We Want Answers: Yolanda Wisher

The city’s new poet laureate on life and death, the city as subject, and what poetry can do for you

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Congratulations on being named Philadelphia’s third poet laureate. What does the gig entail? It involves being an ambassador for poetry — an ambassador and advocate for poetry in Philly. Concretely, that involves doing some readings at City Hall, at the Free Library, visiting schools and doing readings in neighborhoods. Really, just spreading the gospel of poetry around Philadelphia.

So what makes Philly worthy of poetry? Worthy? Wow. Ultimately, I see Philly as a city of crossroads. It’s mostly because there are so many different kinds of people here, so many different cultures represented. With that comes a whole lotta different language and vernacular. The language here is really rich. The history here is very rich and just omnipresent. I think that combination of things has made for good poetry over a lot of time.

One of your better-known poems is set in West Philly: “5 South 43rd Street, Floor 2.” It’s got these lines in it: “One night a man was shot and killed on this block/right outside our thick wood door. But not today./Today is one of those days to come home from walking/in the world, to leave the windows open and start a pot of/black beans.” There’s beauty there, but also sadness. I’m always looking at the other side of things. The flip side. For me, poetry is a lot about juxtaposition. Word choice and imagery, but also just life and death. That big juxtaposition of life and death. And how you see that in the city, in particular, every day. You turn a corner, something joyful is happening, but you also see people really struggling. For me, to write about the city is to show both sides of that.

You once wrote, “As a poet living in the city of murals, the birthplace of Philadelphia sound, it’s hard for me not to ask, ‘Can poetry be public art? Can poetry change the face and the soul of the city?’” So: Can it? Heck yes. I think so. We think about poetry as this isolated ivory tower. You do it in secret and don’t share it, or you share it at these coffee shops. It doesn’t really enter the specific landscape. When you get a role like poet laureate, you start thinking about the possibilities of that, and how the scale can explode a little bit and transform. What would it look like for large numbers of people to be engaged with poetry? We have to in some way demystify, simplify, translate the essence and the best parts of poetry to make it public art.

I understand Philly actually has a pretty vibrant poetry scene. There’s a lot of different types of poetry. There’s a lot of different poetry styles. It’s like kung fu, or martial arts. Many different iterations of the art in Philly. Different aesthetics represented, racial lines, class lines, academic, nonacademic. Commercial, noncommercial. Private, very public readings. There’s incredible possibility there for what people can create and for how that energy can be extended for people who maybe haven’t caught that bug, for people who have no sense of what poetry could do for them.

April is National Poetry Month. How are you going to celebrate? I love that there’s a month where we get to celebrate poetry and all the poets are out in full force. I’m hoping to be the poetry lady around Philly in April and just enjoy showing up in different places. I’m excited to interact with people, share my love of poetry, maybe change a few minds about poetry, too.

As poet laureate, shouldn’t you also be composing odes to the glory of Mayor Kenney? I think in the contract it’s written that the poet laureate can write the inaugural poem. Because of the timing, I didn’t get the opportunity to do that. But you know, I’d be open to writing an ode to Mayor Kenney at any time.

For events and readings, go to yolandawisher.com.

Published as “We Want Answers” in the April 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.