Episode 28
Leaving a Future Record Behind with Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta B. Mayson of ConsenSIS

We kickoff a new season of the Monument Lab podcast Future Memory with Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta B. Mayson, two renowned former poet laureates of Philadelphia. Wisher and Mayson are the creators of ConsenSIS, a project that summons “sisterly history” to preserve the past and present literary legacy of Black women and femme poets in Philadelphia. ConsenSIS is a part of Monument Lab’s nationwide Re:Generation project, supported by the Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project. ​​Co-host Li Sumpter speaks to Wisher and Mayson about ConsenSIS, their upcoming event, The Clearing (inspired by Toni Morrison), and the meaningful historic images and authors that guide their project’s vision.

Li Sumpter (Host): Welcome back to the Monument Lab podcast. I'm thrilled to welcome my creative colleagues and Germantown neighbors and my very first guest on the podcast reboot, Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta Mayson. Hello to you both. Thank you for joining me.

Yolanda Wisher: Hey, hey. How are you?

Trapeta B. Mayson: Hey. Hi, Li. It's great to see you again. Great to be on here with Yolanda as well.

Sumpter: Yes.

Wisher: Same. Always.

Sumpter: Yes. It's been a long time. I'm actually having flashbacks from Historic Germantown Elephants on the Avenue. I think that's the last time we were all engaged in talks about art and history. And that was really an amazing project led by Trapeta when you were Executive Director over there at Historic Germantown. And that really was amazing. And I have to say that was my first introduction to the rich and deep history of that neighborhood. And I'm proud to say now that I am a resident of Germantown. I have a feeling that project had something to do with it.

Mayson: It's so great that you were a part of that, and I think the three of us being a part of that too always, that was such a rich history and it was great to have you kind of lead that project manager part of it, Li.

Sumpter: I learned so much about this city and about race, class, and history in Germantown. And it's just amazing what art can do to open up perspective and make a conversation even that much more impactful. But we're here to talk about your new project ConsenSIS for Monument Lab's Re:Generation. For those of you who don't know, Re:Generation is a project of Monument Lab that curates projects through an open call and each selected re:Generation team received a hundred thousand dollars toward its local commemorative campaign. And it's part of a nationwide project that invites and challenges us to re envision monuments of the past, present, and future together. And I'm going to read this quote, I think this comes from Yolanda. It says this on your project page that, "We are working to count, gather, and uplift the names, lives, and work of Black women and femme poets in Philadelphia." And that's a big order. That's a tall order, right? And such an amazing mission for this project, ConsenSIS. Obviously, there is such a rich and soulful history in Philadelphia, but also of the history of Black women poets in this city. And more specifically, there is this strong community of artists and poets in the Germantown neighborhood where you both live, and like I said, me too. In fact, all of the women poets that you named and uplifted on those amazing sweatshirts that you both were wearing in your photos, I believe it was Sonia [Sanchez], Ursula [Rucker], Yolanda and Trapeta. All of you reside in Germantown, and somehow that does not feel like a coincidence to me. My first question to you is what is it about Philly that makes it such a Mecca for poets and in a way sacred ground for Black women and femme poets in particular?

Mayson: You have me thinking and just reflecting on so many things and what a great question, Li. On the one hand it feels magical, but on the other hand it does feel intentional. I recall the story of Sister Sonia Sanchez talking about when she came to work at Temple and asking about a community where she could settle and being kind of almost like lightly warned against Germantown, but wanting to be there because of the people, the historical significance of that community, that it has this colonial history, but it also has a really rich Black history as well. And I think to have all these writers here telling the story, building a community, living separately but in so many ways together, it does seem fitting. So I haven't explored the reasons why, but I know Yolanda and I talk a lot about this magic communing and poeting in Germantown quite a bit. So it does seem more than just this happenstance.

Wisher: I mean like, yeah, all of that, I agree. And I would say too, that Black women poets have just put in work here, you know, starting with people like Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, early suffragist abolitionists, and people like Nelly Rathbone Bright. These are some of the ancestors that we talk about when we think about the roots of this project. And those were Black women, like a lot of the Black women we are trying to celebrate who were living in the present day, who were more than just poets. They were principals, they were social workers, they were educators. They were involved in the fabric of the city in really intimate and deep ways that were about advocacy and community organizing and engagement. I think that's what drew me here. Obviously too, Sonia Sanchez is a huge branch in the tree of poetry here. She's the reason I came to Philadelphia. And her blueprint is so large in terms of her influence on other Black women poets here. So she's also the reason why I was drawn to Germantown and Trapeta was here. So I was like, this is a place where I can feel safe, where I can walk around the corner and see my poetry friends, or be out in the park and we could be together. There's definitely magical components to that, but then there's also like a really strong bent of civic engagement and commitment to community here that I think makes this sacred ground.

