Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview With Poet Ursula Rucker


Ursula Rucker, 2018 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges. Interdisciplinary poet, performer, and recording artist Ursula Rucker spoke to us about the influences that shaped the trajectory of her career, from crucial early advice to collaborating across disciplines. Her recent work includes a 2017 collaboration with sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh for Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Center-supported Monument Lab exhibition. Characterizing her work “along the edge of the terrains of poetry,” Rucker has released five albums and collaborated with a wide range of artists outside the field of poetry, including The Roots, musicians and Pew Fellows Jamaaladeen Tacuma and King Britt, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Clarence Williams III.

Ursula Rucker Q&A: Content Block 1

Ursula Rucker Q&A: Content Block 2

Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?

I am ready to talk about how much I love my city at any given time. The artists that come from here or came from other places and deposited themselves here, who fell in love with this place and created their greatest work or did the most amazing things here—it’s not by accident. I believe it has much to do with the strong indigenous spirit in Philadelphia.

Philly is perfectly imperfect. It’s rough and elegant. We're rough around the edges. And as much as it frustrates me sometimes because it's hard to break through that shell, it’s because we're so protective of ourselves. We have to be. Because it's not easy being here. But all of that mixed in together, it just makes us special. The most successful relationship I’ve ever had is with my city.

How do you think artists can effect social change?

I have always believed—and I continue to believe—that artists are ideally suited to effect change of all kinds in human beings, whether it's emotional change, mental change, or social change. If you take your gift of creativity and you say, “I love what I do, but I want to speak to the people or I want to give a voice to the people and see what happens,” the possibilities are absolutely endless.

Take the open mic events I did at Kensington Storefront, a partnership between Mural Arts Philadelphia and the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. I know Kensington, but I hadn’t been down there in a while, so going in gave me some trepidation. But then I thought, I don't really know until I know. So my first night, I just went and put everything I had into it with Miles Butler, my musician and partner through the whole series.

It ended up that these people, who were going through the darkest stuff I've ever seen up close, were able to crack open for two hours and share and not be afraid to talk, feeling like they were invited in a space where they don't feel invited most of the time. And they accepted us. It's not that we accepted them, because they have their whole lives in place already. It was proof positive of the difference you can make.

Ursula Rucker Q&A: Content Block 3

Explore More