Kenney taps poet laureate for city

 Philadelphia's new Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher reads a poem in the Mayor's Reception Room at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia's new Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher reads a poem in the Mayor's Reception Room at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mayor Jim Kenney has appointed Philadelphia’s new poet laureate. Yolanda Wisher will officially advocate for education and civic engagement through poetry for the next two years.

This is the second laureate position for Wisher.

In 1999, when she was just 23 and living in North Wales, Pennsylvania, she became the first poet laureate of Montgomery County. She has since moved to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, held down a day job with the Mural Arts Program, and wielded poetry as a form of activism.

“It’s always been a struggle to find an authentic balance between art and engagement,” said Wisher. “I love that problem-solving. Writing poetry and hosting poetry is a way of holding space for all those voices.”

The last year has been a big one for Wisher; she quit her job as director of education at the Mural Arts Program; she published her first book of poetry “Monk Eats and Afro” (Hanging Loose Press); she was named a Pew Center for Arts and Heritage fellow; and, now, she is the city’s poet laureate.

On the event of her 39th birthday, she decided to make some changes. “It opened up a whole world of doors in my life, and allowed me to embrace poetry as my path,” said Wisher.

The poet laureate position is a civic one. Wisher is expected to go into Philadelphia schools and neighborhood to engage, teach, and offer a creative outlet for residents.

“Poetry allows you to express emotion within a discipline,” said Mayor Jim Kenney at the announcement. “We can always express emotion through screaming and yelling and arguing, but when you have to express your emotion through a metered discipline, it really does make you have to work hard to make that expression. It’s what I admire about poets the most.”

The two-year position includes a $5,000 stipend. Wisher’s first action will be to host the local performance of a national poetry effort, the “State of the Union,” at the Painted Bride in Old City on Feb. 20.

The State of the Union solicits stories from people of all walks of life across the country, then uses that material for a single national poem. It is coordinated by a group of artists called the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. Despite the sound of its title, it is not an actual government agency.

Wisher’s part-time position at the department is the “chief rhapsodist of wherewithal.”

“That is my awesome title,” she confirmed.

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