February 06, 2017
Philadelphia is home to an abundance of writers and poets -- whether they are fiction writers who share their stories at one of the city’s many literary events, or poets who read their work at an open mic. Regardless of where in the city they take place, literary readings bring people together and speak to the human experience.
“There are a lot of different poetry scenes in Philly -- a lot of different poetry crowds and communities,” said Yolanda Wisher, Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate.
Wisher appears a couple times at the Rosenbach Museum and Library this month.
Some of the poets and writers who have influenced Wisher’s work include Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Jayne Cortez.
“These are people who I consider my literary ancestors,” Wisher said.
“I have an affinity towards them because they write about the black experience in a way that was really healing to me. At some point, the healing turned into a need to be a voice, or the need to take action with your voice.”
Wisher draws inspiration from a variety of genres and art forms, such as jazz and blues, the Beat Movement, and experimental poetry.
One of the driving forces behind reading poetry in public, she says, is the need to put it out into the world.
“That was, for me, the drive of being part of open mics as a younger poet in Philly,” Wisher said.
“It really was -- I’m writing something. I’m writing myself. I’m creating myself and I’ve got to share that with you.”
Jubilant Thicket is one of Philadelphia’s reading series, where poets can share their work. Located at Head House Books in Head House Square, the monthly reading showcases a local poet, a poet from outside the city, and another kind of artist.
Deborah Morgan created the series seven years ago, but local poet Anne-Adele Wight has been running it for the last four years. Wight seeks out avant-garde and experimental poets for this series.
“If the reading is going well, there is no feeling like that because there’s a current of energy that goes back and forth between me and the audience and it builds and builds,” Wight said.
Philadelphia is also home to a thriving slam poetry scene. The Philly Pigeon and The Fuze regularly host poetry slams -- competitions where members of the audience judge the poetry they hear on stage. Pigeon slams take place at PhilaMOCA, and The Fuze holds slams at Studio 34.
“As time has gone on, the audience starts to get more knowledgeable about the art form,” said Kai Davis, local poet and cohost of the Pigeon slam.
“They listen for different kinds of metaphors, different uses of the language and these things -- they weren’t listening to before. They start to elevate the art because now they’re judging it.”
Many poets share their work at readings to get feedback or to hear how an audience reacts to their poetry read aloud. Some poets spend a lot of time memorizing their poems in preparation for an event.
“I think it’s more about making sure your energy is right,” Wisher said.
“And that you’re open, and that you’re delivering your work in the spirit of excitement and enthusiasm. And then something magical happens when people respond to that. Whatever it is, I think it’s a pretty sacred experience.”
On Feb. 9 at the Rosenbach Museum, Wisher and poet/saxophonist Dick Lourie will join forces with poets Quincy Scott Jones, Iréne Mathieu, Trapeta Mayson, and musicians Jim Dragoni, Sirlance Gamble and Mark Palacio to combine poetry, jazz and blues. They will commemorate the literary magazine Black Opals, created by black writers in Philadelphia in the 1920s.