“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” — Robert Frost
If you didn’t know it, April is National Poetry Month, and Philadelphia is a hotbed of spoken word and poetry. On any given night, you can find wordsmiths practicing the art at open mics, slams and in workshops. We have a number of great poets here in our community, like World Poetry Slam Champion Denice “Ms. Misconception” Frohman, J. Mase III, C.A. Conrad and today’s profile, Alyesha Wise, aka Ms. Wise. Co-host of one of Philly’s longest- running open mics, Jus’ Words, Ms. Wise is also a two-time Women of the World Poetry Slam finalist and last year was awarded the first-ever Queens Inspire Kings award, presented by Kings Rule Together, for her community and youth involvement. Born in Camden, N.J., Ms. Wise describes herself as a teacher, fighter and love revolutionist.
PGN: We hear so many bad things about Camden. Tell me something good. AW: Well, I moved to Philly in 2006, but Camden is always going to be home. I love, love, love it. It teaches you so much, good and bad. It’s very community-oriented. I guess a lot of people don’t see it that way, but it’s not your average big city; we don’t have a lot of high-rise complexes and skyscrapers. It’s comprised of a lot of neighborhoods so people know each other. I remember growing up and playing kickball and hide-and-seek with my friends. It didn’t feel like being in the city.
PGN: What’s a favorite memory? AW: I think of being in East Camden because that’s when I was actually acting like a kid, before I was trying to see what the world was all about, in all the worst ways. We played games and got to know each other and it was an innocent time. It felt so good. I got up in the morning and went skating by myself, I’d stay up late doing corny stuff with my friends. Later on when I was trying to be grown, I would never do something like that.
PGN: Who was your best friend? AW: Let’s see, I’ve had three throughout my life. In East Camden, her name was Shika, short for Yashika, and she was awesome. Our mothers were friends, so we spent a lot of time together. When we moved, I got another best friend. That was during my transition period, and now I have another best friend.
PGN: Any siblings? AW: Yes, there are five of us. I’m the second and the oldest girl. I love my siblings so, so much. Even though I’m not the oldest, I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure they go down the positive path and don’t get caught up in some of the negative things Camden can suck you into. The streets can be very persuasive. It can pull you in crazy directions, and it almost pulled me down the wrong path. I see how it tries to do that with my siblings so I try to be there as a mentor, even to my older brother.
PGN: Tell me about your parents. AW: My mother always made sure there was food on the table and a roof over our heads and that we got to school clean and ready to learn. She provided for us financially but she could be a little emotionally withdrawn. There were a lot of times that I would have questions that a young girl would have and I didn’t feel I could go to my mother. She wasn’t good at listening or communicating and she could get kind of snappy with us. Even to this day, she can be really short with people, but I know she has a huge heart and that’s where I get a lot of my heart from. I wish she could express it more. It inspired me to be a more open person, though, so if I have kids, I won’t be closed off to my emotions like she was.
PGN: She was very guarded? AW: Yes, yes. I think she was afraid a lot ... of being a parent. I still think she is. My youngest sibling is 15 and the oldest is 31, and from conversations we’ve had, I realize it’s not that she doesn’t love us, she’s just scared of a lot and that comes across as unfeeling. She loves us deeply and now spends a lot of time apologizing for mistakes she’s made. My dad is awesome. My parents divorced when I was 5 so he wasn’t around a lot when I was a kid, but he’s always been in my life. [Laughs.] Even when I didn’t want it, like when he’d take me to baseball games, which would bore me to death, or to a movie that had things that were too scary or sexy for a kid my age. I’d pretend I was asleep so I could close my eyes whenever anything bad came on. I have a lot of awkward memories with my father! He’s the one I’d go to if I needed to talk, even to this day. He’s a good communicator. Sometimes with the fewest words, he can make the most sense.
PGN: Favorite book as a young person? AW: “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. I read it in high school and it changed my perspective on a lot of things. I was never really encouraged to read as a kid, not by my parents or even by teachers outside of curriculum reading. I came to books late and now I can’t get enough. I have two books in my bag right now.
PGN: It shows you the importance of introducing kids to things at a young age. AW: True, I wish I’d started reading books earlier. And I went to a decent school, Medical Arts High, but still I don’t think they put in as much effort as they could have. I’ve taught at charter schools where they have more freedom and the teachers really push the students to excel. I didn’t have that from my teachers or my parents, but oh well. God bless ’em.
PGN: Where did you go to college? AW:Rowan College in Glassboro, N.J. I majored in psychology.
PGN: Not writing or English? AW: No. [Laughs.] I felt like I didn’t need to be taught something I already knew how to do, and I knew I was going to be a writer for the rest of my life. So I decided to use my major to learn something new. Looking back, I kind of wish I hadn’t been so hard-headed, but I don’t regret psychology. It comes in real handy working with students. Plus, it looks good on a resume.
PGN: How did you know you were gay? AW: OK, so, I was with my friends one day and just realized that I was looking at women differently. It wasn’t scary—I’d had thoughts about women when I was young—but we’re taught that’s not what you’re supposed to do or how we’re supposed to be, so I just shut it out. But this time, I started flirting with this woman, acting like I’d been out forever, and it worked. We ended up going out for three years!
PGN: Smooth. AW: Yes, yes, and I identified as lesbian for eight years and have been written up as a lesbian poet, but recently something weird happened that surprised even me: I have a boyfriend, and it’s such a scary thing, I wrote a poem about it and I haven’t put it out there yet. It’s a crazy transition. People are like, “What’s up? She’s the lesbian poet, she fights for gay rights but, oh, she has a boyfriend?” I feel sometimes like I’ve been booted out, but I’ve discovered that love is love.