Sumpter: I love that. I love that. And it almost feels like that sweatshirt that y'all are wearing with those four names, it feels like you're casting a spell. When we think about poets and the intention of your words and what that means, like when I see that ... Because it's kind of a series, right? I mean, you see these sweatshirts with names on it, whether it's artists or musicians or what have you, but what that means. It's kind of like a code and it felt just so powerful to see y'all. Because the first time I think I ever saw you in those sweatshirts was for ConsenSIS and it just made so much sense, and it really speaks to the work that you're doing with this project.

Wisher: Well, shout out to Jeannine Cook at Harriett's and Ida's Bookshop for creating that. She created that sweatshirt and sells it through Harriett's Bookshop and it was her way of doing what she does, which is really celebrate the Black women writers who are here on the local scene, just as much as we celebrate the beloved national fore mothers, like Toni Morrison, that we all come from. And so it's just an honor to be included on a shirt with Trapeta, Ursula, and Sonia, all of these women who are just a huge part of what I consider my poetry lineage, but it's also just amazing that Black women poets in this little place called Philadelphia get celebrated in that same way that we see other folks in those national tee shirts that we all wear.

Sumpter: Right. It's like local and global history, like you said, the legacy and the lineage. And speaking to that, one of the things that is reflected in your project is the echoing of the concept of The Clearing. Can you share a bit more about The Clearing and how was this special retreat inspired by Toni Morrison. What are your hopes for this and for those who are going to gather that day? Like what do you want them to experience together and walk away with as poets on their own creative path?

Mayson: We've been thinking about, since Yolanda and I have had the pleasure of working together and teaching the course with The Rosenbach Museum and Library. And it's a Toni Morrison course, and I think it's no secret that we are both really inspired by Toni Morrison's work. So The Clearing, that passage, I mean the reading of the passage and also even to be able to witness it in a movie and being able to see Beah [Richards] read that passage, and the spiritual meaning behind it, the struggle behind it, the pain, but also the joy and celebration. And we've always talked about that and we're always kind of bouncing our ideas off of one another. When we thought about this project, what is more fitting than bringing Black women poets and Black femme poets together in a clearing space, in a space that we will design and imagine for spiritual upliftment, but also for the celebrating of their work. And whatever that spiritual piece means, not in the religious sense, but in the sense that you're valued. I mean, think about the words from that passage, right? Your body, your mind, your space, your experiences are valued. And then to bring everyone together, that was what sparked this conversation initially. And I think Yolanda can kind of speak more on our intention.

Wisher: Yeah. I mean, when we read Beloved by Toni Morrison, we would always agree on that one passage. We call it The Clearing scene. And it's just, what, a couple of pages in the novel where these formerly enslaved folks are gathered together in the forest and Beah [Richards] functions is almost like a minister for them in the church of the forest and invites them to love their flesh. That's the line that always sticks with me, "Love your flesh." And I think just to add to what Trapeta said, that's what we are ultimately trying to do with this event is to love ourselves, to love the reflection of ourselves that we see in each other. And to also have time to honor the work, the spirit that goes into being a poet and to invite rest. A big part of this has just been about rest is we need rest. Because like I said, we've been putting in this work for centuries. And sometimes we just need to sit down and chill and it's nice to be able to do that together. We have so little time to do that together, even Trapeta and I, as we doing this work together, we are hustling. We have very little time to just sit down and have a cup of tea. And I think that's just as important, that just sustains the work. So that's what we're just trying to create, something, a new tradition that can continue to sustain this vital community that we're a part of.

Sumpter: I love that rest is a part of that because I think after the last two years, everyone is realizing that we work too hard. I mean we just work too hard. And learning how the time of the pandemic has spaced out the distance between us, for one, but then also our distance from an actual office space, and then realizing that a lot of us are reclaiming our time. And I think that your intentions behind The Clearing and that event make a lot of sense because artists work hard too. And I know y'all have many jobs, not just this project alone. So like you said, the hustle is real and it's exhausting. So rest is really required. So I appreciate that, and I'm looking forward to attending myself, and being in communion with all of these women artists, femme poets, everyone that you have intended to gather. It's going to be exciting. And at Awbury Arboretum, a place that, like you said, there's a lot of magic in Germantown, so much. There's also magic in photographs. I want to say that I have just been blown away by some of the images that I've seen on your website and just with the project overall, because when it comes to documenting history and when it comes to recalling memories, photos are priceless, right? And they say a picture's worth a thousand words, and I feel like the archival photos that you selected are worth so much more than that, right, especially for Black women. And I'm referring to the 1977 photo of a group of Black women writers called The Sisterhood, I believe and then the 1988 photo of Sister President Johnnetta B. Cole's inauguration, shout out to Johnnetta Cole. My president, she was president when I was at Spelman, so that was really special to see. I got to say that the project photo of the two of you is equally powerful and beautiful, the one where you're like holding each other in embrace. It's just such a beautiful shot, and it truly conveys the sentiment of sisterly affection and creative solidarity that surrounds and uplifts this project. So can you talk a bit about what these archival photos mean to you and why you chose them and what was it like to take your own photo together, documenting the dawn of ConsenSIS and sisterly history in the making?

