Standing beneath the Archangel Michael, thrown into relief by two bright floor lights, poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola opens her mouth to sing:
And it is an act of defiance
And call it civil disobedience
Three days earlier, we spoke about this performance in a phone interview. When I pressed Porsha for details, asking if some of the poems from her new book would be included, she laughed: “I can not tell you that. Possibly. It’s very possible. Very likely, how’s that?”
The performance was scheduled for the afternoon of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, part of a rich program of events put on by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Porsha delivered a hybrid of meditations on Boston, Blackness, gender identity, and more. The musical interlude, for example, is not part of the text of I Shimmer Sometimes, Too, her collection published in January 2019. In the tapestry room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum it came as a surprise, but an entirely welcome and fitting one. What struck me about Porsha, from the moment she picked up the phone on Friday to when she stepped down from the stage after Monday’s performance, is her ability to hold herself in softness while delivering her searing critiques. To say that she looks comfortable on stage is an understatement. Her moves are fluid, her breath is steady―she defies you to confront the subjects she broaches at a systemic level and to find yourself beside her, in this moment, in the same breath.
Porsha identifies as an Afrofuturist.
“It’s interesting to have that label, you know, in the lineage of folks who have existed in the genre of Afrofuturism for a long time and hopefully will continue to exist,” she explains. “I’m always thinking about what it means to be a futurist. What it means to carve out a future, you know, like organizers. Social organizers are futurists, right? They’re planning for a world they want to see.”
Afrofuturism, a cultural ethos and style that merges the Black experience in the Diaspora with the technological realm, was first coined in 1994 by white author Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future.” Today, comics-turned-movies like Marvel’s Black Panther and public figures like Janelle Monáe have pushed Afrofuturism to the forefront of a larger cultural conversation, but it has long played a crucial role in exploring the tensions and possibilities in reconciling the painful and powerful lineage of the Black experience in America with a hopeful future.
For Porsha, a fascination with futurism began in her childhood: “Something I’ve always been interested in is history, as a pupil but also as a writer. Then there was a—I don’t know if it was breaking or a moment—where I thought I could rewrite history or write the history I wanted to, or play with history. [Time is] not necessarily linear but rather a spiral, and the more I understand that, the more I’m able to tap into something.”
During our phone conversation before Monday’s performance, Porsha speaks to a kind of futurism in her earliest writings, a foretelling of the importance it would come to play in her life and career.
“I definitely started writing before I named it poetry,” she tells me. “I used to write all kinds of things when I was in middle school. I was running for electoral office in eighth grade, and my speech was a poem. But it was a high school teacher who suggested Louder Than a Bomb, which is the largest youth spoken-word festival in the world that happens in Chicago. It was the first time I heard other young people writing well-crafted poems, and also the first time I was able to come up with what I thought at the time was a very cohesive piece. And I haven’t stopped writing since that moment.”
Her first inroad into poetry specifically was encouraged by her high school history teacher.
“She’s still my mentor, she’s incredible,” says Porsha. “She was probably the first queer woman I knew. I think I never knew, though, that I could actually be a writer. So that’s one of the things I’m excited about when I go to work with young people is just letting them know: you can write. And that is fine, great, and valid.”
Bolstering her poetry is Porsha’s work with MassLEAP, a non-profit dedicated to empowering young poets and writers to find their voices through performance and workshopping.
“MassLEAP has done Louder Than a Bomb for seven years. Last year we took a break to rebrand the festival,” explains Porsha. “So as opposed to being Louder Than a Bomb, which is really a Chicago festival, we decided to do something that responds to the needs of our community. So it’s called the Wicked Loud Youth Poetry Festival.”
