Boston Poet Laureate shares poetry
Porsha Olayiwola, the Brandeis Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence read her poems and held a Q&A session.
On Sept. 21, the Creative Writing Program held the first in-person “Creative Writing Reading Series” event since the start of the pandemic, showcasing the poetry of Boston Poet Laureate and current Brandeis Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence, Porsha Olayiwola.
Co-Director of Creative Writing Prof. Elizabeth Bradfield (ENG) gave a brief introduction on Olayiwola’s work and accomplishments. According to Olayiwola’s personal website, she “uses afro-futurism and surrealism to examine historical and current issues in the Black, woman, and queer diasporas.” Olayiwola is an Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and founded the Roxbury Poetry Festival. She recently published a collection of poems, titled “i shimmer sometimes, too.”
Before Olayiwola presented her work, Sean Riordan ’23 read his poem, “I Cannot Wait to Live With You,” which drew from his experiences of moving in with his girlfriend. While Riordan came with a few poems prepared, including some that dealt with grief, he chose to present “I Cannot Wait to Live With You” because of the audience’s energy. According to an interview with the Justice on Sept. 21, he found that “sharing that poem just felt right. I got into the room, and it just didn’t feel right to share a grief poem. There was so much bright energy, so … I want to read a bright poem.” He said that at first, he felt nervous about performing, but the welcoming atmosphere helped calm down his nerves. While Riordan does not have a lot of experience with slam poetry, he hopes to publicly share his poetry more in the future.
In the interview with the Justice, Riordan delved into why he was attracted to poetry versus other types of media. He talked about how his ADHD made it more difficult to focus on writing longer stories, and he could not get his emotions across. He then started writing with shorter forms, such as poetry, and studying poetry sparked his interest in it. In regards to his writing process, Riordan said he likes to write with a title first or one specific line, or focuses on a specific emotion and writes in a stream of consciousness style.
Olayiwola’s first poem, “WE DRINK AT THE ATTENUATION WELL,” focused on the relationship between Black people and water. She talked about how before African people left a slave port in Badagry, Nigeria, they were forced to drink from a well. The well’s water was spiked to induce short term memory loss in enslaved people. On the Poets.org website, Olayiwola states that “The poem seeks to provide refuge via motivated forgetting and questions whether this forgetting is purely violent or a possible attempt in preserving the psyche of the Black Diaspora against the trauma of the Middle Passage.”
There were a wide variety of poetic forms featured in the reading, such as Olayiwola’s contrapuntal poems — which combine two or more poems into a single piece — and what she calls an “eavesdrop cento.” An “eavesdrop cento” is a poem formed by dialogue collected when eavesdropping on conversations. Olayiwola explained how attention to form usually comes in editing, but contrapuntal poems make her think about form first.
Olayiwola performed two contrapuntal poems: “In The Wake” and “Margaret Garner Crosses The Ohio River Only To Get Caught And Sold Down The Mississippi Or The Mother Stands Trial For Murdering Her Children.” The first was based on the book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” by Christina Sharpe. The poem explored three meanings of the word “wake”: a vigil for a deceased person, the path of disturbed water left by a ship, and being woke. “In The Wake” was read three ways: the right side, the left side, and across.
Olayiwola’s second contrapuntal poem was inspired by the book “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and the life of Margaret Garner, who attempted to escape slavery and killed her child rather than have her become enslaved. This poem was also read from three different perspectives: the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, and Margaret Garner.
Olayiwola’s eavesdrop cento, “Self-Portrait as Dialogue,” was based on overheard conversations in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Some of Olayiwola’s poems were inspired by specific people. “Something Like a Ghazal” and “The Phillis, 1761” were influenced by poet Phillis Wheatley, and Olayiwola was fascinated by the fact that Wheatley was named after the ship she came on. “On The Subject: Whitney Houston & Bobbi Kristina Drown In A Bathtub, Three Years Apart.” touched on the similarities between the deaths of Whitney Houston and her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
Olayiwola’s work also discussed queer intimacy. “I Make Love Like A Burning Church” was a duplex poem about living with her partner and “Sometimes We Eat Of Anger” described love like an intense hunger.
Contrasting Riordan’s start in poetry, Olayiwola joked that poetry “chose [her],” and she believes that poetry has the most focus on words and detail. She also enjoys that she can “get lost a little bit, which is kind of nice. You know, I can spend 8 hours deciding on whether this end should be dropped.” Olayiwola offered some advice on the writing process, specifically word choice and writer’s block. To improve the diction in her work, sometimes she writes down all the words associated with the poem’s topic and references these word lists as she’s writing. When she feels stuck, she finds out who has written a similar poem before and uses it as a guide. Olayiwola shared that when collaborating with other poets on group performances, the writing process is the most interesting part. She stated that “it requires a little bit of submission and removal of the ego in order to get to the best possible moments.”
The Creative Writing Program plans to hold similar events in the future, the next one being author Elisa Albert on Oct. 18.