Mayson: These are such great questions, Li.

Sumpter: Thank you. Hey, y'all trying. I had to come correct with y'all.

Wisher: Maybe I'll talk about the historical part and then, Trapeta, I'll let you talk about the current photo. So I can't remember when I came across the photo of the sisterhood, but it blew me away. I was like, I feel like I've been waiting or looking for this photo all my life. I wish I had seen it when I was 15, 16 years old, honestly. But I think I saw it when I needed to see it, which was before we even started doing this work with ConsenSIS. But when I saw it, I recognized something, like I guess I almost kind of prophesied the photo of me and Trapeta together and thinking that there need to be more photos like this, or maybe there are, and I just don't know they exist.But yeah, such a powerful photo of a group of women who came together to write together, The Sisterhood, they came together, they would cook a big pot of something like gumbo. And they were all from different disciplines. So you had people like Vertamae [Smart-]Grosvenor, who was a food writer and wrote a cookbook that is hugely influential in terms of Black food ways. And you had folks like June Jordan and Toni Morrison in that group, and Alice Walker. I mean like Ntozake Shange, it's like an all star team of poets. And the idea that they weren't working in isolation, that they were working together, that there was a sense of community and not competition. Even as the publishing industry might have said, "There's only room for one of you," they were saying, "You know what, no, we're going to share the resources that we have, whether that's space, time, money, food. We're going to share these resources to help us along our journey of writing and accomplish what we want to accomplish." The photograph holds so much power and purpose, honestly, for me. And the other photo too, just the gathering. For me, the other photo, which I often have seen in color, that one you can see in color, the 1971 is always in black and white. And by the way, the other thing I love about the 1970 photo is that there's a picture of Bessie Smith in the backdrop, on the wall. And it's just like, she's presiding over all of the Black women aesthetic in the room at the moment, which I just adore. But yeah, the other one I love is striking because it's in color and there's also the energy and the smiles. Like it's almost as if somebody just cracked a good joke, they is just laughing and I would just love to know what they were talking about right before that picture or while that picture was being taken. Because it's as if they knew, this is our moment, we are being captured together. When we are together, we are making herstory. That's kind of what that picture is saying to me.

Sumpter: It's beautiful. It's such a vibe, right? It's just you feel the smiles, you feel just the togetherness. Such a moment was captured and, like you said, you want to know what were they talking about? What are they laughing about? But there was just such joy in that image. And I was just like you said, it's like, you're almost mad you didn't see some of these images before. And to that note, I just actually sent you both a photo that really, I sent it to you by email, but it reminded me of the photos that you shared, and this photo, and you may have seen it before, I'm curious, I had that same impact. When I saw this photo, this one, I was just like, "How come I haven't seen this before?"

Wisher: Oh my gosh, this is such a great one, Angela Davis walking with Toni Morrison.

Sumpter: Exactly, in 1974.

Mayson: Yes.

Sumpter: Right.

Mayson: And they had this editor, author relationship, so Toni Morrison was editing Angela Davis's autobiography and was really the one who kind of encouraged her. But what I love about this is just the walking, which is a big part of The Clearing for us, the event. The Clearing involves walking. I don't know, there's something that happens when Black women get walking together. It's like you cannot stop us.

Sumpter: It's like a meditation and it just feels so natural. You can feel them in stride with each other as they're walking, but also in life, you know what I mean? And then of course, their magnificent Afros though....

Wisher: Yes. The Afro …

Sumpter: Let's talk about their Afros.

Mayson: And to know that there was care there…You asked about the photo with Yolanda and I on the website, and the fact that, I mean, we've been friends and collaborators, poet friends, for what, 20 plus years, 25 probably at this point. And everything that we are putting into ConsenSIS is thoughtful, it's intentional. Even with the photos. Yolanda selected those photos. And then even in the design of the website, in the design of the day. We're going to also have photographs taken of the poets and the women and the femmes, just poets that will be there that day, because we do want to have these other folks into the future. Kind of looking back and having this same awe and this same feeling to see Angela Davis, Toni Morrison walking down the street, knowing how much she put her manuscript into the world. She was able to get her book published through her, and probably through nobody else at that time would've handled it with so much love and care. So I think when I see these photos, I think about love. And I know some, not everybody was exactly friends at that time, but the fact that they created space for one another, they shared a meal, they cared about what each other were thinking, what they were writing about how the world was impacting them. And somehow if you can get these into photos and be able to have future generations be able to see this and understand that there was a tenderness that we held for our sisters and we hold for our sisters. And I think that's one thing that these photographs can convey. That's the first thing that I saw when I saw the two photographs of Black women writers gathered together. I saw tenderness. I saw the fact that they're here, in this room, and they're choosing to be with one another. And ConsenSIS is very much about that intentional treating our sisters tenderly and being able to have a space for them.

