Meet Porsha Olayiwola, Boston’s new poet laureate
Boston’s new poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola, is ready to push the limits of the art through the poetry community and beyond.
“I am trying to reach everybody [through poetry], by the nature of the position,” Olayiwola, 30, said Monday after Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced her appointment. “More so, I’m trying to get everybody to reach each other.”
The poet laureate, a four-year position, seeks to engage Bostonians with poetry in their everyday lives through public programming and events. The appointee receives a stipend and a programming budget.
She will replace Danielle Legros Georges, a professor at Lesley University’s Creative Arts in Learning Division, on Jan. 1. Legros Georges received attention for her “disappearing poetry” project with Mass Poetry in Boston, where she helped write poetry on the sidewalk that only appeared in the rain, according to the mayor’s press office.
Olayiwola is the 2014 World Poetry Slam Champion, 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion, and one of GK100’s 2018 Most Influential People of Color. Her full-length collection of poetry is being published in early 2019 with Button Poetry.
The Jamaica Plain resident works as the artistic director at MassLEAP, a youth poetry and social justice nonprofit, where she helps educate young artists and bring poetry into the classroom — a role she said she plans to keep throughout her run as poet laureate.
Olayiwola cofounded House Slam, a poetry slam venue at the Haley House Bakery Cafe in Roxbury that hosts free open mic events twice a month. On par with her work at MassLEAP and House Slam, she hopes to focus on breaking down barriers for people who lack access to poetry and literary arts.
“I’m looking to do poetry where poetry isn’t,” she said.
Her work melds history, identity, and the future, she said. In her upcoming book, she offers up magical, sci-fi interpretations of the future — in particular, the future of African-Americans, something she called “Afro-futurism.”
She said she views her poems as infra-political, telling stories about artifacts of slavery, misogyny, homophobia, and racism. With stories such as these, she emphasizes the importance of lived experience in conveying them.
To her, poetry can bring city residents together by sharing experiences otherwise inaccessible.
“I can tell you, I can write it down,” she said. ‘“And that is the closest I can get to showing you what that feels like.”
Olayiwola recently wrote and produced “Black & Ugly as Ever,” which she calls a “choreopoem” that combines poetry and theatrics on stage to convey her personal experiences with prejudice, discrimination, and hate through the greater context of the nation and the world.
Olayiwola wrote in the last poem of the production:
So I live and that is the act of defiance. The march. I breathe. I inhale this pollution around me. I hold air close. Rock it back, swish it forth in my hefty lungs. I exhale it out and I call that civil disobedience.