By Bryan Hay

Poets always whisper to us nearby, ready to soothe and sometimes prick our consciousness at times of transition and upheaval, often in just a few lines. 

Over the past year, the eternal voices of Shakespeare, Frost, Hughes, Angelou, and others have joined with latter day verse by poets such as Amanda Gorman, offering escape and a hopeful balm on the pandemic, politics, and social justice issues.

Yolanda Wisher ’98, a Philadelphia-based poet, singer, educator, curator, former poet laureate of Philadelphia, and this year’s keynote speaker at Commencement, stepped away from her teaching and performance schedule recently to talk about why people have once again sought poetry to provide calm and hope during the pandemic and an era of social upheaval. 

Why do you think poets are experiencing a surge right now?

I live in a universe in which poets have always been in a surge. I’m fortunate to live in Philadelphia where the poetry scene is in kind of a perennial transformation. I live amongst a vibrant poetry scene where there are professional poets and emerging poets and people who would like to be poets. I think poetry is giving us a chance to go inside again. It’s part of the big slowdown that we’re all experiencing right now in our lives, of taking stock of what this pandemic has taught us about what’s most important and what’s most essential. Poetry is really good at distilling these really big, sweeping moments of life that we’re going through right now.

Why and how does poetry speak to people and provide healing?

Poetry is about emotional experience and emotional translation of the lived experience. It’s trying to find words for the things that you don’t have words for, to leave us speechless, or leave us in some way invisible, or render us invisible. I think there are a lot of folks who have felt voiceless in our society, who, through poetry and other art forms, are really starting to have a sense of voice in the greater consciousness or in the bigger conversations.

Some of our big institutions like museums, or even the Oscars, are being reevaluated in terms of how inclusive and how much space they leave for Black and brown and Indigenous voices. Poetry has always been a space for people to reveal the inside experience, what it means to be on the fringes of society. As poetry becomes more central to the discourse, those stories become more central to all of us.

Why do the voices of poets seem more pronounced during challenging times?

I think people are ultimately looking for wisdom; they’re looking for a sense of clarity. They’re looking for folks who seem to have figured it all out. In some ways, poetry has offered people those kinds of answers. But I think there’s even more to it. People are interested in not just the poem but also the person behind the poem, and the stories that led to that writing of that poem.

Are poets more accessible now?

We have more access to those poets and their stories than we ever did. We can start to see ourselves in that. A lot of poets, at least the poets that I know, are really creating new kinds of lives for themselves. When I was growing up, there wasn’t really a career that you could stake a claim on as a writer. It was something you did on the side. You had to have something more serious, as my mother would say. But I know a lot of folks who are making careers and new pathways out of art, and the practice of art, and also seeing poetry as an art, a contemporary art. When folks encounter the poems that come out of that kind of living, they also encounter the lives of those poets.

How has your poetry addressed the stresses of the pandemic and social upheaval?

I’m usually living in my own sense of time with poetry. It usually stretches back a couple of decades, even centuries. I’m interested in telling stories of people who are related to me, people in my family. I’m interested in genealogy, and that informs a lot of my writing. 

But when I do get asked to write in the moment, it excites me, like The New York Times piece (We Were Born to be Kissed in the Dark, part of the paper’s series reflecting on a year of living with the pandemic) that I recently wrote, where I was asked to be in this moment right now and speak to the sense of loss.

I love writing within parameters and testing what those parameters are. I loved being given some photographs, which showed people in dance clubs all over New York City, and asked to respond to them. They led me into thinking about music that I was listening to and what those people were listening to. They’re so intimately engaged in these photos. I always approach the current moment in a very multidisciplinary way. It’s the stuff that I’m seeing, it’s the stuff that I’m hearing in the music. It was about how to translate that so it speaks of that moment but also the moments that happened long before I was born.

As a singer in your ensemble Afroeaters, do you think musically when you compose poetry?

I’ve always thought poetry was a great sister or a cousin to music. That line between poetry and song for me has been a journey, a learning journey. It’s really a natural evolution of my voice on paper. As a kid, I was always writing my own song lyrics but wasn’t confident enough to share them. But eventually poetry became a space for my singing voice as well. And I would say a lot of the poems I write, I walk the line between poetry and song. I’m always trying to translate what I’m learning from musicians into poetry. I love improvisation. I love how you can learn on the spot and create on the spot collaboratively with other people. It’s like jumping off of a building.

What’s the best situation, mindset or time of day to read poetry?

For me, it’s in the morning, in that state between waking and sleeping. I think it’s a great space for poetry. Some people think they have to read a whole book of poetry in one sitting, but you can just wake up in the morning and read one poem, maybe something by Mary Oliver. That’s all you need to keep chugging away through the day and a great way to integrate poetry into your life. 

I sometimes read to my partner (double bassist Mark Palacio) at night. Sometimes, he’ll just say, ‘Would you read to me?’ Right now we’re reading The Odyssey because I’m doing a project about epics. Reading a little bit before bed provides another liminal state between sleeping and being awake. You have one foot in reality and the other foot in this other kind of more interior, sometimes dreamlike place.

Is there a poet you turn to when you’re in need of solace?

You know there’s one I’ll always give props to, and sometimes I just walk by her house in Germantown because she’s right around the corner from me. But the poet Sonia Sanchez is somebody who’s mentored me since grad school. And I was just glad to get a little bit of her tutelage and see how her career has evolved over decades and how she’s just kept writing through it all. 

Through loss and just the changing world that we’re all in, she’s still writing, she’s still teaching, she’s still responding to young people. And she’s still mentoring us and giving us a sense of how to stay hopeful of the way forward and how we as poets can be of use.

The ancient Greeks believed a poet needed some madness before writing. Do you believe that, especially as you respond as an artist to these challenging times?

We’re all a little mad. I think I would maybe redefine madness as eccentricity. I’ve learned to embrace my little quirks as a writer, the more that I’ve stayed on this little journey. There are just some things that make me feel good when I’m doing it. Or there are some things that really transport me, especially now in these difficult times, and I think of madness as that sense of being transported beyond the world’s expectations.