Sumpter: Definitely. And this idea too, that when we try to celebrate Black history in the past, it's always like we study these women and these historical figures kind of in isolation, right. Maybe we might read about Angela Davis. And then we might, the next day, read about Toni Morrison. But then to see them both in a photograph together, we understand that they belonged to the same creative community, and they were building together and supporting each other in their respective crafts. And that's what you see with them walking down the street. And my good folks here at Radio Kismet are letting me know I need to describe this photo and you can help me. I'm going to start with this, but it's a black and white photo of the Angela Davis and Toni Morrison walking down, it looks like the streets of New York. Correct. I don't know what neighborhood they're in, but they're walking down the street on the sidewalk, and they are in deep conversation, right. And they are wearing their New York fashions, and Toni's got on this long trench coat and they're in these magnificent 'fros, right. And I know that we can relate to Black women and hair and just all the symbols and the things that that means. So is there anything else you can add about the photo.

Wisher: I mean, I could describe this photo endlessly, honestly. Let me check, there's the mailbox, there's the shoes, like are those platforms that Angela's wearing?

Sumpter: I think she's got some platforms on.

Mayson: The platforms, yes, yes.

Wisher: Yes.

Mayson: Yes.

Sumpter: Because it's the seventies, '74.

Wisher: Yeah. This whole pantsuit. Is it a pantsuit or a coverall? I don't know. And yes to the trench with the fringe, like the fringe shawl that Toni has, I mean it's all about ...

Sumpter: And the carrying the bags. You know we stay carrying bags.

Wisher: The bags, it's about the fashion. You're right. It's all about the hair, the fashion, but also like, what are they talking about? What are they saying? What did they just go do? Where are they going to? I think, being a Black woman is about our curiosity and concern for one another. Like we want to know about each other, we want to know what are you doing with your hair? How are you doing, what you doing with your skin? How are you living? How does life work for you? And it feels like that's what they're engaged in and that's their work, that's their business.

Mayson: Yes, and the fact that they were there. They were there, they were together.

Sumpter: They were together.

Mayson: Together.

Sumpter: They were together. What I've seen of the art and graphics for ConsenSIS are also so lovely, just the beautiful palette with the sepia tones and the purple and the gray. I love it so much. What role will art play in the realization of this project? Can you share anything about the visual artists that you might be working with?

Mayson: Are you referring to the final project?

Sumpter: To the final project, any aspect. I pay attention to graphics and branding a lot. I feel like as someone who studies mythology, I think there's something really powerful and resonant about the symbolism, everything from the color palette to even the fonts that you've chosen. So some of these choices with the design of your project, but then also I understand that the final phase of your work is going to be these historical markers that will be made in collaboration with artists, correct?

Mayson: Yes. I'll answer the first part, because I was giggling as you were talking about fonts and that sepia tone, all these things, because we spent a lot of time thinking about it. I mean, we have a really great graphic designer, I think we can both attest to that, who is able to take some of these ideas and run with it. But there was a lot of time and energy put into thinking about what we wanted this to look like. Fonts, the look of the logo, the words, the invitations, I mean, to every detail. And I think Yolanda, you would agree, we put a lot of time and energy into it. And the final part of the project, we are going to be working with an artist. Right now, we are just kind of imagining what that final part of the project will ultimately, what shape or form it will take. But art, it's really central to this. I mean, we're artists, and although we are artists in the written word, we are very much influenced by, inspired by the visual arts, as well as sound art, as well as other types of art representation. So all of that is a part of ConsenSIS and will be a part of the project.

Wisher: One of the graphic influences for this, when we started thinking about design, was DuBois's Philadelphia Negro graphics, which I've always thought like the colors are just amazing, but there's also some modern day fonts that are inspired by that. So we really took the lead, our graphic designer, Mia Culbertson just is not a Black woman or a woman of color, but is definitely an ally and likes to do that research and likes to really provide herself with the foundation for the kind of work that we're asking her to do, and really just expertly found us a font that was really inspired by DuBois's earlier work. And also based on a color scheme that is about the past, is about creating the past in the present. And I think that's been a part of everything that Trapeta and I have done. We always have understood that the graphics and the branding are part of the engagement, are also part of the documentation of a project, how a project lives on. So we've always put a lot of care into that and to be able to have Monument Lab resources to do that was incredible, honestly, because sometimes you really have to do that stuff on a dime or …

Sumpter: Right, a shoestring or something.

Wisher: Exactly. So we've all had experience with that, so that's what was the gift of being able to pay a designer really for the time to really think and dream with us. And I think at some point we thought, yes, this is a multidisciplinary project. And Trapeta's being all mysterious about it, but I think we've kind of moved away from visual markers as our monument or as our way of memorializing the project, and thought about too how integral sound is to the work that we do as poets, that oral tradition, and, not giving away too many details, but thinking about the walk as a mode of monument making in community building. So there's …

Sumpter: I love that. Save some juicy details for later. I appreciate that.