Wicked Loud will take place throughout the spring of 2020. When I ask whether she has always been drawn to working with young people, Porsha laughs:
“Unfortunately, yes. No, I’m just kidding,” she continues. “Yeah. Even as a young person, when I was thirteen I was working with people younger than me. They’re good people, they’re honest people, they keep me sharp, you know? And if I’m not honest with them about me, and the work I’m doing, and actually doing the work, then they will definitely be honest with you,” she laughs again. “Young people are amazing. I’ve just had the chance, last week actually, to spend time at all the BYSs (Boston Youth Sanctuaries), which,” she pauses, thinking. “Did you know there are no young female units in the city? Which means young girls get separated further from their parents, which makes it harder for them to visit, all of those things, right? But it was just great to—it wasn’t good to be there, but I was happy that I had taken the chance to go in and talk to young people about poems. Yeah, young people are the truth.”
As if to herald Porsha’s own emphasis on youth empowerment, Boston named its inaugural Youth Poet Laureate just last week. Alondra Bobadilla, a seventeen-year-old who goes to school in Fenway, was selected from ten finalists who were first scouted in October 2019. I can hear Porsha’s smile over the phone when I mention her: “Yes! She’s amazing! I’m at City Hall now, and we were just talking about her. I’m meeting with her tomorrow, and it’s really exciting to have her be the person who’s embarking on this historical moment for us. None of us have worked with her before, so it’s really exciting to have her stand out so vividly among the ten finalists. That was my first interaction with her was hearing her poems, reading her poems, and you know, having her talk about how much she loves this city and what she wants for this city.”
While many of the poems in I Shimmer are set against the backdrop of Chicago, Porsha’s love for Boston is palpable. “Boston feels like a home, like a good home that’s hugged me tight,” she says. “It’s been good to do work for the city before being the quote-unquote ‘poet laureate’ but even in the context of being the poet laureate it’s been really great, and welcoming. Like, this morning, I was calling an Uber to city hall and I looked on the map and there was Nubian Square. And I was like wow! Immediately I wanted to write an ode to that new square. The city obviously changes and grows, it’s a living and moving thing. And I just hope I’m able to move and be valuable with it.”
I’m heartened by the ease with which she celebrates all that is good about the city. “I think they’re doing a really great job around supporting artists in recent years which has been really nice. I’m always interested in the youth scene and making sure it’s like, fuego, you know? I think people should be excited and on fire about the opportunities that exist in the city and that’s how folks stay and how folks continue to serve it—that is my futuristic take, young people. It’s been voted the #2 city in the country for Black women to relocate to I just found out. So I feel like it’s a great city and it’s been holding me.”
Porsha was named a Neighborhood Salon Luminary by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the year of 2018-2019. The Salon Luminaries initiative was launched by the Gardner Museum to continue Isabella’s love of hosting artists and thinkers at her home to discuss current events.
“Every year the Isabella takes a cohort of artists to just come in, meet each other, and talk and engage with the museum and with each other about different practices,” says Porsha. “I was a luminary in 2018-2019, and afterwards, you engage the museum in different curated events. So one of my curated events is Monday’s [Martin Luther King Jr. Day] performance.”
I ask Porsha who some of her personal luminaries are. She smiles: “Oh, that’s beautiful. I would say for sure my fairy godmother is Octavia Butler, and I just got back from reading her archives in LA so my mind is spinning with just her language, her thoughts, her journals, it’s been incredible. I always loved Zora Neale Hurston, June Jordan…these are just some of my favorite people. I mean the list is incredible. And then you have all the people here, like all of my friends I tell people are some of my favorite writers. People I just go into an open mic and listen to often inspire me to go home and just read a book!”
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Porsha was the one who is stepping up to the mic, with a mountain of inspiration behind her performance.
“I’m really thinking about MLK, and his spirit,” she says when I asked her about her specific goals for the upcoming performance. “How do I engage folks at the intersection of futurism, service, MLK, and myself, you know? That’s really what I’m thinking about. Because I do believe that MLK was futurist. Like, literally, ‘I have a dream’ is kind of like a mantra, yeah. So I want to make sure I get that across. There’s a lot of his work that is radical, and radical because it didn’t accept today’s naming of how things should be as the sole naming, you know? And thinking about, not necessarily how do I talk about the past and cope with the past, but how do I carve out the future?”
