With her debut collection, Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola shimmers sometimes, too
“When two or more margins meet at an edge, they create a jagged funeral.” But at those edges there is also joy, electricity, magic.
There are many such meetings – sometimes collisions – in Olayiwola’s book: Afrofuturism and American dystopia, family and queerness, blackness and joy and the price that one has paid to create the other.
Sometimes claiming that joy means choosing not to think about the oppression, and reaching for beauty instead.
About her poem “The Electric Slide is Not a Dance, Man,” the poet laughingly says “I enjoy dancing, you know. And I'm not a good dancer, but I like to write dance poems. And I think that is such a joyful exercise again in the body of choosing to be this, this person or having all of these identities and choosing to dance it away.”
In her work, much of this is understood through the body: dance, swimming, waiting. Water runs through it like a thread, and will travel into her next project as well - how Black people have been kept from the water of swimming pools, how water has been kept from Black people in need of it, how water has been weaponized.
Boston is a segregated city with a racist past (and present, at times). As Poet Laureate, her work unites community by turning us into mirrors for each other, and for ourselves.
“Sometimes in this world, we move through it as individuals,” says Olayiwola. “And I want people to know that sometimes I shimmer. And if you say the sentence, also, you shimmer too.”
PORSHA “The Bus Stop is Crowned Motif: One.”
the bus stop is often memorial
ground, often a street corner, which is a
waving white flag, a signal to cease. the
headlights shine fright at just the right second
and i count it an urban miracle:
the man has not asked me for something i
will not give, the girls do not want my shoes.
the chase is not for my body: dark, fat,
and queer. those who have the least are often
offered up at a crossroad. those in need
are often slain in the dead of mourning.
those in power smile, name this a just fate.
palms grip to makeshift knives when we travel
as to not be the tale they warned us of.
as to be neither feared fable nor tale,
we lace keys and pencils in fingers, move
in packs to avenues well lit. we clinch
fare, we do not sit on the bench, we stand.
percy tells me of the time the lady
at the beauty supply store saved his life.
five boys from the high school up the street wanted
what he had and what, i guess, they didn't:
his sneakers, his jacket, his life. either
way, he said he didn't mind fighting if
it meant living. he fell into the store
boned, as one does a sanctuary, when
waiting for god to show mid-plight, patient,
armed and watching for the ride toward home.
PORSHA And then it goes on and on.
BILL It's a long poem.
PORSHA It is.
BILL It's a beautiful poem.
PORSHA Thank you.
BILL Why did you set it at the bus stop? These issues could play out in so many ways and places.
PORSHA Yeah, that's I think that's a great question. The idea of the bus stop - I realized I had so many poems that reference the bus stop, and I was like, 'perhaps I should explore that a little bit more.' And so I started to write a crown of sonnets about the bus stop and things that I've seen at bus stops or experienced at bus stops or have heard about bus stops. And I think bus stops are such a vulnerable place.
They exist in a lot of urban areas. They exist in a lot of cities and they exist at a corner, right. They always exist at some kind of intersection and thinking about the intersection of identities, and who rides the bus, and who needs the bus to exist and move through a whole system of a city. Right? I don't know. I think there's something very interesting, intricate about bus stops and what they mean, as well as how vulnerable they are, how you're just open on the street, you know.
BILL Can we talk about the title of the book? We mentioned it briefly. I Shimmer Sometimes, Too. I can - in my mind, I can read that a couple of different ways.
PORSHA [laughs] That's great.
BILL What was - what's in your mind?
PORSHA Well, I will say definitely I wanted people to read it in more than one way. It comes from a poem in the book about my brother. And just... me. I want him to identify with me, you know, or I want him to know that I see him, you know. And so I think it's about that, right. And about glitching in and out of existence in a futuristic way, in a fun way, in a dystopic way. I like to think that the book, if it is futurism, it is definitely dystopic. [laughs].
BILL So "shimmer" in the sense of: it's there. It's not. It's... moving, it's changing.
PORSHA Yeah. But also in a sense of shining. Of the gold, the little emblem. You know, I think that sometimes in this world we move through it as individuals. And I want people to know that, you know, sometimes I shimmer and you know: if you say the sentence, also you shimmer too. And I wanted to be in the context of the identities, you know. The U.S., if I think of it as a dystopic world, right. My, some of my identities are not favored upon in this country. And so I want people to know that those identities also shimmer, as well. You know?
BILL The images of you in the water, and it comes up a couple different times that there's a... You know, whether people should or shouldn't lie in the sun. To what it feels like for your body to be in the water. There's somebody seeing you as a whale. I mean, it's - I can't get the images of water and body out of my head.
