Creative writing graduate student Porsha Olayiwola read one of her poems aloud for the first time in her senior year of high school. She used the story of Beauty and the Beast to construct a poem about domestic violence. Thirteen years later, Mayor Martin J. Walsh named Olayiwola as Boston’s Poet Laureate.
The Boston Poet Laureate program was created in 2008. The chosen laureate raises awareness and consciousness of art, language, and poetry in Boston by attending public readings, civic functions, and poetry events, according to the City of Boston’s website.
Kristina Carroll, communication director for the mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, said the Boston Poet Laureate is a ceremonial appointment that lasts four years.
“Their job is to enhance the city through poetry by integrating poetry into the civic and daily lives of residents and visitors in Boston,” Carroll said in a phone interview.
The qualifications for earning the title of Boston Poet Laureate are living in Boston for at least one year, being 21 or older, and serving as an active professional poet with a dedication to the community, according to the City of Boston’s website. The application process includes a written application and a follow-up panel interview.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh called Olayiwola into his office on December 2018. He asked her about poems, the city, and then said, “Congratulations.” Olayiwola had just been named the Boston Poet Laureate and all she could do was smile.
A selection committee comprised of seven poets and authors, including former Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges, selected Olayiwola. David Howse, the executive director of ArtsEmerson and a member of the selection committee, said Olayiwola is a new and young voice for Boston.
“[Olayiwola] brought a fresh perspective and energy I think the city is ready to embrace,” Howse said in a phone interview.
Carroll said Olayiwola was selected as the next Boston Poet Laureate because of her experience working with children and her plan to establish a youth poet laureate program.
Olayiwola officially started in the position on Jan. 1. She said she plans to provide more resources to artists by bringing them together with events such as writing retreats and conferences.
“One thing I said in my application was that I really wanted to continue some of the work that I’d already been doing,” Olayiwola said. “[The Boston Poet Laureate] provided me a platform and a resource to further the artists service work I’d already been doing.”
Olayiwola said someone sent her the application on Twitter and urged her to apply.
The Boston Poet Laureate receives a stipend and a budget for their programs of choice. Olayiwola said she plans to apply for a lot of grants to offset the costs of the programming she plans to do.
“Outside of poetry, I’ve been a youth worker my entire life,” Olayiwola said.
Olayiwola’s experiences include working as the artistic director for the Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance collective, also known as MassLEAP, a non-profit organization dedicated to youth. Olayiwola said MassLEAP gives her opportunities to work with the youth in Boston Public Schools, such as coaching a youth poetry slam team and teaching professional development to artists and educators interested in incorporating poetry in their curriculum.
Olayiwola also worked as the dean of enrichment at Codman Academy for five years and volunteered at Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston.
In 2014, Olayiwola co-founded House Slam, a Boston Poetry Slam venue in Dudley Square. She said she wanted to bring the first poetry slam venue to Boston to encourage all kinds of artists and make them feel welcome by providing resources and establishing a writing community.
In the first year of House Slam, the team won the National Poetry Slam competition and made it to the final stage, Olayiwola said. She said House Slam makes sure all artists have access to the resources to compete, such as writing conferences, by fundraising.
“When I went to National Poetry Slam, I had to pay out of pocket,” Olayiwola said. “We have been working to fundraise. There hasn’t been a person who hasn’t gone for free [or] who hasn’t been required to go on a retreat to write.”
According to its website, House Slam holds poetry competitions every second and fourth Friday of the month.
Olayiwola is also the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion, and Get Konnected! named her as one of the Boston’s Most Influential People of Color, according to her personal website.
Last fall, Olayiwola released a theatrical poetry production named Black & Ugly As Ever, according to her website. Olayiwola said the 45 to 50-minute one-woman show mixes movement with poetry.
Sophomore Dani Jean-Baptiste is directing an Emerson production of Black & Ugly As Ever that premieres in March. She said Joseph Antoun, a senior affiliated faculty member of Emerson’s Performing Arts department, reached out to Jean-Baptiste and asked her to direct Black & Ugly As Ever after she worked as assistant director on the production Bulrusher.
“[Black & Ugly As Ever] is a chronicle of the poet’s growth in terms of her specific identities [such as] her blackness, queerness, and her body image,” Jean-Baptiste said. “It chronicles what her perspective and her relationship with her body and queerness was when she was younger and what it is now.”
This year, apart from being the Boston Poet Laureate, Olayiwola will release a book in November called i shimmer sometimes, too with Button Poetry, an independent performance poetry publisher based in Minneapolis, Minn..