When poet Porsha Olayiwola moved to Boston right out of college in 2010, she went to poetry slams at the Lizard Lounge every week, three poems in hand.
“I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have any money,” she said in a Zoom call from her home in Roxbury. “I just had poems and the Lizard Lounge.”
Today, Olayiwola is the poet laureate of Boston. Her monthly HOME series of online open mics and poetry workshops runs through June. The March 5 open mic spotlights poet Monica Sok, who will lead the workshop the next day.
Olayiwola, 32, dreamed up HOME before the pandemic.
“It’s compelling to me as a person who writes about home, who thinks about the body as home, a person who’s a transplant,” she said. Then the quarantine hit and made the theme even richer.
She often brings a poem to the open mics, but she rarely reads, giving the time to others. Her own searing work touches on universal and tender themes. “I Shimmer Sometimes, Too,” her debut book, came out in late 2019. “Water,” from that book, is an incantatory litany of racist violations through history, up to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
“I’ve heard sharks followed slave ships crossing the atlantic ocean trailing black bodies thrown overboard,” she writes near the beginning.
And toward the end: “I heard they been gasping for air, been drowning in oppression for what feels like forever, ever since crossing the atlantic.”
Olayiwola’s next book, which she’s working on as she finishes up her Master of Fine Arts at Emerson this year, springs from “Water.”
“It’s about the African diaspora and water and queer intimacy,” Olayiwola says. “It’s playing with those ideologies in a dream world.” She’s thinking of calling it “Wet.”
She writes poems about love, about family, about being Black. Her phrasing, rhythm, and imagery cast a spell that ties personal experience to the scope of history — a spell that intensifies in her intimate, commanding performances. She is an Individual World Slam Poetry Champion. (Find videos at www.porshaolayiwola.com/poems.)
“She uses her physical stillness, and it doesn’t matter what’s happening in your periphery. She’s that captivating with her physical presence,” said Anthony Febo, a poet and youth worker who has known Olayiwola for years.
“Even if the poetry is heavy and a little hard, there is joy in listening to it,” said Febo, who hosts the HOME open mic. “There’s an empathy.”
As a child growing up in Chicago, Olayiwola had a big, penetrating imagination. When she was 12, she wrote theories about the world. Then, when she was a junior in high school, a teacher brought her to a poetry slam.
“I saw somebody do a poem. It changed my life,” she said. “I can’t remember the poem, but I can remember how I felt in the back of that room. … I literally just went home and started writing.”
She begins writing a poem with a pencil and ends with a performance. Memorization and recitation deepen the work. The poems Olayiwola memorized for teachers in school have not left her.
“They were trying to get me to move through each word to understand what the speaker was saying,” she said. “That’s the great part about performing. I get to do that with my own work.”
Olayiwola recently left her job as artistic director of the literary youth organization MassLEAP to focus on her writing. But she’s doing similar advocacy as Boston’s poet laureate. The HOME open mics are diverse, with poets of all ages opening their souls as audience members pour love into the Zoom chat.
“Porsha is out in the world, doing the work, noticing the stories that need to be told,” said Febo. “Not just writing, but organizing it so the work can be done on a larger scale, with the community.”
She plans to wrap up the HOME series with a festival in June.
“I’ve been thinking about it with the idea of providing resources, whether that’s a conversation on how to get published, or whether that’s figuring out ways to make sure there’s youth representation,” she said.
She is thrilled with the wide assortment of poets attending HOME. Poets speak from their hearts, and that kind of sharing benefits everyone.
“That’s definitely the reason I write. That it’s something we need to hear, or somebody can see themselves in it, whether they are a queer Black person or an older white man,” she said. “Maybe there’s something in there that allows you to say, ‘Wow. That is exactly how I feel.’”
HOME: Poetry Reading, Open Mic, and Workshop Series
Open Mic: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Workshop: Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
Admission is free; registration is required.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.