DOGBYTES Interview: Yolanda Wisher
Named the inaugural Poet Laureate of Montgomery County Pennsylvania in 1999 and the third Poet Laureate of Philadelphia in 2016, Yolanda Wisher is a Cave Canem fellow whose work has been featured on numerous platforms including PoetryNOW, Ploughshares, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, and CBC Radio, among others. She has led workshops and curated events in partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Free Library of Philadelphia, and U.S. Department of Arts & Culture. She is currently the 2017-2018 CPCW Fellow in Poetics and Poetic Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Hear Wisher read new work from her debut Monk Eats an Afro (Hanging Loose Press, 2014) alongside Kamilah Aisha Moon and Marcus Wicker on Friday, February 23, 2018, 5pm, at the NYU Lillian Vernon House.
Your band, The Afroeaters, creatively combines poetry and song. How does song influence the collection Monks Eats an Afro, or find its way into your poems?
For me, a creative idea or utterance can begin as a line of poetry or a snippet of song. I try to honor that original impulse, let it take its course in the writing, revision, and performing process. I want my work to sing on and off the page.
Your bio mentions your value for “upholding poetry as a public art.” Can you explain the concept of poetry as a public art and what that means for the poet’s relationship to the art economy?
I think poetry often carries and expresses the vulnerability and urgency of a person’s identity. Our voices can change the air around us. Poetry can make public spaces more inclusive, more intimate, and more safe. The public sharing and the experience of poetry deepen connections between known folks and between strangers. Poetry as a public art means that the poet—as well as the visceral power of language—is a visible and valuable part of the art economy, not just an ornament or sideshow.
What can poets do to promote social justice?
They can write their own truths and investigate their own blind spots. Embrace and use their own vernaculars. Walk the talk. Trouble the everyday languages we/they use. Open more doors, keep no gates. Use the poetry reading as a unit of community organizing and nation building. Teach.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?
Swallow the Fish by Gabrielle Civil. It reminded me of the necessity of documenting my work and practice as a Black woman artist.
Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.
My great-grandmother Christine’s wild collection of knick knacks – thrift store candy jars, salt & pepper shakers & souvenirs from trips to Atlantic City.
What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?
Be Black how you want. Read Black, forward and back. Stay Black & die.
When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?
Cooking. Being an amateur genealogist. Running my mouth. Hanging with my partner and my eight-year old. Crocheting hats & blankets for family gifts. Sun salutes and watching indie films in the middle of the day.
What was the greatest learning experience that came out of your time as the 2016-17 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia?
Poetry can’t and won’t survive in academia alone.
What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?
Growing up not knowing my father, then meeting him for the first time on my wedding day.
What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?
I was at the Cave Canem retreat in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Some of my favorite memories: Getting off of the waitlist! Meeting Tonya Hegamin on the Philly train platform to Poughkeepsie that first year. Getting herbal advice from Tracie Morris after one of our workshops in the Esopus monastery. Carpooling from NYC to Michigan with Tonya and Eisa Davis. Eating breakfast with Harryette Mullen and Sonia Sanchez one morning at Cranbrook. Michael Harper critiquing my use of a cuss word in a poem. Being part of workshop group C (nicknamed “C-Loaf”) that included Doug Kearney and John Keene. I could go on…