Community and Social Justice in Spoken Word Introducing Boston's Poet Laureate, Porsha Olayiwola

Porsha Olayiwola quietly commands a room.

When she sits and sips her tea, you lean forward to make sure you don’t miss anything she says. When she glances out the window as she talks, you do too because you believe there’s probably something interesting out there, otherwise she wouldn’t look. She isn’t loud or imposing or attention-seeking, but you probably wouldn’t blame her if she was. She just seems like someone who knows what she wants to say, and you want to listen.

Maybe that’s why she was awarded the title of Individual World Poetry Slam Champion in 2014.

And National Poetry Slam Champion in 2015.

And the City of Boston’s poet laureate—a four-year position awarded by the mayor to the best advocate for poetry, language, and the arts—in 2019.

Olayiwola is a 30-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, born and raised in Chicago. When she first moved to Boston in 2010, she was working as an AmeriCorps VISTA member for the National Coalition for the Homeless. It was a volunteer position, so money was tight. She also didn’t know anyone in the city. So she would clean her apartment, have a glass of wine, write some poetry, and then clean a little more.

For about three years, Olayiwola performed at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. She paid $5 to get in, read a poem or two or three, and then spent the rest of her week writing more poems to perform.

That was her cycle, until the mood of the Lizard Lounge began to change. She no longer felt that it was the welcoming environment that it was when she arrived. It was homophobic, she said, and didn’t allow any room for growth. One night, everything blew up and she never went back.

Olayiwola didn’t want to give up on performing her work, so she founded her own poetry slam venue: The House Slam. Held at the Haley House Bakery Cafe, The House Slam gives poets a chance to perform at an open mic or in the competitive poetry slam in addition to a featured poet. Poets flocked to the Roxbury location on the second and fourth Friday of every month from 6:30 to 10:30 to perform. The slams are temporarily on hold while the Haley House is closed for renovations.

The House Slam said its “see you later” on Facebook to its members, explaining that while the Haley House takes time to “refocus and reimagine” before reopening later this year, The House Slam will do the same. Olayiwola certainly won’t be anything short of busy as her Slam goes on hiatus—the 30-year-old is also an MFA student at Emerson College studying poetry.

“I think it was just the next step in writing,” Olayiwola said of her decision to enroll in graduate school.

She found her start with poetry in junior high—her earliest memory of writing any poetry is when she ran for vice president of her class in seventh grade, and her election speech was a poem. In 11th grade, a mentor told Olayiwola that she should check out Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam in the world.

“I felt like I had entered a secret world where there are tons of cool, awkward teenagers, all into literature, all writing something from the depths of their being." Porsha Olayiwola

She was awed by the number of people who took the time to write from the depths of their hearts, practice it, and then perform it with complete strangers. More than that, there was a room full of people sitting and listening quietly to complete strangers. Olayiwola knew then that it was something she needed to try out.

She started to write when she was senior and continued to do so when she was in college at the University of Illinois Champaign Urbana. But she didn’t have a community of writers in college—she didn’t find that until she moved to Boston.

Young Bostonians who want to be poets don’t have to look far to find a community: Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance (MassLEAP) is a non-profit, where Olayiwola is the artistic director, that works to give young people a platform to share their stories. Through spoken word, the kids who go there are able to make their voices heard, specifically about social justice.

They form teams to compete in Louder Than a Bomb—the same poetry competition that introduced Olayiwola to spoken word. Olayiwola has worked at MassLEAP for six years, and each year she’s had a different team. Some of her favorite writers have come out of that program, she said.

Her oldest former team members are now in their second year of college. Olayiwola calls them her babies. Some of them, she said, sit on MassLEAP’s board now, so she’s been able to see them grow from young teenagers she coached to adult colleagues she works with. Olayiwola enjoys working with young poets because of their flexibility and perspective on the world—they work differently than adults do, she said.

“Young people are ready to focus, and like just amazing artists, like individual artists and knowing themselves and also just so eager,” Olayiwola said.

Michelle Garcia was on Olayiwola’s  team for Louder Than a Bomb for two years, and last year they co-coached a group of aspiring poets.

“She’s been a coach and a friend and a mentor,” Garcia said of Olayiwola.

When Garcia found out that Olayiwola was going to be her coach, before they had ever met, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Olayiwola had already gone viral with “Angry Black Woman,” her winning final performance at the Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS) competition in 2014. Garcia soon found that her apprehension was entirely baseless. Olayiwola knows how to talk to people and make them feel that they are on the same level without any sort of power dynamic, Garcia said. She’s given kids transportation money if they couldn’t afford it. Garcia believes that Olayiwola is so successful because she’s doing the work that she actually cares about.

She knows how to coach without interjecting her own voice or artistic opinion. Olayiwola will talk you through it, but she won’t give you the answer. She doesn’t say how to write—she gives her students the tools to figure that out for themselves. Olayiwola told them that they were coaching themselves and she was just there for support, Garcia said.