Mayson: We're going to say some juicy details, but one other thing I want to add is that the thoughtfulness behind it too was, again, what we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation, is that we wanted the invitations to feel special. We wanted the Black women and femme poets in the Philadelphia surrounding area to look at the website and feel this is something special for them, to see the invitation, to see the information about the gathering, and ultimately the final product that we think it's going to be extraordinary and that they will be proud of. And I remember in one of the conversations, we talked a lot about, you should feel ... We didn't even talk about our aunties, right. And I remember one of the auntie advisory, we have a advisory group of aunties that we used in this project, Michelle Currica Hernandez, and Amber Rose Johnson and Denise Brown and Vashti DuBois. And our auntie advisors, I remember one of them saying ... We were asking them questions, what should this look like? What should this feel like? And I remember hearing one say, "That invitation is so important." And I just remember anything in Black women tradition, whether it's sororities, cotillions, anything, that invitation just needs to be so special.

Sumpter: It sets the tone, right. It sets the tone. And your intentions definitely shine through. I felt it as soon as I opened up the email and I just felt like, wow, like you said, this is going to be something special and it feels that way. And I think that the visuals, the graphic design, really communicates that. So congrats to you and your team for making that happen.

Mayson: Thank you.

Sumpter: This is a quote from your project overview. It says, "ConsenSIS summons sisterly history to preserve the past and present literary legacy of Black women and femme poets in Philadelphia." And that's amazing, right. I just love the way that sounds because we've been talking a lot about tradition, you kind of touched on that a bit, but what new traditions and rituals will you be creating through ConsenSIS and what new or old practices will they preserve and celebrate?

Wisher: Well, The Clearing is just one big old, new tradition, we hope. We hope that something like The Clearing, this day long retreat for Black women and femme poets to come together to rest, to play, to write, to dream, we hope that's kind of like a family reunion kind of event that, maybe bi-annually, people can come together anticipating that, as a way for us to be together, and a way for us to incubate new ideas and possibilities of our community. I see that as a really important, possible tradition that can be sparked from this. I hope what we're planning for our monument phase of this project, which we're being all mysterious about, will become a new ritual that can be repeated. And not just a ritual that we repeat as a group, but that will invite people to have individual solo experiences of ritual during their day. Something that can move with them and can evolve with them. Yeah, I think the survey could also be …

Mayson: I was about to say that too.

Wisher: Yeah, maybe you want to speak to that.

Mayson: Yeah. The survey, the counting, we really spoke about the importance of counting. Often we're not included in the numbers. Even in these traditions, we're often not included. So we love the idea of this counting, but not just counting for counting's sake, but being able to get rich information, and then what to do with this information, what resources do these writers need? What is their phase two, which we believe it is, to this project from information that we will glean from the survey results. The survey, I mean, the questions are just amazing and the responses are amazing. And from there, what else? It's not necessarily a tradition, but I mean, a practice. How could this information inform the practice of community arts particularly for these group of women. So we think the survey has staying power, the method that we're going to use, how the information will be visually rendered and people will be able to see, and what beyond just research and information can we do with this? So I think there's a lot of room there to be able to do some things with the survey process and the survey information.

Sumpter: I was really just so impressed by the fact that I feel like your project does so much. Because beyond celebrating the literary legacies, your project also continues that legacy of Black sociology and the power of the survey for Black communities when the surveys are led by Black people, when the investigations are led by Black people. And I believe I read that your goal, right, for ConsenSIS is to get feedback from 100 Black women and femme poets in Philly. I'm happy to say, I recently just took the survey and it was powerful ...

Wisher: Thank you.

Sumpter:... Just to participate. But how close are you to your goal of 100 respondents?

Wisher: We're about ...

Mayson: We're very close.

Wisher: We're very close, we're so close.

Mayson: We're going be, I want to say we're over the 80 mark.

Sumpter: Wow. Okay, that's close.

Mayson: Yeah. We're closer to ... We believe that by the time we have the gathering, I mean, we'll be well over 100 of survey respondents. And that's amazing. It's really amazing. And to have all of these respondents. Yes.

Sumpter: And what do you hope to learn or even possibly uncover about the literary landscape of Philly from the perspective of Black women and femme poets, particularly those that you're serving?

Wisher: Oh, there's so much that I was excited to learn, but I'm also know that I will not anticipate, that will be surprising to learn. But I mean, I always was interested, like where does everybody live? Like where is everybody at? Where do we congregate? And I think one of the really interesting thing that we've learned just right away from the survey is that not everybody who considers themselves a Philadelphian lives in the city of Philadelphia. Quite a few of the Black women and femme poets who really, we had to open up our survey to Philadelphia and surrounding counties to account for a great deal of folks who do a lot of artistic work, like the bulk of their work as an artist or as a writer is in Philadelphia or engages primarily with Philadelphia audiences, but they live in these other counties. And in fact I grew up in Montgomery county.

