Poets Laureate Across Massachusetts
A note from the interviewer, Alice Kociemba
Porsha Olayiwola, the city of Boston’s current Poet Laureate, reflects on how a local laureate can become an advocate for poetry in schools and in correctional institutions, certainly places where people need the lifeline that poetry provides. I was struck by the how Porsha sees the power of poetry “to communicate the non-communicable,” with language that is a necessary bridge to connect us with “a kind of tenderness” that makes poetry matter. Here is how she sees her role as Boston’s Poet Laureate:
Meet Porsha Olayiwola, Boston’s Poet Laureate
When did your city or town decide to establish a poet laureate position? Is there a length of time the poet laureate serves?
Boston has had 3 poet laureates. Each term is 4 years. The first, Sam Cornish began his term in 2008. He served for two terms. The second, Danielle Legros Georges began in 2014. And I have the humble pleasure of being the third.
What was the selection process like? (Who was involved, who made the decision?) Did the city/town have requirements and goals for the position? If so, how do they reflect your own priorities and initiatives?
The selection process involved an application that called for a project proposal, curriculum vitae, and a writing sample. The interview consisted of a reading and answering several questions from the current Laureate, Georges at the time, as well as several poetry leaders throughout the city and state.
Among the national poets laureate, which initiative have you most admired?
One of my favorite projects was the one displayed by the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith. Her service involved engaging with folks in rural communities around poetry. When I think of the majority of rural communities, I think of the South. I found her project astounding, specifically because a lot of folks and resources do not end up in the South and into rural communities. I think about the South’s history and ghost of modernity, slavery, and Jim Crow. The South is the crux of the US’s financial standing. Its lack of resources is ironic. Smith’s project stood out because poetry is art engaged with the politics of the heart. It makes sense then, to use poetry to engage those communities and their histories.
Have you been in touch with other poet laureates around the Commonwealth? What lessons have you applied to your own tenure?
I have been in touch with several local and national poet laureates. I suppose, what I am learning is that there is much work to be done, and it is okay if I can’t/ don’t do it all.
To what community organizations and facilities do you bring poetry (i.e., schools, senior centers, libraries, health, mental health, addiction and correctional facilities)?
I’ve spent a great deal of my time in both Schools and Correctional facilities. I can’t name why that is specifically, but I know these things are related. It feels important for me, in my own personal practice, to be disrupting, or rather engaging citizens who are engrossed in public institutions. Specifically, in fall 2019, I went on a tour of Boston Public Schools, offering free readings and discussions for students, in celebration of the search for Boston’s youth poet laureate. In September, I started volunteering at MCI- Concord, teaching afro-futurism.
What do you think poetry can do in the civic sphere? Have you written occasional poems for your city or town?
I think part of the goal of poetry is to bring people together, specifically, a writer attempting to communicate the non-communicable to a reader. I think the language of the law could benefit from the care of a poet. That is to say, language is so important to the human condition. The poet seeks to engage a general audience on a basic emotional and thought-provoking level. I think that kind of tenderness is necessary to steward a world in which people take care of people and not property, not policies. I do write occasional poetry for the city of Boston and for museums, and other organizations around current events of our times. I write for events that call for a poet as opposed to a politician.
What events have you organized, physically or virtually? Do you find more engagement in your city/town with reading/appreciation events or writing/creative events?
I’ve begun organizing an 8-month reading and workshop series for city of Boston residents from November 2020-June 2020. The series is called HOME and engages participants virtually in poetry that interrogates the politics and personal of Home. I’ve gotten so many thank you emails regarding participants feeling at home, in the series and happy to have a place to connect. Most of the registrants were older, over the age of 50, which I think is a critical population to have the pleasure of engaging via a digital platform. In my experience, I think all participants, in online workshops, in readings, feel privileged to have the opportunity to connect with other human beings.
What is your favorite question that people have asked you about poetry?
My favorite and most frequent question is always around the writing process. I love to explain to folks that ‘writing’ is never my favorite part of the process, but rather the research, and mediation required before the poem is written. The conversations I have with my god, my muse and myself before I embark on any poem is always a mental journey into revelation. I feel as though these are necessary before the poem begins. I also love editing a poem. What is not to love about taking something you’ve created, getting lost in its nooks and cranny, to polish it into a poem?
That’s my favorite and most consistent question, those about the writing process. There are also the questions I adore, that stump me and force me to think on things I haven’t had the chance to think on before.
Do you think your city/town has benefitted from having a poet laureate?
Absolutely. When I first moved to the city of Boston ten years ago, I didn’t know where to turn for poetry. I went to many of the poetry lounges in Cambridge. Until one day, I saw an advertisement for a class taught by the current poet laureate, Sam Cornish, at the Boston Public Library. I attend the first class, shy and new to both the city and to poetry. And I can remember Cornish, pulled me outside and told me how much he enjoyed my work. I think that moment was definitely monumental in my pursuit of poetry in the city of Boston.
If someone in your city/town wanted to become more involved in poetry, what would you recommend to them?
a. Check the city’s laureate page.
b. Check online and digital communities
c. Your local library
f. 826 Boston
g. If you can feel it/ you can speak it
Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola is the author of the collection i shimmer sometimes, too (Button Poetry, 2019). Artistic Director at MassLEAP, a literary nonprofit organization in Massachusetts serving youth artists, she also co-founded The House Slam, a poetry slam venue at the Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury that offers a free poetry slam and open mic events twice a month. Porsha is the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion and will also establish the Roxbury Poetry Festival to be held in the summer of 2021.
Alice Kociemba is the Founding Director of Calliope Poetry for Community. She is co-editor of From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry, which will be published by Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) in 2021. In 2015 and 2016, Alice guest edited Common Threads, the poetry discussion project of Mass Poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection, Bourne Bridge (Turning Point, 2016).