by Len Lear
Yolanda Wisher, 38, who was born in Germantown and has lived there for the last 14 years after being raised in North Wales, is an accomplished poet, singer, musician and educator. In fact, she was named the first Poet Laureate of Montgomery County in 1999 when she was just 23. According to Kristina Moriconi, the current Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, who was featured in Local Life last week, “Yolanda is an amazing poet. I have a CD of her reading her work and listen to it often for inspiration.”
Although Yolanda has been writing poetry since she was 8, her first book of poetry, “Monk Eats an Afro,” was not published until May of this year (by Hanging Loose Press), but it has received rave reviews. For example, Sonia Sanchez, of Germantown, arguably Philadelphia’s most acclaimed poet, had this to say: “Sister Yolanda’s pocketbook that opens, beckons us to come and taste her ‘iron for your mind’ … Thank you for these exquisite poems.”
Yolanda graduated from North Penn High School and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing/English from Temple University and a B.A. in English and Black Studies from Lafayette College. Her writing has appeared in many journals and anthologies, and she regularly performs her poetry in collaboration with musicians. Another poet of repute, Michael Cirelli, said about Yolanda’s book, “It is the most stunning collection (of poems) that I’ve ever encountered … Wisher makes the writer in me envious and the reader in me joyful.”
Wisher, who lives with husband Mark Palacio, a musician and Miquon School teacher, and son Thelonious, 4, also heads the Art Education department of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and is a Founding Cultural Agent for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a new citizen-powered initiative. Following is a list of questions we put to Yolanda last week and her answers:
• What was it like to be selected poet laureate of Montgomery County at age 23?
“It was a thrilling experience. My family has been in the Ambler/Penllyn/North Wales area of Montgomery County for generations. There’s a rich African American history attached to Montgomery County that people don’t always hear about. So it was a point of pride to be able to represent the county, my family and my ancestors.”
• How is it that you have been writing poetry for so long but just published your first book of poetry?
“Part of it is waiting for the right opportunity. Some of it boils down to lots of rejections. And some of it is just destiny and magic.”
• Was anyone in your family a poet? Did family members encourage you?
“My mother and grandmother were my biggest supporters, but everyone in my family encouraged me and celebrated me as a young poet. They celebrated my gift with language, which was more evident than some of theirs. But I would say that everyone in my family is a poet in some shape or form.”
• What kind of work did your parents do? Do you have any siblings?
“My mother worked at Merck, a pharmaceutical company. My mom and stepfather were working-class folks who made their way up to the suburbs and homeownership. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I have two younger sisters that I grew up with and many other siblings who I claim but did not have the opportunity to grow up with.”
• Growing up, was writing poetry an escape for you from the problems of childhood and adolescence?
“Yes. The presence of domestic violence in my home forced me inward.”
• What prompted you to start writing poetry as a child?
“I was an avid reader. I wanted to write books like the ones I read. I also just loved making up rhymes and stories for entertainment and as family gifts.”
• How is it that so many people write poetry, but poetry gets such short shrift in this country?
“I think that people are still trying to figure out exactly what poetry is. It’s not the same thing as spoken word, and it’s not the same thing as theater. It can’t be completely commercialized or co-opted. It will always need to live at the fringes in order to do its best work.”
• What does your job with the Mural Arts Program consist of?
“I direct an out-of-school art education program for at-risk youth ages 10-22 at over 30 sites across the city. I manage a talented staff of art educators and teaching artists.”
• What do you like/dislike about living in Germantown?
“I love the grit, swagger and green of Germantown. I love that so many artists have lived here and are drawn here. I dislike that people stereotype, fear and label Germantown without really knowing the place.”
• What is the new U.S. Dept. of Arts & Culture?
“See website at usdac.us. I was selected to be one of its 17 Cultural Agents across the country. I do it on a volunteer basis.”
• What do you hope to accomplish with your poetry in the future?
“To keep writing poetry until I’m dead and gone. I hope to publish more books of poems and keep expanding my definition of poetry — what it can do on the page, stage, in community.”
• What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?
“Owning my own business or running my own organization. And writing, more writing.”
Ed. Note: Yolanda will be running Project Write Summer Camp, a writing and speech workshop for young writers. On Friday, July 25, 11:30 a.m., at Independence Nat’l Historical Park. For more information about Yolanda, visit www.yolandawisher.com.