Sumpter: Me too.

Wisher: And my proximity to Philadelphia has always been a big part of my poetry career, so the geographic dimensions of the community are really interesting to me. I'm also just interested in some of those narrative questions, having now taken the survey myself, and the experience of being able to reflect on who inspired you to write and where are the spaces where you find community or you find that have like inspired your writing or resourced your writing. I want to see if there's common threads there that could say something about this community that hasn't really been articulated yet.

Sumpter: Yes, right.

Mayson: Agree. Yeah, I think exactly what Yolanda said. There are also questions in there about the fact that people are even taking it and count themselves in the number, I think is major, is significant because, the way that the survey is designed, it is barrier free. And again, we were intentional about that. So there are some people who, if you ask them on the street or at a reading, "Are you a poet," they would either say no or be hesitant. But I think the survey itself is an invitation, And some of the similar questions Yolanda was saying that are in there and that I'm intrigued by, when did you know you were a writer? Who inspires you? All those things, they're going to reveal a lot to us that I think we can build on. But also the big thing too, about resources or like how do you practice this art? It's not just one picture of a Black woman or femme poet where I'm reading, I'm writing, I'm doing poetry workshops. There's so many other ways that this art is practiced, so I think we would have a lot of rich information.

Sumpter: Wow. That's amazing. And this is just the start, right. When okay, you're thinking about these 100 respondents in Philadelphia, what about the future of ConsenSIS? Do you see the work expanding beyond Philly?

Wisher: Oh yeah, we always did. I think we always thought, you know what? We know communities like this of Black women are also fueling the creative communities of Baltimore and DC and Chicago. So why not? But of course, there has to be a way. We just want to share the resources, right, for people to be who they want to be. Because Chicago is not like Philly, DC and Baltimore got their own thing and their own way of doing it. But how can we articulate some best practices or some things that could be shared across lines and some exchange, some sisterly affection across state lines would be really dope to explore.

Sumpter: I love it.

Wisher: And to have that sense of community when you do kind of go to these other cities, to be able to plug into that through ConsenSIS, would be a pretty dope future for this.

Sumpter: Yeah. I mean, when you think about creating a model, right, for new traditions, new monuments, and how that might be replicated or even modified according to each city and location, right. Because like you said, every city is different, every city has its own story. And so, I mean, I'm just curious, do you have any thoughts of where you might take ConsenSIS first?

Mayson: We've always knew that it could come out of Philly and it can be replicated. I don't know that we've thought about the place. The obvious place someone might say, "Oh, New York," but I don't know. I see our neighbors, I see Jersey, I see other places, but I also see Gullah land, the south, I see ...

Sumpter: New Orleans or something like that.

Mayson: Yes. Yes. Yeah. It seems like it makes a lot of sense, but it's strange. We haven't talked about exact location, but we have made jokes about ConsenSIS Atlanta, ConsenSIS Chicago.

Sumpter: It feels like it's made for replication, it's made to travel, and I can really see you all making, not just a local impact, but a national one. Even international, because when you think about it, this is a tradition that belongs to a diaspora. And thinking about, wow, like where could you go with this? I'm excited for you all. It's been just great to even witness the announcement when you were awarded the selection for Re:Generation. And then just to see things as they're unfolding, and now that the events are on the horizon, and the survey is out, almost completed. Things are moving along. Now, I was going to ask you about your historic markers, but I have a feeling I'm not going to get too much from you on that. Should I skip or sidestep that series of questions?

Mayson: I think because, I mean, we've put a lot of planning into it and I think, Yolanda, we've kind of settled on exactly what we're thinking about, but a big part of this is also an artist being able to help, a visual or sound artist being able to help us with their kind of like the final design of this. So, I mean, it's not a secret, necessarily, but there are juicy details that the reader will need to wait ...

Sumpter: Okay. That's fine.

Mayson: ... To experience.

Sumpter: We can wait, we can wait for that.

Mayson: I don't know, Yolanda, what do you think?

Wisher: Yeah. I'm going to stick with it's definitely going to emphasize sound and definitely kind of reprise this idea of the walks that we're bringing into The Clearing. And that it will be something of a ritual kind of monument and probably something more temporal than permanent.

Sumpter: I like that. I like that. Well then on that note, This one is about future memory and poet as prophet. You know I got to get my mythic perspectives in there. So in society and across cultures, the artist has always been seen as a trailblazer or a catalyst of change. But in the context of mythology, the poet is a powerful figure, often aligned with the archetype of the prophet, the seer, or the dreamer. How do you see the role of the poet in creating positive social and cultural change and how is that role similar and different from that of the artist? And I ask this because you could be a musician and you can be an artist of any discipline, but there's something I think that is different about poets. I mean, that's just my theory, what do you think sets the poet apart from other artists?

