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Porsha Olayiwola this year’s Miriam Levine speaker: Poet laureate of Boston reads new work at English Department event

A woman with white glasses and a nose ring stands at a podium looking down in front of a stained-glass window.
Meghan Spargo / THE GATEPOST

By Ryan O’Connell

Associate Editor

The English Department hosted its annual Miriam Levine Reading in the Heineman Ecumenical Center with Porsha Olayiwola, poet laureate for the city of Boston, as their guest speaker April 2.

English Professor Jennifer De Leon introduced Olayiwola and said she is “a writer, performer, educator, and curator who uses Afrofuturism and surrealism to examine historical and current issues in the Black, women, and queer diasporas.”

De Leon added Olayiwola is a World Poetry Slam Champion and founder of the Roxbury Poetry Festival, a biennial event celebrating the medium. 

She said Olayiwola has held residencies at Brown University and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and has been featured in publications such as the Black Warrior Review, The Boston Globe, and Netflix, among others.

De Leon said Olayiwola is also her friend and colleague, and used their connection to highlight the importance of networking as a young writer.

“It’s very important what you learn in the creative writing classroom, but it’s also as important - the relationships that you build outside of the class,” she said.

She added, “Your classmates, professors, instructors - but also the visiting writers and authors. Because you really don’t know when you’re going to see them again - it’s a small world; it’s an even smaller writing world.”

Following De Leon’s introduction, Olayiwola read her poetry, and said the work shared at the reading was all new or unfinished.

She first read “An Ars Poetica of Sorts,” which highlighted the disconnect between positive feelings she wants to write about as a poet and global injustices she can’t help but write about. 

“I want to write a poem, and it could be about anything,” she read. 

“But I’m sure no matter what I write, it will be about Gaza. … I want to write about the merciless red of an apple, how it glistens in the light like blood, but I’m sure it’ll just be a poem about Congo,” she read. 

Olayiwola read she wished she could write about “the time I raced the sidewalk, or the double rainbow I saw with my lover one afternoon, arched over Boston like a prayer.”

Instead she was sure it would “unravel itself” into something about Sudan, Chicago, politics, the election, the housing crisis, she read. 

“I want to write about something beautiful. Something devastatingly breathtaking, like maybe the time my mother met my lover’s mother, my two mothers,” she read. 

“And they smiled and held hands and gossiped in the corner of the room like they were building a new world without worry, cheesing like two pig-tailed schoolgirls on the playground up to the best kind of good,” she read.

Olayiwola said she’s been slightly obsessed with sonnets and love in general, and read four of her own “Black Sonnets,” which all discuss moving through the world as a Black person and Afropessimist. 

The first sonnet, “Sometimes the Tide is so low you can see the Steeple” was inspired by the recent TikTok discussion about the history and danger of Lake Lanier, in Georgia, she said.

Olayiwola added online discussion of Lake Lanier revolves around the high number of people who drowned in it and the existence of a Black town which was flooded in order to create the lake. 

She said the title was a quote from a TikToker who said the steeple could be seen above the waterline at lower water levels.

The second sonnet, “Before He was Deported, My Father Taught me to Fish Like a Man,” described fishing with her father at a young age, and further the rage she felt at his deportation.

“Man girl learning to eat, to cast a line, like how the country did - split a border between my father and I,” she read. “It took years to learn how to unlearn anger. I wanted only to lie in the blood of my father.”

Olayiwola said the third sonnet was inspired by a line in one of her poetry student’s semester portfolios.

“I have one particular student who wrote really great work, the presentation was stellar. But at one moment in their presentation they said something - and I just started writing a poem,” she said.

“The poet says ‘skinny black trees,’ and all I think is Black. Skinny Black kids. Skinny Black legs dangling off the side of lips like lollipops. Skinny Black limbs, skinned knees, Black with hope,” she read.

The fourth and final sonnet she read from the “Black Sonnet” series, “Legend Heavy,” is about love, and Olayiwola’s soon-to-be wife, she said. 

The sonnet was inspired by Nicole Sealey’s “Legendary,” which also discusses love and the desire to get married. Sealey’s sonnet ends every line with “white” - Olayiwola said every line of hers ends with “Black.

“I want to be married in church, and black. Not like tradition, no, it must be black. Black dress, black suit, black roses and cake, black,” she read.

Olayiwola read “Sometimes I Eat” next, and prefaced by sharing her relationship with food and hunger.

“I identify as a foodie, I’m always thinking about food,” she said. “But I’m also thinking about desire, hunger and desire. And what it means as queer, Black, and fat, and how we conceptualize desire and a body that is not traditionally desirable.

“Once, out of anger, I told a lover I wanted to gobble her up,” she read.

“Sometimes I play with my food, because I am enamored with the sound. … Nails, toes, licked, even the eyeballs, like bad apples, ravish and ravish ready - sweetie pie, you are not a term of endearment,” she read.

Olayiwola said her next poem was a contrapuntal - two independent poems which can be read together to form a new interpretation when aligned next to each other. 

She also gave a brief history of Margaret Garner, the subject of her contrapuntal, a woman who was a slave and fled up the Ohio River with her four children and husband during the Antebellum Period. 

Olayiwola said before the family could reach a free state, they were captured by slave catchers, and Garner killed one of her children rather than let her go back into slavery. Following this, she was put on trial and sold further south down the Mississippi to Louisiana, she added.

“Margaret Garner Crosses the Ohio River in the Voice of the Ohio River,” the first poem, highlights the opportunity for freedom it presented to escaped slaves.

“Folk stay gunnin’ toward me like I’m the second coming,” she read. “Wade through me like a hymn. A prayer. A river of Jordan. A gateway fleeing the Dixie.”

The second piece, “Margaret Garner Crosses the Ohio River, Only to Get Caught and Sold Down the Mississippi, in the Voice of the Mississippi River,” contrasts the hope of the Ohio and describes the death and destruction of the slave trade.

“Like I’m some type of pistol, folk stay running from me. … I thin the bloodline. I devein the country with the kitchen shank. Mississippi saw them downriver. There is no sympathy for a child gone to Queen Sugar,” Olayiwola read.

The final poem, “Margaret Garner Crosses the Ohio River, Only to Get Caught and Sold Down the Mississippi or the Mother Stands Trial for Murdering Her Children, in the Voice of Margaret Garner,” reads when combining the first lines of the first two, or the second lines, and so on.

“I thin the blood line with purpose,” she read. “The country with a kitchen shank, … there is no word for a mother who has lost sympathy for a child gone to Queen Sugar.”

Olayiwola closed with an unfinished, untitled poem also inspired by a TikTok user’s post.

“I had been following this terrible terrible drama about a woman who realized her husband was unfaithful, and then began to tell the story about how they met,” she said.

“All the flowers he sent made my office look like a morgue,” was the line that inspired the poem, she said.

“This office bouquet makes me think about the time before the end of the end of my last relationship. Before I could properly lay us to rest. Before we could be considered past,” she read.

“How my soon-to-be ex-lover, former lover, found the receipt in my email inbox at 3 a.m. and she woke me, screaming, asking, ‘How could I?’ hollering midnight like a banshee, like a sobbing lover wilting at a … funeral,” she read.


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