By Rachel Fiske Reynolds
In anticipation of the Outbound Poetry Festival at 30th Street Station, I sat down with Yolanda Wisher, Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and curator of the festival, to discuss why poetry matters, what makes the poetry scene in Philly so special, why good audiences are key to good poets, and so much more. What follows is a transcript of some of that conversation.
Rachel Reynolds: For people who aren’t familiar, how would you explain the role of the poet laureate, and more specifically, the role of the poet laureate within Philadelphia?
Yolanda Wisher: The poet laureate is an ambassador for poetry. I would say they’re a spokesperson for poetry and for all of the other issues that radiate out from poetry–literacy, education, arts education, youth empowerment, self-expression, creativity–all the things that are endangered in terms of the funding streams that we live with. It’s a role that makes poetry visible and tangible, I think, in the lives of people in all different neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia specifically, I think it’s been kind of wielded as a civic role. You know, not all poet laureates are chosen because of their community ethos or their interest in social justice; sometimes it’s just a post based on the work and the achievements of the work via publications or teaching posts. I think in Philly the last few poet laureates–and I’m really proud to include myself in this group of people–have been folks who are poets with a purpose, and they really want poetry to do more than glorify their name. They want poetry to empower, to unleash something in people that may have been dormant or untapped, undiscovered. I think that kind of power that poets laureate in Philly use makes this kind of a unique place. There are a lot of poets here who are interested in more than just poetry. They’re interested in the intersection of poetry and other social issues, life issues, disciplines, places, localities. So I think it’s a really rich poetry scene and the position is really a platform for one among us to do something more widespread and catalytic.
RR: Is there a moment when you feel like you really connected with poetry? When there was a shift in your relationship with poetry and you felt like it was a space you could really inhabit?
YW: I remember a moment in middle school where I was put with a poetry mentor. It wasn’t necessarily a mentor of my choosing–it was somebody who they said, “She’s got talent with poetry, she needs some extracurricular engagement, she should have a poetry mentor, a tutor.” And so I remember keeping this notebook of poems during the year that I spent with this particular woman and she was so discouraging as a teacher. She questioned my validity; she was really harsh and cynical about the writing. And I remember a lot of moments like that, where there was a potential–as many stories as I’ve told about how many people uplifted the work, there were lots of people who tried to curb it, squash it, negate it, not acknowledge it.
Anyway, I remember around 6th grade having a real moment of will power, deciding that yeah, here I was, this kid writing poems just purely because I liked writing poems outside of school, and no one could take that away from me. Nobody could ever discourage me away from that path. There was a moment later in life, of just kind of pure comeuppance, where I won a big award and the same woman was the runner up. It was a humbling moment–it wasn’t a scornful moment–of like, “Wow, I survived her.” Which I think a lot of people think about teachers. The teachers we’ve survived are sometimes more important than the teachers who helped us get to where we are, who saw something in us. I had both, and somehow in this moment of remembering, I’m remembering moments of struggle, obstacles that were created that I had to force my way through, or my mother had to force my way through with me. She was really a bear for us.
RR: Was your mom really supportive of your writing?
YW: Oh yeah. She knew right away because I had the gift of gab. I was one of those kids who couldn’t stop talking and I had an imagination. A lot of other people in my family encouraged it, too. My mom found ways to fund it even though she was at times a single mom and spending $200 on a poetry workshop would break the budget. I saw her make a lot of sacrifices for my growth as a writer. I won’t ever forget it.
RR: You make music as well. What’s the relationship for you between poetry and music? Do you hold them as separate or are they on a spectrum?
YW: For me it’s about honoring a creative process that doesn’t always start on the page. Sometimes it starts in between my ears and sometimes it’s more sound than word.
At some point I tried to be just a page poet, to do what you’re told you’re supposed to do: you have to write it down to get validity, to get known; that’s how your work lives on. That’s so loaded, though. It doesn’t talk about access to publishing or who wants to publish your work depending on who you are. So I tried to confine myself to that idea, but I was still producing other stuff, I was still writing songs on the side. There was a little folder on my computer labeled “Songs” and no one knew about it except my husband. I’d be working out songs on the guitar or I’d be singing jazz standards with my husband’s band, and at some point something clicked for me that I couldn’t keep separating these selves, that they did work in tandem and that there was some identity I could forge out of traditions that I really respected–jazz poetry, beat poetry, Black Arts Movement, the Harlem Renaissance and people like Langston Hughes. They all recited poetry with music. I always was interested in at what point does the music not just become a backdrop to a poem or just the accompaniment. I don’t necessarily want to be just the poet, I want to be a composer. I want to be a band leader. I guess once you accept your delusions of grandeur, interesting things start to happen. I started to see the kind of work I wanted to create as somewhere between poetry and song, and even music, the more I learned about music theory.
I’m a student of music. I’ve been a student of poetry longer, but I have been earnestly trying to become a student of music, and as I learn more about music I learn more about the kind of poet I want to be. I want to be a poet who sings. I want to be able to break into song, or do a little chant or a little talking to you in between a verse. I want to be able to swing between the two, to have that pendulum swing between the word and the melody.
