Meet Boston’s new Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola
It’s March 12 at Emerson College’s Paramount Theater, and the City of Boston is holding its official celebration of its newest and third poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola.
A poet laureate’s main task is to raise a city’s valuation of poetry, but this does not feel like an “official city celebration.”
It feels like a party.
The podium at the front of the room is awash in bright purple light; the rich scent of stewed meats, rice and sticky plantains yank at every visitor’s salivary glands; and the room is packed. Venue staff scurry in search of additional chairs and water to accommodate an unexpected overflow of boisterous poetry enthusiasts. Predominantly young poetry enthusiasts. Of color.
Language flies fast, furious and alive from every corner of the room, until the formal program begins. Then all attention shifts to the youngest speaker of the evening, Khatazja, a 17-year old student from the O’Bryant high school for math and science.
Her poem is sad—about the stress of familial violence—but also strong. Fingers snap around the room at its conclusion.
Khatazja is followed by Michelle Garcia Fresco, a poet from UMass Lowell, who gets the crowd riled up with a sassy piece about “women who wear hoops,” which, after rising and falling several times, twists hoop earrings into an even more sophisticated shape and then ends with a direct challenge to the audience: “Tell me a story of survival that did not come full circle.”
The youth are followed by two of Boston’s adult poets, the rousing Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah and outgoing Poet Laureate, Danielle Legros Georges, both immigrants who landed in Boston and used language to keep afloat and then thrive.
There are mothers in almost every poem of the evening, and in the audience as well—a miniscule baby fusses in the back of the room as the featured poet, Porsha Olayiwola (Porsha O) takes the podium.
The crowd howls and whoops—giving her a full standing ovation before she can even speak.
Olayiwola is regal yet obviously moved. When she is finally able to speak, it is clear that her power is rooted firmly in her generosity to others. She thanks everyone, including the Emerson community that has nurtured her work; the young people that she coaches and who inspire her; her mother and sister who have come for the occasion; and Boston’s Chief of Arts and Culture, Kara Elliott-Ortega, who has just emphasized how urgent and important it is to the city to have a non-binary person of color in the Poet Laureate role.
Olayiwola has a speech but she doesn’t read it. “Poetry is love,” she says, “That was my speech. A poem is a way of making love last forever.” She gives a short overview of her priorities as laureate—applying poetry to address Boston’s affordable housing crises tops her list—and then she reads. Her poems include an ode to Boston, two “dance poems,” a piece about her sister, and a surrealistic reimagining of a horrific racist incident in the life of singer and 1950s film star Dorothy Dandridge.
The event closes with music—a performance by Oompa who talks about how hard it is “for those of us who are fiercely independent and have trouble with authority to find role models” and how rare it is to have someone like Porsha that fits the bill.
Oompa’s lyrics speak some of the hardest truths of the evening in a way that people are able to dance and clap along with: “Everyone wants to be us, until it’s time to free us….”
Dig: What does it feel like to be the Poet Laureate of Boston?
PO: It feels really, really amazing! As soon as I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I think about.
And it’s really fulfilling. I feel like, for the last six years, I’ve just been working and working and working, and I hit a point where I felt like I couldn’t remember anyone ever having said thank you for it all—which is fine, that’s not why I do the work—but it was tough on me, I literally spent all my time, all my money, feeding people. And now it feels like, here it is, all of the thank yous I never got, this is that.
Dig: What do you have to think about now as a writer, that you didn’t think about before you took the role on?
PO: How do I serve the whole city?
My first task was writing a Boston ode, and that’s when I really had to think, what do I want to do here? It makes my audience automatically broader, and something I think about at the beginning, when I’m writing, instead of afterwards. This is for everybody [in Boston.] And this specific line is for this group and this specific line is for that group.
Also, as a person who exists as queer, fat, black, woman, etcetera etcetera, there’s so much hate in the world, and even if it’s not named, it exists, and I can feel it, and it affects me as I’m moving and operating in the world. In this position, that hate still exists. And I am to serve. So I’ve been really thinking about how do I love everybody, genuinely and authentically?
Olayiwola is giving feedback to a group of about 30 students at UMASS Boston, where she’s been brought in to judge a poetry competition. She’s covered their short, five- to ten- line poems with whole pages of handwritten notes, and has chosen five instead of the requested three winners. Her praises are gracious, warm and very specific. “I’m a sucker for a title.” “This one reflected current times while also being timeless.”
The students, reading their poems at the front of the class, have made themselves vulnerable and she does the same, sharing a poem she wrote the previous day—during a precious entire day at home spent writing. They are the first to hear it—and it’s very personal. Formally structured, but luscious and sexy and funny.
Afterwards, students come and introduce themselves shyly. She goes the extra mile in connecting with the ones who have a harder time stepping forward, and has compliments for their writing whether they won or not. She offers other kinds of encouragement too: A student wearing a patch pinned to their coat with their personal pronouns and another heart-shaped patch reading “Dyke” tells Olayiwola they like her esthetic. Olayiwola responds in kind, “I like your esthetic too—the way you’re doing our eyebrows is very smart.”