“Beforehand, she had been teaching me how to be a better writer, a better person, but this time she was really helping me grow as a facilitator and as a coach,” Garcia said. “She’s really good at affirming you and telling you when you’re doing the right thing and motivating you and making sure that you’re okay.”

That support has allowed some of her students to carry their poetry careers into college. A common combination of majors for her former students is creative writing and international studies, Olayiwola said. The interdisciplinary nature of the majors makes it possible for the students to look at the relationship between arts and activism.

Olayiwola has thought a lot about that connection herself. Art is activism, she said.

She explains on her website that she writes “infra-politically to tell the stories that are silenced, erased, or difficult to release from the tip of the tongue.”

Her performance of “Angry Black Woman” is a powerful one about the stereotype of the emotions of black women. She starts quietly, stating a disclaimer that she is, in fact, very beautiful, sweet, polite, and even a little awkward.

“And I just had to say that, only because I’m a little tired of this stereotype about the angry black woman,” she said. “Whoop de doo, right? Because as you can see, I am black and a woman, and I’m not angry at all.”

She’s not angry at all, she continues, because she’s “pissed the f—k off.” She’s mad about how the education system privileges the wealthy, about the rich gentrifying poor neighborhoods, about Barbie being the standard of beauty, and about how expensive fruits and vegetables are.

“I hate that I’ve only got three minutes to say this poem,” Olayiwola said, “and I got about 10 minutes worth of angry.”

The crowd cheered as Olayiwola’s voice rose. Since the poem was performed as spoken word instead of just being read from a page, Olayiwola was able to control the tempo and volume of the words. Her body language showed her taking on the persona of the “sweet” girl that she satirized, and then took on a powerful stance while she condemned the systems in America that work against black people.

Last fall, Olayiwola performed “Black and Ugly as Ever,” her one-person choreopoem about what it means to “move through reality as a queer, fat, dark-skinned woman.” She used poetry and song to talk about self-love for a body that is a member of multiple marginalized groups. The hour-long performance is split between two parts, Olayiwola’s website said: one criticizes the standards set by today’s society, and the other praises those who defy them.

Although most of Olayiwola’s work is performed through spoken word, she doesn’t necessarily think there’s much of a difference between how she writes for voice and how she writes for a page. Sometimes they can seem interchangeable, but there are some poems that she does not expect to know in her body, like she does for spoken word, Olayiwola said. Either way, all of them begin on a piece of paper.

Something about Olayiwola and her work caught the eye of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, BC ’09, as he searched for the next Boston poet laureate for the 2019 to 2023 term. Olayiwola submitted an application and was called in for an interview at Boston City Hall.

“I think Boston is on fire with writers, historically." Porsha Olayiwola

She walked into a room with a large oval table—20 chairs were around it, and only one was left empty. She took a seat and looked around. She recognized the faces of people she had been reading about in the newspaper for years. Olayiwola read a few poems, answered some questions, and then left. From there, it was just a waiting game.

A few weeks later, Olayiwola got an email saying that she needed to have one final interview with the mayor before he made his decision. So, she went down to City Hall. While she waited, she chatted with some people from the mayor’s arts council and drank coffee until she was called into Walsh’s office. They talked about Boston and some poems as Olayiwola waited for the questions to begin. Instead, Walsh said, “Congratulations.”

Olayiwola said she was able to stay pretty calm, despite the surprise of winning arguably Boston’s biggest honor for a poet.

As the poet laureate, Olayiwola makes herself available to people in the city who want her to be present for workshops or performances. Her email is jam-packed, but other than that, Olayiwola is pretty much free to do what she’d like with the position.

She’s noticed that there are a lot of communities for poets to find each other in Boston, but many of them are very separate from each other—she said she’s found that some of them are isolated. There’s the slam community, but then there are people who enjoy reading poetry rather than speaking it aloud. Olayiwola wants to find a way to pull all of the people together into one community where everyone in Boston can enjoy poetry together.

“I think Boston is on fire with writers, historically,” Olayiwola said.

There’s a beautiful lineage of authors here—Sylvia Plath, Louisa May Alcott, and Robert Frost are all from Boston—and the number of schools here have made the city rich with intellectual capital. People are constantly thinking and working, she said. That’s one of the reasons Olayiwola moved here in the first place. She’s secretly a huge history nerd, she said, and was fascinated by Boston.

She’s thought of doing a retreat of some sort for writers, or establishing artist housing, where people can live together in a building of other people who are creating art too.

Olayiwola said she wonders how her career might have progressed differently if someone had given her guidance about what residency program to join to work on her poetry, or what writers to read for inspiration. As the poet laureate, she wants to create direct access to the arts for people who might not have an outlet. Olayiwola recalled the first time she had ever encountered slam poetry, at Louder Than a Bomb years ago.

“I felt like I had entered a secret world where there are tons of cool, awkward teenagers, all into literature, all writing something from the depths of their being,” Olayiwola said.

Featured Image Courtesy of Porsha Olayiwola

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About Colleen Martin