September 6, 2007

Changing Lives Through Poetry

Throughout the Germanton, Pa., community where Yolanda Wisher Palacio ’98 lives and works, the rippling effects of her love for poetry resonate.

Her passion touches the tenth-grade students she instructs as an English teacher at Germantown Friends School; audiences she captivates while performing original poems at Philadelphia venues; and community members she rallies by organizing neighborhood-building events, most recently the 2007 Germantown Poetry Festival.

“I think there’s something about being fluid that appeals to the students you’re reaching — the appearance of being in movement, to have energy, to vibrate,” says Palacio, who was Montgomery County Poet Laureate in 1999. “I want to appear like I’m vibrating, like I’m immersed in life and not necessarily just commenting on it. And that, for me as an artist, is the balance.”

If the success of April’s poetry festival is any indication, Palacio has stuck that balance. The event allowed her students and ones from Germantown High School to participate in a poetry slam and provided a forum for both amateur and professional poets to perform. It received local TV and newspaper coverage.

“Working with the kids allowed me to do the work I wanted to do – transforming the neighborhood and creating a poetic vibe and spirit that the kids not only got, but bit into,” says Palacio, who majored in black studies and English and holds a master’s in creative writing and poetry from Temple University.

The first-ever festival served as a bridge connecting the student participants, who hailed from historically-opposed high schools.

“A lot of personal stuff came into the writing of the poems – the Germantown High kids wrote about their feelings about Germantown Friends and Germantown Friends kids got to see that the Germantown High kids were also vulnerable and frustrated with their environment,” Palacio says. “There was one girl from the GSF squad who had terrible anxiety about performing her own work and another girl from Germantown High with the same anxiety. At first I thought it would implode, but it ended up that they became each other’s cheerleaders.”

That her experience, direction, and passion fueled the bond between the schools and the community is not only satisfying – it’s allowed her to glimpse the future, Palacio says.

“There’s something really important to me about being in the background. I’d rather run a poetry festival than publish a book of poems because there’s something about being behind the scenes and creating the energy that is much more long-lasting,” she says. “You can see the growth of the kids — where they might take what they learned from this experience — and the connections made might foster growth that could be here long after I’m living in Germantown and I want to be committed to that.”

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