RR: I think that’s one of the cool things about poetry: tThere’s this porousness to it that’s often not foregrounded, like in schools and things like that. It’s like, “This is what poetry is, do it this one way.”
YW: Right–it’s all about word definitions or allusions or the author’s life.
RR: Yeah, but if you asked me to define what poetry is, I’d say it’s whatever you need it to be, or wherever you find it.
YW: Right. There’s something about the aural pleasure of poetry. I don’t ever want to be a monotone reading poet putting people to sleep at a poetry reading. I want it to feel alive; I want the poem to come alive every time I read it. And so even in just performing a poem I’m always challenging myself to do more than what I’ve seen with poetry traditionally presented, with the person behind the podium. I think something really interesting happens when the poets step from behind the podium. It doesn’t always necessarily have to get to performance or acting, per say, but I think there’s something in the body and the breath. Walt Whitman knew that, and Alan Ginsberg knew it, and Jayne Cortez knew it: There’s something about the body that’s also important to poetry. The body has its own music and I’m just trying to find mine.
RR: Tangential to that, can you speak to how poetry and place interact? The Outbound Poetry Festival is in a very specific location, 30th Street Station. Why this location? How does poetry act on the place, and how does the place then act on poetry?
YW: One way to describe it is that there’s already poetry in these places. Something about this kind of event and planning it that intrigues me is how to vibe with the poetry that’s already there or how to uplift the spirit of something that’s already present in a place. All places are embodied with something–some kind of energy–and I think 30th Street has the energy of people passing through, people on their way somewhere else, people on these individual and collective journeys, going home, leaving home. It’s so rich in terms of everything that it means to be human and how we move through the world–the idea of being strange and familiar, that some of those people who are coming to 30th Street are there for the very first time and some do this every day–and I think there’s poetry in that. So to invite poets who live among and against that backdrop every day and don’t mind it rubbing up against them in a deep way every day, who sit down to interrogate it, observe it, try to get an understanding of it–to invite them into that space to interact with that energy and also the possibilities.
There’s always a possibility of connection in a place like 30th Street. I’ve had love affairs with different stations in Philadelphia. I have a whole poem in my book about different stops on busses and subways stations in Philly. I’ve had eye contact with strangers and thought, “I could run away with that person,” or felt I could get a sense of that person’s whole story. I’ve said this too about planes: We’re kind of at our best and our worst in these places where we’re on our way somewhere. So I think poetry is a way to kind of capture it and also slow it down. It’s in a place where you’re not really listening. What are you listening for? You’re listening for your train time, you’re listening for delays, you’re listening for trouble. Like, is there drama around here that I should be avoiding? You’re not listening for music, you’re not listening for utterances of beauty, you’re not listening for chants of rage. Well, maybe you are–to avoid the danger. But I’m hoping that people will be seduced into listening more deeply in a place where you’re sort of tuning out or more focused on just where you’re headed, not smelling the roses that are the poets at 30th Street Station.
It’s such an iconic place, too. It’s iconic in terms of a historical place in Philadelphia but it’s also personally important for me. The first workshop that my mother had to raise $200 to send me to at University of Penn involved me coming through 30th Street Station for the first time. My mom and my little sisters rode the train with me all the way from North Wales to Philly. We got off and we walked up Walnut Street to Bennett Hall so I could go to this class, and then the next day she was like, “You’re going to do it yourself.” So I got on the train all by myself. I was 13. And I got to 30th Street Station and I had to navigate my way to the street and walk up–it was only one street, but I was 13. For me it was a point of departure for independence, for the exploration of my identity as a writer, which would take me decades later to really fully embrace. It was just the beginning of that identity. When I was asked about 30th Street, I was like, “Yeah, I could do that” because that place means something to me. Like places I’ve lived, I’ve lived there. I’ve spent some uncomfortable hours in 30th Street Station waiting to go places or being in between places as a young person. So it’s a rich place personally and but also culturally, I think.
RR: So it’s a place that you took a step into poetry, and with the Outbound Poetry Festival, it could be that place for somebody else.
YW: Exactly. It could be the beginning of somebody’s love affair with poetry, the start of their journey.
RR: There’s a Walt Whitman quote associated with Outbound: “To have great poets there must be great audiences.” How do you interpret this? Why does a poet need an audience?
YW: When you’ve grew up in the Philly poetry scene, as I did starting in 1999, it was an education to go to open mics and read poems you’d just written the night before and share them among an audience of people who showed up religiously for this series that was going on. They would be there every second and third Friday at 7:30 sharp, ready to hear whatever somebody had.
At the very first open mic I hosted in Philly there’d be maybe 10 to 12 featured poets, and I remember that before I was the host I was one of those featured poets, and I needed those audiences to help me build the confidence that I grew into as a poet, to learn how to test subject matter and the limitations of voice. It was the first place that I felt free to experiment. So I would hope there’s a venue like that for every poet in Philly because we need people to show up when we’re willing to share. Not everybody gets to the point where they want to spout it to the world, but I think when you do, you surely want somebody to show up and listen. You want them to listen and not interrupt you, to really hear you. People want to be heard.