PGN: Well, you’re not alone. There are a number of lesbian icons who have fallen in love with men. Holly Near ... AW: Yeah, I get all the questions like, “Do you still like women? So you’re not gay anymore? What happened?” I love women, I still do and my boyfriend knows that, and I understand that it’s confusing for people. We’re still learning every day.
PGN: Do you remember the first poem you wrote? AW: [Laughs.] Yes! I was 11 and watching the movie “Poetic Justice” with Janet Jackson. She was so beautiful reading her poetry that I wanted to do it. I thought they were actually her poems, I didn’t realize they’d been written by Maya Angelou! So I wrote a poem called “Black History.” I still have it somewhere. I keep a big binder held together by a scarf with all my poems inside.
PGN: What makes someone a professional poet? AW: Oh goodness, I think we all have different definitions. For me, it’s somewhat based off of how many states have you performed in, have you expanded your voice or your message outside of your personal sphere, have you been published, how many venues have you played, what else do you do other than perform, do you teach, are you part of the national scene, the underground scene — I think all poetry is underground. Everyone has a different perspective.
PGN: Top-three poets? AW: Jeffrey McDaniel (www.poemhunter.com/jeffrey-mcdaniel)—I just learned about him last year and, oh my goodness, his writing is amazing. For performance, I like Queen GodIs (www.queengodis.com) out of New York. My third right now would be Alice Walker. PGN: You do a lot of teaching. What do you find frustrating? AW: I wish more people would pay attention to their writing. I go to venues all the time and people get the crowd riled up by saying something loudly or broadly but it doesn’t have any artistic value. People hoot and holler because they’re being entertained or because the person might say something funny, but it’s not art. It makes me cringe. People forget the substance. Like when Richard Blanco read his poem “One Today” at President Obama’s inauguration. People criticized him because they didn’t like the way he read it. It was dry as a performance but if you really listened to the poem or go back and read it, it was very, very well-written. As poets, we really need to go back and give respect to the craft. Most of the world doesn’t appreciate poetry as much as they do other art forms, so we need to learn to cheer the right things and that’s good writing. [Laughs.] Of course, that’s subjective, but we can start with, Did the person put in any effort, did they even try to use any kind of format, does it even make sense?
PGN: How is poetry valuable to the students you work with? AW: When I first talk to them, I say, “I’m not necessarily trying to make you a poet, but I want you to learn that your voice is important and the words you use are important.” If they end up being poets, awesome, but if they learn to communicate what they’re feeling or what they need, that’s what’s really important. I tell them, “I hear you at the bus stop, or in the halls, talk, talk, talking. Sometimes people are intimidated by y’all in the subways but you can use that voice for so much more. You can change the world just by learning how to use your voice constructively.”
PGN: Anyone in particular that the message got through to? AW: I was doing work at one of the schools and at the beginning I said, “I understand why a lot of you come in here with attitudes, and why you do what you do, but when you come in here silent, with an attitude, people will make assumptions about you that might not be true. You need to learn how to express yourselves. Maybe you need to tell your teachers, ‘I’m going through a rough time right now,’ because they can’t help if you don’t verbalize what’s going on.” Soon after that, one of the students broke down and said her father had passed away and she was really hurting. After that day, when she opened up, she was a new person: She participated in class and the whole class worked a lot smoother after going through that together. They were fifth-graders so it was a lot to process, but it was great. The first time I realized my poem had an effect was when I was about 17. I was on stage reading a poem and there was a woman in the front row crying. She was a lot older than me and I felt bad, but the lady in charge of the venue came up to me afterwards and said, “You did that. You touched someone.” Right then, I realized that my voice was able to do something, that my story could help someone else release their feelings, and that was the moment I realized that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
PGN: Do you remember what the poem was about? AW: Yes, it was about growing up in Camden and wanting to change who I was becoming. I was good as a kid, did good in school, and then I spent some time trying to fit in by getting into trouble.
PGN: My religion is ... AW: Love. I don’t think any particular religion describes how I feel about the world, God and people. I’m afraid of belonging to one particular religion—it might bind me to certain things—so I study a lot of different religions and like to take from them all.
PGN: My go-to karaoke song is ... AW: Anything by Prince ... “I Would Die for You” especially.
PGN: What’s a book you’d like to live in? AW: Oh, I like this. It would be the book I’m reading now, “Zen: The Diamond Thunderbolt” by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who also goes by Osho. It’s inspiring my heart and I could just dive into it.
PGN: Would you go skydiving? AW: I would. I’d be terrified but I’d do it.
PGN: Historical moment that affected you? AW: When Michael Jackson died. He just had such a big heart and spread so much love all over the world. After he died, I really started to embrace the idea of universal love and started a movement, “Love, Us.” I call myself a love revolutionary and I wanted to create something that would deter people from their allure with hate. At the time MJ died, there were a lot of negative things in the news, school bullying, suicides, etc. I had a lot of emotion bundled up and nowhere to put it, so I decided to produce an event to promote love versus hate. I called up the woman who owns the Rotunda and said that I wanted to put on an event. She didn’t even ask me what it was, she just jumped on board and offered us a date. Then I got scared because I booked a venue and I had no idea what I was going to do, so I started calling people and, before I knew it, I had poets and musicians and artists. The theme of the show was beautiful, yet simple — “Spread Love, End Hate” — and we had a sold-out house with people coming from all over, from New York to D.C. It’s now become a movement and we support not just poets, but any artwork that works to elevate and makes people feel better about themselves.
Find out about upcoming poetry events at www.mswisedecision.com.