Porsha is not afraid to have the past exist in tension with her vision for the future. A few minutes into her performance, she stares steadily at the audience and begins her poem “Rekia Boyd”:
Last night, no one showed up to march for Rekia Boyd.
Rekia was shot dead in the head by cops in Chicago on Monday
A Cook County judge acquitted police of killing Rekia
Dante Servin, charged of manslaughter, went jailbird free.
— an excerpt from “Rekia Boyd”
While she speaks, her fingers flit over each other, soft fists that never quite close. Now I see what she means when she tells me: “I perform more often, and yeah, sometimes it’s the same poem, but I’m always trying to bring my authentic self and my self in that very moment.”
She brings her current feelings and her presence into the same poem she performed in 2015, just two months after Dante Servin’s acquittal, about Rekia, who was shot in the spring of 2012. She brings Rekia into the room, too. This atemporality, speaking Rekia’s story into this climate-controlled, heavily tapestried room, provides a perfect example of the power of melding the past with the future and articulating them into the present. Of her performances, Porsha says: “Sometimes they allow me to feel things that I don’t necessarily feel in that moment, but that I’m still allowed to express.”
“I’m also always trying to understand that these are not necessarily audience members, these are just people, you know? And I want to connect with them as people and I want to be a person with them. And so I think that’s something I’m always thinking about is just how to be there and present and authentic.”
I’m thinking about this quote as Porsha launches smoothly into “Ode to Mouth,” a poem featured in her book. The natural breaks and cracks in her voice spill over the soft edges of each word. Even in recounting the most chilling pieces, her voice remains warm.
got a regurgitating history
mouth heard too much
now it don’t know how to shut itself
mouth a train
for who coming
mouth say you can’t have all this gutter
all this non-publishable
mouth say so
— an excerpt from “Ode to Mouth”
To hear Porsha’s voice insist: so? so? so? lends an entirely different tenor to the poem, a layer that is activated only through the performance of the text.
“Yeah,” acknowledges Porsha. “The stage, right? There’s a stage and there’s a page, and both of those things operate as a vehicle for me to deliver the work. It’s interesting being able to perform, because I’m able to connect with the audience, and they’re able to connect with me. Whereas I think the audience or the reader is able to draw their own, more personal connections [with the book], they’re able to draft their own definitions or comprehensions that is not necessarily tainted by my own voice, my gestures, having to look me in the eye, which is really vulnerable. It’s almost unnerving. I’ve had some strong reactions to when I first got the book. Just having it be in the world, and unerased, you know? This permanence.”
On Monday, her words hang in the air with their own kind of permanence. Her audience is rapt, too enthralled to clap in between poems, which is just how Porsha seems to like it. It allows a kind of organic flow, evidence of just how intertwined her pieces are.
“I think what [poetry] allows me to do is communicate,” says Porsha. “And it’s not like when I’m writing I’m trying to communicate, I’m just trying to discover exactly what I mean, you know? There are so many words in the human etymology of language. And even when we’re speaking the same language, English, each word has a different connotation for each person. So I think with poems I’m constantly trying to name what is unnameable. Whether it’s an emotion or thought, you know, those things that are extremely difficult to name, but even with such an inadequate tool as language, how do I get as close as possible to naming it for myself and then also to connect with other people? My naming allows them to see me and [allows me to] be seen.”
Next, Porsha performs “Tangled A.K.A Rapunzel A.K.A Long-Hair-Don’t-Care-And-What”—“a favorite.” She infuses it with a bitter laugh at the reality of the poem’s narrative, while also reaffirming her beauty and presence at the time the poem was written and now, where she stands before us.
