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Philadelphia’s new Poet Laureate: Yolanda Wisher

Michael Lieberman celebrates the appointment of a new poetry ambassador, and reviews the challenges faced by those who take the post. -- Artblog editor


On Friday, February 5, 2016, Mayor Kenney named Yolanda Wisher the City of Philadelphia’s third Poet Laureate. Ms. Wisher, a Philadelphia native born in 1976, is an accomplished poet and educator, and a charismatic individual. She believes that poetry can be used as a tool to engage communities and to promote literacy, to promote change. And she is determined and committed to use her considerable talents to make a difference.

Yolanda Wisher. Image by Ryan Collerd
Yolanda Wisher. Image by Ryan Collerd

At the Press Conference announcing Ms. Wisher’s appointment, Mayor Kenney, who described himself as a lover of poetry (his favorites are William Butler Yeats, Langston Hughes, and Tupac Shakur), envisioned that, among other things, the Poet Laureate will work with libraries, schools, and neighborhood organizations to enrich the lives of our children. As I was listening to him, I could not help thinking about the disgraceful fact, reported recently, that approximately 95% of the city’s 218 public schools lack a school librarian; over 90% of them do not have a functional library book collection; and a majority of them even lack the technology to access necessary e-resources.

There are parent groups and a nonprofit organization that attempt to fill the gap in a small number of schools, but their noble efforts are only a drop in the bucket. So I sat in the press conference wondering about the place of a Poet Laureate in a culture that has abandoned its libraries and recalling Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel about a society gone awry, where the state suppresses learning by burning books and the citizens sit by in drug-induced and media-saturated indifference. Read Neil Gaiman’s piece, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming,” in The Guardian. Perhaps a Poet Laureate can make a difference, but the task is a formidable one.

Yolanda Wisher attended Lafayette College and later earned her master’s at Temple. She has taught English at Germantown Friends School and served as the Director of Art Education for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Wisher is a Hedgebrook Writer-in-Residence, and last year she was a Pew Fellow. She is the author of Monk Eats an Afro and the co-editor of Peace is a Haiku Song, the collaboration between Sonia Sanchez and the Mural Arts Program, which used haiku as a vehicle for peace and urban transformation. Her work has been widely published, and she is a Founding Cultural Agent and the Rhapsodist of Wherewithal for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (not a government agency).

Ms. Wisher succeeds Frank Sherlock as Poet Laureate. Mr. Sherlock established Write Your Block, a project that encouraged Philadelphians to explore their neighborhoods by writing poetry. Mr. Sherlock, of course, succeeded the wonderful Sonia Sanchez, the City’s first Poet Laureate, who remains Poet Laureate Emeritus. We also have a Youth Poet Laureate, who works closely with the Poet Laureate.

An example of Ms. Wisher’s powerful voice, below is her Inaugural Poem (reprinted with her permission):

My Family of Women
raised me to be mouthy and mighty
schooled me with slant looks and girdled grips
made talk like oatmeal to coat my ears against
the lurching of menfolk who would prefer my meat
to Murry’s. They stood between me and the precipice.
Church women and pinochle sinners
gave me my tutelage in fatherlessness, their tongues
commanded by a ruthless orgy of verbal desire
broke my mind into seven spheres.
They were good women. With demons
in their pocketbooks. They’d hand me
a tissue or a mint and for a second
that abyss would open,