When she was a child, Phyllis Wiley was picked on for being too quiet. She was clumsy with words and an introvert, rarely speaking in class.
“In elementary school, I came home several days crying because people were looking at me, that’s how shy I was,” Wiley said.
Now this East Durham native stands—all 5’4” of her—with arms outstretched and voice ringing in front of crowds, television audiences and congregations, performing original gospel poetry with no hint of timidity. At some point in the last 50 years, the shy kid has vanished.
“Her poetry is very inspiring,” said Phyllis Terry, owner of JC’s Kitchen, a popular soul food restaurant perched on the corner of East Main and Fayetteville streets. “It always changes the hearts and the minds of the people listening. It always soothes the soul.”
Wiley has performed several times at this popular soul food restaurant and recites her poetry for Sunday morning services, formal events and contests around the city as well. She used to frequent the Wednesday night open mics at Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse before the restaurant closed down in July.
“It’s very humbling to me. Especially when I know where I came from,” Wiley said. “But I believe that my pain was my path to my purpose in life.”
Wiley is now a well-known poet in the community, but poetry wasn’t always her passion. Raised by two talented singers, Wiley enjoyed singing when she was little. It was only in her late 20s and early 30s that she began to write poetry.
“I was writing for my own sanity, never intending to do anything with it,” Wiley said. “And I shared a poem one Sunday at a church, and when I shared the poem it just ignited the whole congregation and people started coming to me weeping and crying and sharing these deep and painful things that they had experienced.”
Wiley said that when she had originally written the autobiographical poem, titled, “May I Have This Dance,” God told her healing would come through her poetry.
“I concentrate on writing about a difficult place that people may have gone through, but they overcame it,” Wiley said. “And I do that strategically to allow the listeners to know that no matter where you are in life, what you’ve experienced, you too can overcome.”
In 2004 Wiley began performing her poems in public, and in 2007 Wiley published a book of her writings called, “Soul Grasping Poetry and More.”
“There are times when I cannot sleep until I write,” Wiley said. “Sometimes I could just be out for a social day, and it could be a conversation or situation, something that kind of grabs me, and if I can’t shake it, I’m forced to write about it.”
Her poetry is also autobiographical, recounting trials and joys she has experienced in the last 58 years.
The most pivotal period in her life began when she was 14, Wiley said. Her father sustained a shotgun wound to the chest, with the bullet lodging just inches from his heart. The family rushed to the hospital and Wiley watched as the doctor delivered the bad news to her mother: “If he lives to see tomorrow morning it will be a miracle.”
Wiley remembers following her mother down the hall to the bathroom, where her mother got down on her knees and prayed.
“And she came back out, calm, with a smile, just at peace, and she looked at the doctor and said, ‘Go ahead and do what you gotta do.’ And I thought, ‘She’s gotta be crazy!’ But I learned from that moment what the power of prayer can do,” Wiley said. “My father lived 26 years later.”
Wiley is now an active volunteer in the Duke Cancer Center, at the same hospital where her father recovered, talking with patients and performing for them.
“She has this personality and this spirit that just uplifts people,” said Rachel Grady, a fellow volunteer at the Cancer Center. “She’s just a wonderful person.”
Wiley ultimately hopes to publish an autobiography and several more collections of poetry.
“I can write a lot faster than I can publish,” she said with a smile.
Right now she is performing at graduations, bridal showers and retirement homes and occasionally at 58Fifty Bistro’s open mics on Wednesday nights. The restaurant and bar is located at 5850 Fayetteville Road and the performances begin at 8 p.m.
“It’s evolving, it’s going so much further than I had anticipated,” Wiley said. “Through the poetry, God has allowed me to share; it’s bringing about healing and deliverance and liberty to people, just as he said…that to me is a big deal.”