Written by Lynn Rosen, Philadelphia City Paper
June 5, 2014
Yolanda Wisher says she became a poet at age 8. Last month, 30 years later, she proudly published her first book of poetry, Monk Eats an Afro, from Hanging Loose Press. Wisher isn’t worried about how long it took. “I’m always convinced [that] it’s the right time when it’s the right time,” she says. Besides, in the intervening years, she’s done a thing or two, including serving, at age 23, as Montgomery County’s first poet laureate.
Born in Philadelphia, Wisher grew up in North Wales, where her family has lived for generations. She came back to the city for graduate school in 1999 (Wisher holds an M.A. in creative writing/English from Temple), and has been here ever since. She lives in Germantown, where she’s active in the local arts community, and works full-time as the head of the art education department at the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
Wisher sees poetry as a collaborative art. “I definitely saw early on the job of the poet being [to create] a collective and collaborative experience. I love the solitary experience of writing and mulling over and reflecting on things. But something about the exchange, whether it’s through a reading or a workshop, … the communal experience of poetry really speaks to me,” she says. She also enjoys seeing someone catch “the poetry bug,” and takes the shared role of poetry very seriously. “It’s not just entertainment or a way to create a pedagogical tool,” she says. Instead, like the murals she works with in her day job, she says poetry “has potential as public art.”
Wisher is a great believer in the power of art to build and sustain community. She was recently appointed a “cultural agent” for the newly created U.S. Department of Arts & Culture, which, while not an official federal entity, describes itself as “a new citizen-powered initiative to cultivate the public interest in art and culture and catalyze art and culture in the public interest.” Wisher’s first task is to create an event, called an “imagining,” in which community members brainstorm ways to use the arts to improve community life.
“I’m thinking hyper-local about how artists could be the first frontier of a social entrepreneurship,” she says. “How do we solve some of the community problems here through the lens of arts?” She plans to focus on Germantown, her home of 15 years, with initiatives she hopes will spread throughout the city, calling Philly “a very rich place to be right now.”