Mayson: The poet is a little different. I think that it is a setting apart. It is so much about storytelling and memory making. It's so much about reaching back and moving forward. I don't want to sound poetic on this here. But Yolanda and I both collaborate with other artists and other musicians and yes, they're there, they're on that realm, they're doing all these amazing projects and are also pushing forward. But there's something about the written word. There's something about going inward to be able to create and share. And the fact that I also see a poet as an artist that can just be popped into so many places, community art, recording, collab. I think it's the most flexible art form just in terms of what you can do with it. And here's another thing about poetry that I find, and even in a community practice artist, is the fact that so many people can enter this, can enter into the poetry realm without barriers. You don't need to know how to do this thing to be able to participate in it. You can say the same about music and other things, but you can also create it. You can have your story be the center and the focal point of it. There's so much that you can do with this art form. So I do think it's a little different. Doesn't mean it's better, it's just different.

Wisher: Hmm. I love this question. I love your answer, Trapeta. I think what's interesting about the poet, as I've been living life as a poet these last 46 years, it's a public and a private life and it's a life that stands on the cusp between the dead and the living. I think that's what's interesting about the poet, like the poet that's of the people.

Mayson: That's beautiful.

Wisher: Like the poet that's with the people, that's the poet that I'm talking about, because I think it ...

Sumpter: You going to get some snaps on this one.

Mayson: Yes. You've got to snap on that one.

Wisher: For real. I mean, it's such a good question though. You led us here, because, yeah, it's a very deep experience walking through life as a poet. And I think that is something that connects Trapeta and I and our work, is that deep felt. We've been little Black girl poets. I think the Black girl poet is an archetype. And when I think about somebody like Francis Ellen Watkins Harper or a Sonia Sanchez, they also have lived that Black girl poet life of being a Black girl with words and poetry at a young age is almost like having a superpower.

Sumpter: Yeah. It's like living a mythic life. 

Wisher: It is.

Sumpter: It truly is. And I think that in the tradition of mythology, the poet is really an elevated archetype for so many reasons because of that liminal connection between life and death, and this idea of being able to see into the past, present, and future. And that reads me to my last question, when it comes to the Black women and femme poets of Philly, how do you see your role in not only dreaming, and documenting the future of the city, but also the future of humankind. We all belong to the human collective, and when you talk about life and death, you're talking about our existence across boundaries and race, class, gender, all these things. So what is your thought on that?

Wisher: This is another deep question, Li. But I will say that I want people to know that I was here and we were here. So my role, just like my role in my family, is the historian, the archivist. I just find a way to do that in an artful way through poetry, through this community building, but I want to be able to leave a record behind. And also I've always just wanted to be able to talk to people in future generations. And how do you do that? You try to leave something behind. And I was always drawn to writing and literature as a way to do that and to have a connection with people who you'll never meet in the future. So yeah, it's a very deep part and purpose of this project that we hope will live on beyond us and will be affirming for young Black women and femmes coming up.

Sumpter: I love that because when I think about, like I said, mythology, and even speculative fiction, science fiction, the Afro future, there's so many narratives written and cinematic, right, that feature a young Black femme protagonist that really saves the world. And when I think about that, I think about how that connects to your project and the way that you're positioning Black women and femme poets, as dreamers and seers and visionaries, that are really important to the future of not just their own community, but also to the world. And so it does feel like a deep question, but we're living in deep and dark and also beautiful times, because there is such possibility for change and transformation of humanity, literally. So I'm just so grateful to both of you for, I mean, you're repping for Philly so hard right now. This project is really special and I hope you know that even though Monument Lab is based here in Philly, this is definitely going to have an impact across the country, and I hope eventually around the world. I see y'all in the future, my future memory is seeing y'all in Rio de Janeiro or somewhere in Cuba, I don't know, Havana, doing your ConsenSIS.

Wisher: Belize. Liberia.

Mayson: I see this.

Sumpter: Liberia. How about that?

Mayson: No, I see ... Yolanda's my sister and I see ... We've had this, I feel like we conjured all of these things and I'm a big believer in what you are imagining, if you're imagining it with a pure heart and intention, that it's going to be realized. It's going to come, and we don't know what the steps ahead are, but we know that it's going to leave an impact. And like Yolanda, I want to leave a mark in a way that I don't think Black women have been able to really be recognized for leaving that mark. The fact that we open doors and windows and everything else, and make doors and windows. And the fact that this project is saying to come. I love the fact that we're focusing also on rest and writing and play and walking and communing and gathering and archiving and counting and counting and counting. And I think when it's all said and done, I really want to be known as a person, a writer, and I think even through this project, as opening a door, a portal that won't close, right? For us and our sisters, that won't close, where we will continue to be counted. And we know that every time we open our mouths, we aren't always respected for who we are and the things that we say, but in ConsenSIS world, land, you are. And you are going be amplified. And your contribution ... I mean, I'm just looking at all these 100 women coming and seeing this beautiful space and knowing that it's curated for them. And if somehow that's what we leave through this project and we leave through our legacies, it would just mean a lot. And we're doing it in small ways now, and I think ConsenSIS would just kind of help elevate. And I do see it in all these different places. Li, I'm with you. I see it in all these different places. Yeah.

