From the city’s poet laureate: “About being a magical being”

Porsha Olayiwola: "Visceral precision, playful metaphors"

In some ways, Porsha Olayiwola has been working on her debut poetry collection for her whole life. “Every moment is building on the past. History is the culmination of the past,” said Olayiwola, the slam poet, writer, educator, and curator who assumed the mantle of Boston’s poet laureate in January.

In “i shimmer sometimes, too,” she encapsulates a sweeping range of emotions with visceral precision and playful metaphors that speaks to years of ruminating on the right words.

The title of the collection is a line pulled from her poem, “my brother ghost writes this poem.” Olayiwola conjures imagery of phantoms and exorcisms to portray her younger brother’s struggles with manic tendencies and hallucinations. Each sentence is separated by vertical bars — an illustration of how you could become imprisoned in your own mind.

These bars take on several other meanings, including a reference to Olayiwola’s poetry when her brother “says he | got ||| bars ||| too | bellows out if he can write my words | in place of my words.” In the poem, Olayiwola wishes she could tell her brother, “i shimmer sometimes too,” as a way to say, “I see you. I am human, you are human, we all have mental health issues.”

In the context of the collection as a whole, this title speaks to a greater literary tradition of published poetry, echoing Langston Hughes’s “I, Too.” By merging her “performance” poetry with “publishable” literary poetry (which this collection proves are actually one and the same), Olayiwola is joining a tradition that has historically been monopolized by white men. “This collection is about how to exist as a black queer woman,” Olayiwola said. “I have these separate identities, but I have a collective identity. I identify as Afrofuturist. I identify as magic. This collection is about being a magical being.”

Later in the collection, the poem “the muse for this black dyke is a dead white man” addresses this in a meta-analysis: “i thought — i couldn’t write about that stuff — that stuff is a little too dark (get it).” Olayiwola said this speaks to “interrupting the tradition of what we’re taught poetry is, the hierarchy around it, the conversation about the canon.”

One year into her four-year position as poet laureate, Olayiwola has a lot of irons in the fire, bringing poetry to the everyday lives of Bostonians. At the beginning of the year, she served as one of the cultural luminaries at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Last month, she and Marshall “Gripp” Gillson created “Spirit,” an Afrofuturist theater project. She established a reading series, facilitated a poetry exchange with the poet laureate of Philadelphia, and started a tour of Boston schools.

But perhaps one of the biggest projects she has broken ground on is the initiative for Boston’s first Youth Poet Laureate.

The program model for Youth Poet Laureates has existed in other cities such as Los Angeles and New York for a long time. With the help of 826 Boston’s Nakia Hill, Boston Public Library Teen Central’s Jessica Snow, the mayor’s office’s Tom Johnston, and MassLEAP’s Alex Charalambides, Olayiwola was able to transform the possibility into reality. “This was the right storm of resources,” Olayiwola said.

With the call for Boston Youth Poet Laureate applications already underway and Tuesday’s release of “i shimmer sometimes, too,” 2019 has been a monumental year for Olayiwola in both her public and personal work.

Across her collection’s 43 poems, Olayiwola covers love and loss in myriad iterations, but equally impactful ways. Food is the language of love, wrapped up in luscious vocabulary. Her father “might have seasoned the meat, his thick brown hands gently letting loose salt how god did earth.” Her girlfriend is a veritable feast — her “sweetie pie,” her “sugar plum,” her “cake-pop” — plus much more salacious comparisons.

In “memory / loss,” Olayiwola portrays the physicality of aloneness with “short term [compartments],” a door “falling off its hinges,” and how she “can’t dissociate the building of a home from the breaking of an entryway.” The motif of a broken door hinge is brought up again in “time capsule,” when Olayiwola reveals she was the one who “broke the door from its hinges.”

The collection as a whole has also been carved into a certain shape. The last poem circles back around to the subject of her first poem about her father’s deportation, and the cyclical journey of that poignant theme holds the collection together firmly. The 41 poems in between are linked together through echoes of near-refrains and other thematic similarities.

The ideas of fear and safety are at the forefront. Getting cat-called has varied outcomes. Driving while black could end in tragedy but turns to absurdity. The entire life a queer woman is a safety threat, which is “THE JOKE.” Olayiwola is at the intersection of all of the identities. “I identify as fat. I identify as black. I identify as queer. I identify as woman. ‘I, too, sing America,’” she said. Even the poems that focus on historical events feel deeply personal as she analyzes them through the lens of her experience.

Olayiwola also reflects on the importance of names. “UN-NAMED” talks about how freed slaves took on the names of their slave masters, yet “people wonder about black names: why thenamesaren’tshorter, why the r u n a w a y syllables aren’t easier to catch, why our names chime like music when they traverse between lobes.” There are the microaggressions of strangers laughing at names, the delicate hope of creating lasting relationships being extinguished as you forget acquaintances’ names, the indignity of being called names while being fat and wearing a bathing suit in public.

Few poems share similar formats, so the presentation of each poem adds another meaningful flavor to savor. Just as she uses punctuation to create feelings of confinement, she uses generous spaces to convey fluidity and movement. Some poems cascade like a song or a waterfall, replacing one word at a time until it evolves into a fractured game of telephone. Olayiwola’s presentation is just as effective as her expressing emphasis at a slam. Readers will be able to compare for themselves, because many of her slam poems in the collection like “WATER” and “Tangled a.k.a Rapunzel a.k.a. long-hair-don’t-care and what” also have videos online.

It makes sense, then, that Olayiwola’s writing processes for her slam poems and this print collection were similar. “I don’t consider a poem a first draft until it’s shaped, so to speak, on the paper,” she said. “I start off by writing via longhand, then if it’s good enough, hopefully it makes its way to the laptop. I consider that the first draft.”

Not only does Olayiwola work meticulously on her own craft, she has devoted a large portion of her career to helping youth with their poetry. “I love young people,” she said. “They are way more brilliant than me. It’s a privilege to work with young people who identify as artists.” She served as the dean of enrichment at Codman Academy for eight years before it disbanded, where she founded their award-winning slam poetry team. She also coached a couple of slam poetry teams at MassLEAP before taking on the role of artistic director. Olayiwola also said, “As an Afrofuturist, if I want to change the future, I have to start with the people who are going to do that work.”

The most important takeaway she wants for youth is to realize that the conversations around poetry are shifting, and they should be a part of those conversations. “I personally didn’t know I could be a writer, that I could write for a living. I want people to know that,” she said. “It’s good to have a foundation, but poetry looks like so many other things now. You read poems and learn something about a person, learn about idea, learn how we change the world.”

As she nears the end of her first year as the city’s poet laureate, Olayiwola claims she hasn’t “done much yet.” If this is what she considers “not much,” I can’t wait to see what the next three years bring.

WBUR 90.9FM and the Reporter share content through a media partnership. This article was first published on the WBUR website on Nov. 18.