The community of poetry is huge for keeping your momentum going and staying in the game. It’s hard to remember sometimes why you do it, but the community is a powerful force. I’ve been to youth poetry slams and seen hundreds of people show up to support these young people. Those moments where the kid forgets the words to their poem and you hear all the people in the audience saying, “You got this, you got this,” really make it [the relationship between poet and audience] clear.
Whitman knew that we can’t just write poetry for ourselves. It isn’t just about your ego, your need to exist on paper into immortality–it’s about the connection. We need people to show up for poetry. And I don’t think we need to dumb it down to do that. I don’t think that’s about lowering the bar. I think it’s simply about truth telling. That’s what uplifts people. You don’t have to sell it; I think it can still be sacred and healing and playful and transformative. I think it can be all of those things. But for that to happen, it requires an audience. You can’t just do it in your bath, though that’s a good place to start.
You can be a spectator in other genres, but poetry’s like music: It invites the response. There’s nothing worse than no response, than just the dry I’m sitting here, you’re behind the podium, there’s a poem between us, but I don’t feel it moving me, I don’t feel it getting inside me. There’s also the idea that audiences are potential poets, so it keeps the whole world going round.
RR: We’re living in this time when a lot of people are sort of waking up and seeing the world more clearly, perhaps, and looking for tools with which to work on the world in ways they weren’t necessarily a year ago. Is poetry one of these tools?
RR: How can we wield it? Or, what is poetry’s capacity?
YW: I think it’s infinite if you compare it to the ways language is just used like toilet paper in most daily interactions. I think poetry can totally uplift the tone of our engagements. It’s like a new water you get to swim in when you’re at a reading or you’re reading poetry or you’re listening to it–you’re steeping yourself in something different than the constant barrage of images or the soundbites of text, the alternative facts that we get. I think poetry is an antidote to alternative facts, you know? It lives in the gray and yet it challenges the gray. It seeks to define the gray. I think we need those kinds of pockets of language that is more electric, that operates on different vibrations, on different frequencies of comprehension, and that also defies easy understanding, that invites us to hang out in uncertainty, in the mystery of it all.
I think that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that there’s still stuff we don’t know, that we can’t know everything. And poetry is sometimes about not knowing and also about the trying to know, and in the trying to know can be all this bittersweet double-edged stuff. I think poetry captures that in a way that, whether you’re reading it or you decide to write, it gets you out of that regular groove that we get locked into of checking Facebook or watching the news.
There’s a certain way that our language disempowers us every day. It disguises the agents of destruction or violence, and I think poetry can uncover all of that, can pull back this curtain that can be painful to look at. We need poets to pull back the curtain, just like all artists do. I think there’s a lot that poetry can do with language that other art forms do in different ways.
RR: Plenty of people find poetry inaccessible. And yet, there’s inarguably room for anyone in poetry. It’s expansive. If you could send a message to people who are on the fence about poetry, what would you want them to know?
YW: That’s a tough one, because I’m not trying to convert anybody. I think that I would say to that person, “That’s cool. You’re not there. You might not ever be there. But there may come a time when you need poetry. In fact, I hope there comes a time when poetry serves a purpose for you.” I would just say, “Look out for it.”
You know, I could pull out my favorite poems by my most exciting poets with the most adventurous biographies. I might pull out all the stops for that person. I would regale them with my most low-risk, engaging exercises that might trick you into somehow having fun with language and try to take the word poetry out of the whole equation. That’s how I might approach it. The word “poetry” can mean so many things to people–it can be associated with trauma, frivolity. Part of is like, “Maybe you haven’t found your poetry yet. You haven’t found that poet who fits your palate.” Depending on who that person was I might try to help them find that, I might help them sample the delicacies that I know. I think that’s what a good teacher would do, not try to condemn the person for not digging it right away. But maybe I can entice you to share in poetry in someway that makes sense for you. Maybe you need to get something off your chest–we don’t have to call it poetry–or maybe you can read some of these poets that are into some of the stuff you’re into. But I would also share my story, my life of poetry and how it’s been a journey for me, how it’s saved me in some parts of my life, it healed me in some others; it’s empowered me. I would say it keeps me alive now, literally, financially, emotionally, spiritually.
I try to lead by example. But I’m not going to get them all, and maybe those folks are just audiences or potential audience members. And maybe they’ll catch, if somebody drags them to poetry–and I’m counting on the connoisseurs and the lovers to bring those folks to poetry readings, to bring them to 30th Street–the people who are not even thinking about it might catch a glimpse of something that might hold something real for them. I like living in the possibility of poetry and poets. I don’t expect it or demand it, but I am certainly delighted when it comes up. So I hope that this festival is a little piece of the spontaneity and the serendipity that we talk about, the stuff we can’t predict.
Rachel Fiske Reynolds is a writer and workshop teacher based out of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Duende, The Nervous Breakdown, Liminalities, VICE, the HipMama podcast, and more.