While gathering her things once the students have left, Olayiwola, says “Boom!” quietly to herself.
She punctuates the stanzas of her day the same way she punctuates her lines when spitting poetry at the many slam competitions that got her to where she is now.
Poetry entered Olayiwola’s life in high school.
When she read her first poem, she really couldn’t believe that people were willing to sit silently through it and clap at the end. It just seemed impossible, but also, secretly, it was the thing she wanted more than anything else—not just to speak and be heard, but to be a part of a community where people spoke and were heard.
But when did she begin feeling like a poet for real?
“Honestly? Probably yesterday. Or at least I had that thought yesterday. I’m really interested in inquiry, in really investigating the craft, and this weekend I locked myself in my house and I wrote one poem, and then I was like ‘This is it! This is great! Oh, maybe I am poet!”
Olayiwola traces her love of writing poetry to her love of argument. She’s always craved intellectual debate—but also always felt like she needed to write things down before she says them in order to say them best. “It really helps me to articulate everything that I need to say—allows me to take my time with what I want to say and craft it in the ways I want to say it. And that feels good.”
Olayiwola’s day began with a photo shoot because she needs new headshots. By early evening, she’s still a bit giddy, describing how her friends that were styling and photographing her glammed her up. It’s difficult, while watching this hard working, no-nonsense person gathering a group of equally hard working poets and teachers together to discuss the future of Massachusetts’ main youth slam poetry competition, to imagine the scenario she’s describing, which involves her frolicking for the camera with butterflies in her hair. But there are pictures to prove it happened.
A midday meeting was blissfully cancelled, so she’s had adequate time to recover from the photo shoot before putting on the mantle of Artistic Director at MassLEAP (Literary Education and Performance Collective,) which has been supporting “positive youth development through spoken word poetry forums” in Massachusetts for eight years. It’s a mantle Olayiwola’s shaped to match her personality, and a role she’s put her heart and soul into. This is no top down organization. When going around the room with introductions, it’s clear that everyone is highly accomplished and brings unique wisdom to the table. Alex Charalambides, MassLEAP’s Worcester-based Co-Founder and Managing Director, and Olayiwola, keep the planning meeting of about 20 young poets, slam coaches and other youth mentors on track in terms of time, and supplied with healthy snacks. But other than providing some prompts for thinking about the organization’s priorities for the next year, and some music to keep everyone in the right mood while they think, both of MassLEAP’s leaders are letting the group gathered at their Make Shift office do the real leading. Even the branding and naming of the next festival is up for design by committee. At the meeting’s close, Olayiwola says “Thanks for letting us pick your creativity without paying you!”
When Olayiwola introduces herself in the circle at MassLEAP, she identifies herself by saying “I do poetry all the time.” And it’s completely true. At this point in her life, as one of the two youngest poet laureates in the country, all of her jobs are about making poetry or making poetry happen. She’s fully aware of how lucky she is to be in this position. “I am repeatedly humbled and in disbelief.” Moved to tears regularly in fact, she confesses.
When people ask her what she does—usually Uber drivers (she admits “A lot of my revelations exist within the context of an Uber ride…..”)—she always tells them she’s a poet, not just a writer.
“Poetry differs from other forms of writing—it is often times much shorter, which means we have a limited amount of space to capture something. And I keep thinking about infinity—taking something that is finite, and putting it into three lines even, or four lines, and then suddenly it lasts so long!”
Dig: What do you want to accomplish as Boston’s poet laureate?
PO: For me it’s about service. The laureateship offers a unique position of being at the intersection of the arts—writing—and also serving. Being selfless.
And I can’t stop thinking about housing—I’ve been thinking about housing for years, so I’m planning something at the intersection of arts and activism. I’ve applied for a grant. This feels very urgent to me.
Also, I got called when a young black man, a staff member at a local school, was [fatally] shot over spring break. How do you address that for that community? You need to call in an artist for dealing with something like that. I felt how important it was to be there at such a difficult time.
Dig: How is your writing going since you took on your laureateship?
PO: The city keeps asking for poems and that’s good. I love to write and I love a good deadline. And how do I take what somebody else wants and also give it my own voice? That’s been a great challenge, it’s been pretty tremendous for my writing, I would say. I’m on a roll right now.
Dig: Who inspires you?
PO: I really get inspired by the young people. I love them. They are so smart and have such great ideas. So the young people first. And my mom. But also everyone inspires me. Really.
Porsha O is also the judge of the Mayor’s Poetry Contest which is open to the entire city of Boston and has a mid-April deadline. Readers interested in submitting work should go to this link for more info: cityofbostonartsandculture.submittable.com/submit/78029/the-mayors-poetry-program-at-boston-city-hall-2019