by John Timpane, Staff Writer for philly.com
February 5, 2016
Photo by Mark Palacio
A lot of people in the Philadelphia poetry world are very happy today.
On Friday morning, Mayor Kenney is scheduled to announce that Yolanda Wisher, a poet with a long history of publication and community activism, has been appointed Philadelphia poet laureate for 2016-17. The event is to include a short reading by the appointee.
Wisher is the city's third laureate, succeeding Frank Sherlock (2014-15) and Sonia Sanchez (2012-13). Her duties will include readings, community service projects, and mentoring other poets. She also will help select the next youth poet laureate, who will succeed David Jones. The appointment carries a stipend of $5,000 total for the two-year term.
When her first interview came by cellphone, Wisher, 39, was walking down Germantown Avenue Thursday night, in the neighborhood where she was born and lives - "a very special part of Philly," Wisher said, "with a lot of opportunity." She had a reading Thursday night at Farley's Bookshop in New Hope.
"I'm really feeling just thrilled and a little overwhelmed," Wisher said. "I found out a couple of weeks ago and had to keep this big secret. I told my mom, of course, my husband, a few people I kind of had to tell."
She found out via a phone call from Beth Feldman Brandt, executive director of the poet laureate governing committee. Brandt said Wisher was an ideal candidate.
"You have to be a really strong poet, and she really is, on the page and in performance," Brandt said. "And you have to buy into the fact that this is a position of civic service. And she has already done so much, in Germantown and throughout this area, using poetry to get people to think more deeply about the community. We really felt as if we were hitching up to what she was already doing."
Sherlock wrote by email that he was "very happy to be passing the laureate position on to Yolanda Wisher. I've been a fan of her work, admired her activism, and road-tripped with her to some fun and kooky gigs. I hope there's more of that. And I look forward to her vision of Philadelphia's poetry future. It's in truly good hands."
Kelly Lee, chief cultural officer for the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, praised Wisher's dynamism. "She is going to bring poetry to all sorts of people who never thought they'd like poetry," Lee wrote.
Wisher grew up in North Wales. When she was 13, her mother let her take the train into Philadelphia to take a poetry class at the University of Pennsylvania. "I walked down Walnut Street from the station to the class," she said. "I was a sixth grader in a class full of high schoolers who were very serious poets. My teacher and the other students looked after me. And that's where it all really began."
Wisher earned a bachelor's degree from Lafayette College and a master's at Temple University. She was the first poet laureate of Montgomery County, taught for a decade at Germantown Friends School, was director of art education for the Mural Arts Program from 2010 to 2015, and has been a mainstay at local readings, slams, workshops, poetry events, community activities, and combinations thereof.
"What I really want to do, what this gives me a platform to do," Wisher said, "is connect the writing of poetry with my community activism. I want to create a useful poetry, a poetics of use."
One of Wisher's first activities as laureate will be at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Painted Bride Arts Center. She will host the Poetic Address to the Nation, an outgrowth of her work with a national arts group (not a federal agency) called the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. "The Poetic Address is a huge collaborative poem, read at different places all over the country," Wisher said, "written with people like Los Angeles poet laureate Luis Rodriguez, Ross Gay, and local poets like Frank Sherlock." It will be broadcast live on the online news network FreeSpeechTV (www.freespeech.org).