Sumpter: Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much to both of you.

Wisher: Snaps.

Sumpter: Finally, I just want to say, where can listeners find out more about ConsenSIS and your respective work and poetry practice?

Wisher: Well, you can get it on the ConsenSIS website, it's www.ConsenSISphl.com, and you'll find out about the project in general. Also, if you're a Black woman or femme poet, you can take the survey on the website. And pretty soon we'll be putting up info about The Clearing event coming up on July 30th. And you can also follow us on Instagram and on Facebook. We're at ConsenSIS PHL.

Mayson: Yes. More to add, everything's ConsenSIS PHL.

Sumpter: Well, this has been so wonderful catching up and talking with the both of you. I really appreciate your time. I'm looking forward to the future of ConsenSIS. Thank you.

More about ConsenSIS

Led by Trapeta B. Mayson and Yolanda Wisher, ConsenSIS invites Black women and femme poets in the Philadelphia area—regardless of aesthetic, education, or achievement—to define for themselves the history and scope of their community. In partnership with Monument Lab's Re:Generation program, ConsenSIS summons and preserves “sisterly history” to spark new traditions that commemorate a vital creative community in the Philadelphia area where Black women’s contributions to history are often buried under cobblestones and colonial landmarks.

More About Yolanda Wisher

Poet, singer, educator, and curator Yolanda Wisher is author of Monk Eats an Afro and co-editor of the anthology Peace is a Haiku Song with mentor Sonia Sanchez. Wisher was named inaugural Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania in 1999 and third Poet Laureate of Philadelphia for 2016 and 2017. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Poem-a-Day and has been commissioned by the Institute for Contemporary Art, HealthSpark, the Statue of Peace Plaza Committee, CBC Radio, and Philadelphia Jazz Project. A Pew and Cave Canem Fellow, Wisher received the Leeway Foundation's Transformation Award in 2019 for her commitment to art for social change. She taught high school English for a decade, co-founded the youth-led Germantown Poetry Festival, and served as Director of Art Education for Philadelphia Mural Arts. Wisher teaches poetry workshops for all ages in a variety of settings. She is the founder of the School of Guerrilla Poetics, a training ground for folks interested in nurturing and mobilizing communities through poetry. Wisher earned an M.A. in English/Poetry from Temple University and B.A. in English/Black Studies from Lafayette College, where she received an honorary doctorate in 2021. She has curated projects with the Rosenbach, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Free Library of Philadelphia, and U.S. Department of Arts & Culture. She was in the first cohort of artists with studios at Cherry Street Pier on the Delaware River Waterfront. As Curator of Spoken Word and Co-Director of Curatorial Programs at Philadelphia Contemporary, Wisher has produced programs like Stellar Masses, a series of poetry church services, and Love Jawns: A Mixtape, a collection of spoken word-infused soundscapes. She performs a blend of poetry and song with her band Yolanda Wisher & The Afroeaters. Doublehanded Suite, their debut album, will be out in 2022. 

More About Trapeta B. Mayson

Trapeta B. Mayson is the 2020-2021 Philadelphia Poet Laureate. She is an Academy of American Poet,  Aspen Word, and Pew fellow. She is also a Leeway Transformation, Leeway Art and Change, and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts awardee. Mayson is the author of She Was Once Herself and Mocha Melodies. Mayson released two music and poetry projects, SCAT and This Is How We Get Through, in collaboration with internationally acclaimed jazz guitarist, Monnette Sudler. Her other publications include submissions in The American Poetry Review, Epiphany Literary Journal, Aesthetica Magazine, Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, among others. Mayson is a native of Liberia. She is a graduate of Temple University, Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and Villanova University School of Business. Mayson is the founder of the Healing Verse Philly Project and Healing Verse Phone Line. Her artistic practice is deeply embedded in community partnerships and collaborations. As a teaching artist and workshop leader, she has created and facilitated workshops numbering in the hundreds with youth and adults nationally.  Currently working in community mental health field, Mayson is a member of several local organizations where she uses the arts to mobilize, build community and contribute to change. 

Episode Credits:
Co-Hosts: Paul Farber and Li Sumpter
Monument Lab Production Team: Paul Farber, Justin Geller, Nico Rodriguez, Aubree Penney, and Li Sumpter
Monument Lab Design and Communications: Jen Cleary, William Hodgson, Mira Hart, Dina Paola Rodriguez, and Raina Wellman
Production Partner: Radio Kismet
This season of the Monument Lab podcast is made with support from the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design.