When I ask more about it in our interview, Porsha says:
“Immediately the phrase that comes to mind is the quote ‘all art is propaganda.’ And that is not to say that I’m propagandizing anything, really, but it is to say that I do move infrapolitically. ‘Everything is political,’ is the saying. I’m thinking of a video I watched last night about Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who just talked about how she has been diagnosed with alopecia, and just how coming out about that is political. That is not necessarily my role, but I do believe I have a role, and any role I believe is political. And I believe my role specifically is around art and around storytelling and poetry and crafting, and so I do not take it lightly. Oh, I do not take the work lightly. Whether that be around craft or form or…” She trails off. “You know, right now I’ve been really holding onto a T.S. Eliot poem, and even the act of doing that, and the act of carrying that into my work is radical, I would say. There are definitely people on the ground moving things, but I think art can also do things, and do things with integrity and intentionality.”
I can feel his fingers in my hair, but I think I’m dead. And I wonder if I ever
belonged to me anyway. I wonder if I am just a beautiful thing meant for
the world to make theirs. I think about how I gave myself something kind
to look at in this ugly world and now he gone go and touch it and make it
his too. I think I must not belong to me—I’m his too. He touch the whole
world and it’s his too.
I wish I was kin to Medusa right now, that my hair would grow
heads and bite his fingers bloody and he would jerk back his
hand. I wish my hair could morph into knives, switchblades
or machetes. I wish each strand was a rope so I could hang
each of his fingers to death. Levitate his hands from my scalp.
Don’t he know my scalp
is holy ground. My hair
is black magik. I think
I put a spell on you,
White Boy, I scream
to no one as I hand
him the money.
— an excerpt from “Tangled AKA Rapunzel AKA
Porsha Olayiwola for The Boston Globe.
“A good friend at the time suggested the title [I Shimmer Sometimes, Too], or said: ‘this particular poem I love so much, and I love this line, I want to get it tattooed on me.’”
Porsha is referencing the work “My Brother Ghost Writes This Poem,” one of the most touching and chilling in the collection. The title of the book takes a line from this poem.
“That was the first time I kind of held onto the line as something that was important,” she says. “I think when people first hear the title they don’t necessarily think anything dark, you know? I want everyone to believe that they can say the title of this book but also be talking about themselves. That sometimes they shimmer as well. We all shimmer, you know? And then, I think in the context of identity, in the context of identity juxtaposed to the world that we live in, we have different identities, right? Blackness, queerness, fatness, womanness. All of those identities shimmer as well. I think those are the major things that stick out to me around the title. And also the idea of being afrofuturistic and being able to glitch in and out of something.”
Near the end of our conversation, Porsha admits something that totally surprises me: “Any time I want to talk publicly, I tell people I never go off script because I always cry.”
The openness and willingness she has to explore and name the unnameable, to articulate the painful corners of the American psyche and history, seems to be at odds with this statement. But in a way, it makes sense that this welling of emotion is a strong motivator for her work. And I’m sure, as uplifting a sentiment as it is, this driving force can at times feel overwhelming.
“I feel a surge of emotion whenever I have to speak to a body of people and it’s not planned,” she explains. “It’s just that, you know, people could be anywhere in the world, and here they are listening to me and reading my work. I’m so grateful for that, and what a strong and heavy responsibility that is to have these people trust my words onto their ears. That’s something I’m always thinking about and carrying with me.”
Three days later, she stands tall before her audience and points, forward toward us and then back out the shaded windows of the Gardner Museum. Her arm curls up towards her shoulder as she tilts her head to the side. Speaking into being the traumas of the world—from the smallest cracks in a well-meaning facade to the rotting roots of a system long entrenched in misogyny, racism, homophobia—takes a kind of fortitude that draws people in to Porsha. Here, in the shadowed halls of the Gardner, steeped in rich history and now filled with the voice of a futurist, Porsha puts her power best in the ending stanzas of her piece “Boston Ode”:
city i love, o’ city i know and walk the lawn of. city i
carry between my cheeks, around my neck, city i found
along my palms, under my nails. city of song blaring,
of loud leaping rhythm familiar and inescapable, calling
out to each of us by heart, singing out to all of us by name.
Find Porsha on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Button Poetry, and check out her website here.
Read more about the Neighborhood Salon Luminaries initiative.