August 1, 2019

Yolanda Wisher of Philadelphia Contemporary

Yolanda Wisher, Stellar Masses 1. Photo by Rashid Zakat.

In this series, we tap into our network of thinkers, designers, creatives, and leaders and chat to gain a bit of insight into their expertise. For our first installation of Learning With Experts, Dan Muro interviews Yolanda Wisher, Curator of Spoken Word at Philadelphia Contemporary.

Yolanda Wisher is a Philadelphia-based poet, singer, educator, curator, and the author of  Monk Eats an Afro  (Hanging Loose Press, 2014) and the co-editor of Peace is a Haiku Song  (Philadelphia Mural Arts, 2013). She was named Poet Laureate of Philadelphia in 2016, and performs a unique blend of poetry and song with her band, The Afroeaters.

Philadelphia Contemporary is in the process of creating its first building, and in the meantime has been curating a series of programs throughout the city. (DVDL DD led the selection for the designers of the organization’s new home, Johnston Marklee and MGA Partners, who we are now collaborating with as strategic consultants for the design process.) Recent programs Yolanda has curated include Stellar Masses, a series of site-specific events featuring poetry, video, music, performance, and sermons that embrace the sacred and interstellar; and the Outbound Poetry Festival, a series of pop-up readings at 30th Street Station.


DM: Philadelphia Contemporary is uncommon for the art world, in that it does not have its own dedicated space—though that is soon to change! We imagine that requires a creative approach to programming: What sort of opportunities and possibilities has this opened up for you?

YW: I’m really excited for poetry to be all up in this interdisciplinary mix for once. I think poets can learn a lot from visual artists and musicians and dancers, and vice versa. There’s much shared vernacular between art forms, and as we explore each other’s mediums, we are pushed to critically reflect on and interrogate the ways we’ve always worked, the assumptions we’ve made about our disciplines, what we call ourselves and our work, and the ways that our processes could evolve. 

DM: What excites you most about the prospect of a new, permanent and dedicated space for the organization’s future?

YW: I used to live in the neighborhood surrounding the area that PC will inhabit, so I’m excited for the long-time residents to see themselves reflected in our building and in our programming. I’m excited to see the diversity of Philadelphia reflected in our audience. Sharing space and developing programming with local organizations doing important work in the arenas of social justice, education, and community health is also something to look forward to.

 DM: Your relationship to different spaces and how you move through them appears to figure heavily in your work as a poet. How do they also figure into your role as a curator?

YW: I like to choose performance spaces that have historical resonance—the patina of the past. When I’m putting together a reading or performance, I think about the hidden or unseen energy of the space that history has left behind, and I think about what new or more liberating energy can be created or brought into the space via the event, the artists and the audience. Poetry and spoken word can tap into that ancient or past energy and make it more evident, and can even transform it. I like to play in that contrast between historic space and present and future voices; I like to see what other poets do, and how they show up in spaces that may have never been intended for poetry, like a train station or a planetarium. 

“I want to find ways for spoken word to live throughout the museum in unexpected and delightful ways, to create moment of surprise, reflection and connection for visitors.”

DM: Are there any spaces that you have found particularly compelling or surprising as a venue for spoken word—either as a performer or audience member?

YW: I’ve always had this feeling about planetariums, that there was something inherently sacred about them—like they are interstellar churches. I thought it would be dope to do a reading in Fel’s Planetarium in Philadelphia as part of the Stellar Masses festival I curated last year. I wanted to explore the energies of that place by inviting deeply imaginative and exploratory poets and musicians to perform there, to take over the traditional planetarium spoken word script that accompanies sky shows. Folks like poet and recording artist Ursula Rucker; composer, DJ, and producer King Britt; and poet and theologian Marvin K. White helped us to stretch the possibilities of the space by using it as a site for a poetry benediction, a house-music sermon and a sonic trip to the stars. The artists made the planetarium a sacred space, and the audience became a congregation of adults who experienced a revival of the childhood experience of going on a field trip to the planetarium. 

DM: Unlike painting, sculpture, and other tactile mediums typically shown in museums, spoken word is time-based, ephemeral and fleeting—are you interested in exhibition-style programming for spoken word, and if so, what would that look like? 

YW: Yes, I am interested in exhibition-style programming for spoken word! That might look like using immersive technology to create solo and collective spaces where folks can experience spoken word and poetry performances or processes in new ways. It might also involve inviting poets into the gallery space to do more than just read—perhaps to also write, to type, or to move. I want to find ways for spoken word to live throughout the museum in unexpected and delightful ways, to create moment of surprise, reflection and connection for visitors. In my role as Curator of Spoken Word, I plan to work towards capturing, translating, and sharing that ephemeral quality of spoken word without diminishing its power.

Stellar Masses. Photo by David Evan McDowell.