Porsha Olayiwola Is Reimagining What Poetry Can Be
Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for The Culture Project

Porsha Olayiwola remembers the moment she was inspired her to write her first one-woman show. It was 2012 and she had just finished a poetry reading at a college. A man with a long, blonde and shaggy ponytail walked up and told her, “Don’t be offended when I tell you this, but you look like Biggie Smalls.”

The 30-year-old poet, who identifies as a queer hip-hop feminist, told ESSENCE that she didn’t fully conceptualize what he was saying to her in the moment. It wasn’t until about five years later that she processed her feelings and decided to write a poem that she aptly called “Black & Ugly As Ever,” alluding to the lyric in Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance.”

But that one poem wasn’t enough.

Photo by Tatiana M. R. Johnson

In the fall of 2018, Olayiwola performed “Black & Ugly As Ever” as a choreopoem, a 45-minute show inspired by one of her favorite poets, Ntozake Shange, who wrote the revolutionary choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

“Black & Ugly As Ever” chronicles her perception of her Blackness, queerness and body image and the intersection of all of these identities. Olayiwola said she’s felt validated through the experience of performing the show, which she has presented in a few U.S. cities. The response has been almost overwhelming—and she’s even received a few apologies from White people. Of course, other women of color and women of a certain size have given her a ton of support for speaking her truth.

“Talking about what it means to be fat and to identify as fat with other women made me realize how validated I felt,” she said. “It’s been both great and and confidence booster. But it’s also caused me to think about what it means to be pretty.”

Olayiwola’s innovative poetry work is what prompted Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh to select her as Boston’s poet laureate. She took on the role, which lasts for four years, at the top of 2019. As poet laureate, Olayiwola represents the city in spaces when poetry can be used as a vehicle to service members of the community.

“I was surprised and really humbled,” Olayiwola said about learning she had been selected as the city’s poet laureate. “And to be provided with more resources to be doing this work is really exciting and revolutionary.”

Photo by Tatiana M. R. Johnson

Her poems center the Black experience and often explore themes of racism, sexism and homophobia. Take “Water,” where she traces the historical trauma associated with water and the Black diaspora, from the Middle Passage to segregated swimming pools to the Flint water crisis. “The Joke” looks at how queer women like her are often the punchline in any story. There is “Tangled aka Rapunzel aka Long-Hair-Don’t-Care-and-What,” which describes the dreaded experience of a stranger touching a Black woman’s hair. And then, “Angry Black Woman,” which she wrote after moving to Boston, where she rails against broken education systems, gentrification and standards of beauty. Her lived experience colors nearly every line in her poetry, and she’s shared her talent with poets and other artists across the diaspora.

Since moving to Boston in 2010, Olayiwola has become integral to the growing poetry scene in the city. Originally from Chicago, she graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies and gender/women’s studies. In the Windy City, she’d participated in—and won—several poetry slam competitions, including the Louder Than a Bomb.

That work led her to Massachusetts, where is a teaching artist with Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance collective. There, she organizes youth spaces around poetry and coaches its poetry slam team. She also leads professional development classes for teaching artists and works with educators to find ways to integrate poetry into everyday curriculum. Ultimately, she hopes to establish a youth poet laureate program in the city.

Last fall, Olayiwola started a three-year MFA program at Emerson College. In November, Olayiwola will release her first book of poems, I Shimmer Sometimes, Too, via Button Poetry. This year, she plans to keep exploring how science fiction, fantasy and the Black experience can be intertwined and unpacked through poetry.

“Be it magic, or fantasy, or everyday practice of real-life experience,” she said, “it’s important to visualize yourself living, surviving and thriving in a world and a space that was inherently built for your success.”

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