The year was 1998—the year of the Lafayette Renaissance. Yolanda Wisher ’98 had just arrived with a rental van full of Philadelphia poets she met while spending a semester in the city. They gathered in the black box theater in the Williams Center for the Arts, where couches and coffee tables had been dragged in earlier to create a “little nightclub situation.” Then, they recited, students and Philadelphians alike sharing the same poetic space on a Friday night.
The Renaissance, which Wisher organized along with members of the Black Student Union her senior year, was the start of a lifelong project for her: breaching the divide between communities on and off of “hills” like the one Lafayette sits on. And this year, she will be the one coming to campus from Philadelphia, as the speaker at the college’s 186th Commencement ceremony on May 30.
Wisher has pursued a life of artistry and education. After majoring in English and Black Studies at Lafayette, she went on to Temple University in Philadelphia for a masters in creative writing.
Since then, she has thrived as a community leader and educator. In 2016, she was named the Poet Laureate for Philadelphia for a two-year term, a distinction that reflects dedication to poetry as an art form as well as to the city’s poetry community. In addition to having taught high school English for a decade, she is also the founder of the Germantown Poetry Festival and served as Director of Art Education for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, and regularly teaches poetry workshops as part of her involvement in the local poetry scene. And as a Pew and Cave Canem Fellow, Wisher received the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award in 2019 for her commitment to art for social change.
In addition to her work in her community, Wisher has a diverse body of music and poetry to her name as well. In 2014, she published a collection of poems called “Monk Eats an Afro,” and her poems have also been featured in many other anthologies including “The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South” and “A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years.” She has written features for the New York Times, and her band Yolanda Wisher & The Afroeaters, for which she sings and performs spoken-word poems, has been on NPR’s Live Music Sessions.
But Wisher hasn’t always been an artist. When she first came to Lafayette in 1994, she came to play basketball and planned to major in political science. But after just one year, she became enraptured by the English department and decided to pursue a more creative path.
“It was a really big crossroads for me when I stopped playing basketball,” she said. “I started hanging out with musicians and other writers and doing theater productions.”
She also found herself attracted to the Africana Studies department, but when she found that the courses weren’t exactly what she wanted, she set out to create her own major: Black Studies.
“The ability to craft a path of learning for myself is something that I’ve been gifted with throughout my education,” she said. “I had to say, ‘this is the knowledge that I’m finding most valuable.’ And there were people at the college who were willing to help me define that, even though they didn’t know what that path looked like.”
Although she was studying English at the college, Wisher said that Lafayette functioned as a between-place for her writing, and that Easton never became a part of her poetic landscape as did other cities. Instead, she said it was a place of reflection, where she started writing poems about her childhood in North Wales, Penn., but also started looking to the future.
“It was kind of like a fulcrum,” she said. “A place in between home and Philly, which are really big landscapes in my poems.”
For her, the between-place of college was like a training ground, situated between dependence and independence, family and “rolling solo,” lack of freedom and freedom.
“What’s important about being in such a space is that it’s undefinable until you define it…it’s kind of a blank slate,” she said. “And if you have the means to bend it to your will or to shape it, it can really be a great platform for the next kind of life you’re living.”
One of Wisher’s favorite poems deals with this theme of place. Though her favorite poem is often her most recent one—“Thank you for showing up!” she says—her work “5 South 43rd Street, Floor 2” has stayed with her, and not just because of its “obnoxiously long title.” It describes one of the first places she lived in Philadelphia and starts, “Sometimes we would get hungry for the neighborhood. / Walk up the sidewalk towards Chestnut Street.”
“I often give it to people as kind of an introduction to Philly, or a Philly that doesn’t exist anymore, because Philly, like a lot of cities, is changing, being developed, gentrified,” she said. “I love the way in which that poem functions as an artifact of a place.”
Wisher has often said that she wants to “bust poetry out of its ivory tower.” Since she first started graduate school in 1999, she said the gap between her experience in academia and her experience in the city has become increasingly pronounced.
“Why does poetry only belong in that world [academia], and not on my block?” she said. “And why are the poems of [Harlem Renaissance poet] Jean Toomer only relegated to be talked about in the halls of academia, and not this thrift store on Chestnut Street?
“[These are] questions of equity and justice…who owns art and great writing? Who is a great writer? Who can even be a great writer?”
A lot of these questions boil down to the way poetry is taught, she said, and accessing students well before college to help them experience poetry in ways that aren’t just historical or explicative is important. She recalled teaching a young boy who was drawing a comic to accompany a poem. The caption said “I’m allergic to poetry” and showed him blowing his nose.
At Lafayette, too, Wisher worked to break down the boundaries of academia, the Renaissance being just one example. She left the hill often and also tried to bring people from Easton onto campus to access the college’s resources.
“I don’t see the community as separate from the people on the hill,” she said. “I feel like there’s a ‘hill’ everywhere. [I want to] be the person who is willing to come off the hill and move between spaces with other people.”
In less than a month, Wisher will be coming back up the hill to deliver her address at the Commencement ceremony, which is slated to start Sunday, May 30 at 10:30 a.m. in Fisher Stadium. She will also be receiving an honorary degree from the college. Members of the Class of 2021 do not require tickets to the event and are allowed two guests each, with tickets available online now.
In the meantime, Wisher will be working on her many other ongoing projects. She plans to publish another book of poetry along with a book of essays about poetry, release a record with her band and continue her work as a curator, especially in film.