This Curator of Spoken Word Has a Mission to Create "Pop-Up Churches of the Soul"
With a new performance series, Philadelphia Contemporary’s Yolanda Wisher wants to shake off the old ways of curating.
Moor Mother performing at “Stellar Mass I.” Photography by Rashid Zakat.
On Monday, two days before her inaugural event as the nonprofit Philadelphia Contemporary’s first curator of spoken word, Yolanda Wisher wasn’t nervous. “I feel pretty good,” she said. “I’ve done so many of these kinds of events now that I’ve learned the anxiety and the worry is counterproductive to the magic that you have to make space for.” The program, “Stellar Masses,” takes place over four days and four sites throughout the city, with a roster of more than twenty performers—spoken word poets, jazz musicians, preachers, DJs, and visual artists. The series was designed to create a cathartic space for people; Wisher calls the events “pop-up churches of the soul.”
This is a woman who is good at firsts—she won her first spoken word slam wearing the poetic uniform of white platform shoes with a silver backpack; when she was twenty-three, she became the first Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and gave readings all across the Philadelphia suburb. Once, she read in a Mennonite church: “They invited me to the pulpit. That was like a moment for me where I had to really decide,” she said. “I was like, ‘Am I worthy of this? Should poetry be delivered from the pulpit?’ It was a really awe-inspiring experience.” One of the poems she delivered then, Ruby Flo, is an ode to menstruation—and an older businessman from the area liked it so much he asked for a copy. In the late 1990s, she hosted the reading series “Panoramic Poetry” at October Gallery, a fixture of Philly’s spoken word scene, and became the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia in 2016.
Along with established spoken word poets like Ursula Rucker and Moor Mother, the lineup for “Stellar Masses” includes sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany—author of the 1975 novel Dhalgren, among other volumes—video artist Saya Woolfalk, and the Stellar Mass Choir singing processionals. With her curation, Wisher is linking Afrofuturism and Christian religious tradition, which have more concepts in common than you’d think: “[There is] the history of the church in the African American community in terms of political activism and emotional healing,” she said. “When you’re dealing with discrimination, microaggressions, hate, oppression, you do need a space.” Afrofuturism offers that space as well; Wisher cited another sci-fi author, Octavia Butler, noting, “her work was so important in envisioning that there were black people in the future.”
“You want to be freed of the trappings of this human world and all of its societal limitations,” she added. “Sometimes you want to be able to get out of your body. You want to be able to connect with something more vast, something greater.” Wisher’s approach is an expansive one, aimed at making new spaces and repurposing old ones to connect the city’s poets, who are, according to her, everywhere—in coffee shops, schools, on SEPTA trains. “I wasn’t even really comfortable with the term curator—how do you curate people?” she said. “It’s more about curating relationships, and curating experiences. [I’m] trying to shake off some of the old power dynamics of what it means to be a curator of things that we objectify.”
Get thee to Philadelphia: For Stellar Mass III, the last event in the series on May 16, Philly-born DJ King Britt is performing an experimental star show in the city’s Fels Planetarium. King Britt visited the planetarium on elementary school field trips—now it’s the setting for a piece called Fhloston Paradigm, a title inspired by stone-cold classic The Fifth Element. “The roots of poetry [are] people looking up to the stars to try to figure out the answers. People chanting. The sacred and interstellar is a lot about our human origins,” Wisher said. In the dark of the planetarium, you might find some answers.
“Stellar Masses” is organized by Philadelphia Contemporary and runs through May 16 at various venues throughout the city.