was singing. And I also heard her playing the limits and the constraints of her voice and not trying to sound precious or pretty all the time. And of course there was Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, the storytelling that they do. A lot of what I’m inspired by is the blues and the stuff that my grandmother and my aunt listened to.
You do the same thing on the page, though, right? I hear the blues in your poetry …
I try. Because I wanted to just … I want it to be alive on the page and I want it to be alive when I speak it and they have different lives but I don’t want to be a boring poet when I perform. I don’t want to just show up and read my poems.
I don’t think that that’s a problem.
[Laughs] But I’ve sat through a lot of those readings. And I’ve sat through electric readings and those people have really pushed my game too.
I read “5 South 43rd Street, Floor 2,” which explores parts of West Philly. I dare say I‘d call it Dickensian. What a narrative. How important to you is storytelling in all of this?
It’s all narrative. I mean, it’s a story. All of the poems are a collection for me. And this is just one chapter, you know? “5 South 43rd Street, Floor 2” was just a place that I lived and it was a place that was imbued with all of these emotions and perceptions and assumptions and personal experiences. You know, I fell in love there; my current husband and I lived there for two years while I was at Temple.
Now, I don’t live in a place like that anymore. I live in Germantown, in a house that’s a twin on a tree-lined block that doesn’t have a stop-and-go on the corner and a fire station across the street and all of the drama that used to happen on that block. So it represents somewhere I’ve been, but I’m glad that it captures a moment of West Philly that I don’t think exists there anymore, on that block.
I came across this term in the past year. It’s a Welsh word called “hiraeth.” It’s a feeling of nostalgia for a place you’ve never been or that doesn’t exist anymore. And so, for me, this is one of the first poems I wrote about a place because I felt so strongly attached. It was the neighborhood I made, that I created and I contributed to. And I find myself writing a lot about places.
I came here looking for Sonia Sanchez. She was the only poet whose work I recognized that was in the library at the undergrad college that I went to. So I kind of sought her out.
What does this place mean to you?
It’s a gate I passed through, on my way. But as I get further away from it I realize how important it was. I remember just trying to hotly get out of the undergrad experience, I was just so over undergrad. Even when I was a junior, I’d come to Philly for an internship program with the Philadelphia Center so I’d lived here for three months doing an internship at a theater and so I couldn’t wait to get back, and I had other choices of grad schools I could have gone to but, you know, I was lured with a fellowship and the fact that I could come back to Philly — the city that I had become attached to.
I was also on an adventure. I came here looking for Sonia Sanchez. She was the only poet whose work I recognized that was in the library at the undergrad college that I went to. So I kind of sought her out. And in the process of doing that, I was really altered in the process of taking workshops and being a poet — doing these lit classes and criticism classes, having to take exams. I was living at 5 South 43rd st and creating like a gorilla poetry collective with some people at Temple . There’s a lot of overlap with the people in my life who were trying to do rap and poetry, some of these people were here and some of those people hinged onto me and we went to West Philly and we kind of drifted between these neighborhoods. But I definitely found a sense of myself here. As a teacher, this was the first place I was given a group of people to just teach and be responsible for their grades and I was in awe of having that opportunity and I was so surprised by how much I enjoyed it. So, I would say it really prepared me to teach, which is really the foundation of pretty much everything I do right now in the world.
So, Poet Laureate is pretty heavy. I can’t imagine saying to myself, “Mark my words: one day I will be Poet Laureate of Philadelphia.” What was it like standing there with Mayor Kenny? What was going through your head?
Well, nobody knows this, but it was a day of perspective. And so as I was getting ready — my husband and my son — we were all getting ready to leave and getting dressed for the Poet Laureate ceremony, and my son, Theo …
Seven. He just turned seven yesterday. Thelonious, yeah.
[Laughs] I’m not even going to get to ask you about his name…
Yeah well, that’s who the book Monk Eats an Afro is referencing in terms of the monk. He’s my Thelonious. He lost his tooth that day. Like, he lost the big front tooth that day. And as we were getting ready and he was so excited, like: “mommy you’re going to be the Poet Laureate!” And his tooth just like popped out.
And honestly, if there was one thought I had … my great grand uncle was there, my great grandmother’s son, the last of her seven children. He was there and my son was there to see me become the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. And a year ago, before that date I had quit my job because I had decided that I really wanted Theo to see me as an artist, you know? And somebody who was known and respected for the work that she did when he was asleep or in the after hours of her nine to five. And so I kind of just leapt out on the faith that I could make a life out of this.
So, when I was standing up there I was like, “Yeah! Winning!” You know? It worked! A year later, this dream of becoming Poet Laureate of Philly came true. I was Poet Laureate of Montgomery County where I grew up, but then to move to Philly where I built a life, filled it with love, had a child, owned a home, put down roots here … and to be the Poet Laureate of this city …
And so that’s the art in context of everything else that life’s all about: love, happiness.
Your book, to all these young people right now who are writers and want to be writers and are drawn to the poetry of being in the city in the rain, for instance, what was this process like for you?
Well, it took 15 years. [Laughs]
Every band has its whole life up to a point to make that first album …
Not everybody. I mean, I thought that when I went to grad school, you know, a lot people go for MS programs or MA programs is they want to have a book when they leave. And I had a book when I left my program, but it was not the book. It was not my first book. And so I would say: don’t rush it, you know? Let time create that book. Let your life create that book.
I’m really proud of the scope of that book [Monk Eats an Afro]. How it represents the last 15 to 20 years of my life and what I’ve learned about poetry, and what I’ve learned about life in the process. I couldn’t even title that book until my son was born. So, it sounds futile that I even thought that I could have a book out when I was 23 or 25 or 26, because it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I understood the arc of that book. Which was going from being a daughter to a mother. And that …only life can do that.
So I’ve learned about what’s important to write down, what’s important to let live, and what needs to be in a book, what doesn’t need to be in a book, and to let things happen as they will.
You know, don’t rush it.