PORSHA That's great [laughs] I'm totally working on a whole ‘nother project just on water. So that probably explains it.
BILL What are you working on about water?
PORSHA Totally. So I've been working on a series of poems that explore the black diaspora and water next to queer sex. I haven't figured out exactly how the queer sex fits into it. But so, for example, there's a story of Dorothy Dandridge. I don't know if people know. But she-
BILL Actress from the... I don't know, 40s? 50s?
PORSHA Yep - 40s, 50s. But she'd - people say she was before her time, but she was before the civil rights movement, and so she didn't get access to as many opportunities. But there's a story where she went swimming in a Las Vegas pool - or, she was singing at the hotel and she said, "oh, I wanted to get in. I can't wait to get into the swimming pool." And they said, "we'll have to drain the pool if a black person swims in it." And so, for example, one of the poems explores that particular instance as if, you know, if they take the water, if they drain the water from that place, let's just say they drain the water from everywhere. And what does that look like?
And maybe, you know, the poem ends with Dorothy at a water's ledge somewhere, just splashing in water and imagines that all of those splashes end up in places where water was needed, or has been historically kept from. Right. And so I think it's, it's about exploring the spirituality of the black diaspora and water as well as the way in which water has been used as a weapon, which is really just a phenom. I can't - I always am constantly thinking about that. How something of nature can be used to oppress. So: it's exploring water in every capacity.
BILL You are the poet laureate of a water city. You're in a water city now. I don't know anything about Boston. Apologies to Boston, maybe. I think of it as a racist place.
PORSHA That's great.
BILL What is it like for you to be the poetic voice of a city where so much racism and old wealth is located?
PORSHA You know, it's been actually really... it's been well. It's been well so far, you know. I mean, I think there is definitely a weight or stress on what it means to be black, queer, etc. And also of the spoken word tradition, to also occupy this very traditionally white literary sphere. And to do that in the context of Boston and a place that has so many higher education institutions, and elitism, really, around what it means to be literary classic.
You know, simultaneously it feels also very futuristic to also be able to occupy that space and occupy that role. I think the city has been extremely supportive. I feel very loved and held by the city, both on the interpersonal level in different neighborhoods, but also with the administration. Currently, they've been pretty welcoming and the resources feel very unlimited, which I haven't felt before. But I've also had some weird and strange pushback. So, you know, I think it exists on both - or that weight also shows itself in a very real form.
BILL What's the weird and strange pushback?
PORSHA Well, when I was first named the poet laureate. There was some articles. Somebody published an article, you know, just suggesting that I was, I may be too radical. So that was like one of the weird things. But I think also just, again, being the person who occupies what is considered a not traditionally literary work or body. Right. Not necessarily being in that sphere.
I think I can always feel... I think that the present is a ghost of the past, you know. And so I can always feel the past tradition of T.S. Eliot, of... You know, there's so many people who have a writing history in Boston. It's very strong, you know. And so I can always feel the weight of those things and being a person to disrupt that, you know, simultaneously.
BILL Are you radical?
PORSHA No. I am just walking around. [laughs] I mean, maybe I'm radical. I'd like to think that I'm futuristic, and maybe that is radical. The idea of going against the grain, of simply... Sometimes I choose joy over anything else. And I think that is: sure, that's radical, that feels radical for me. But I really just think I am moving through the world and playing a little bit with magic, so [laughs].
BILL How playing with magic?
PORSHA Well, so: again, I identify as Afrofuturist, and so I'm always either rethinking the world, or - I was just [laughs] rethinking the world or thinking about how I understand the world, but also choosing to relish in certain moments that seem mundane, but also seem - I think there's so much joy.
And so, for example, in the book, there's a poem about the Electric Slide. And just thinking about: yes, that's a dance, but also it's this really beautiful historical, again, tradition of like dance and music. And you know, what if that was something more, what if that was a vehicle to go to a different place?
BILL Would you read us your poem about the Electric Slide?
PORSHA Totally, totally, totally.
BILL Isn't it called "It's Not a Dance, Man?".
PORSHA Yes, you're right on. I was like, what is it called? No. Yeah, I'll just go into it - should I go into it now?
PORSHA So it's called “The Electric Slide is Not a Dance, Man."
I want to privy you to a little secret. Come close now. Good. So what you need to know is the electric slide is not a dance. It's a transmission code. What I'm trying to tell you is every time I need to leave here, every time I need to get to a place that feels like my mama's cooking or my brother's cackle booming from soot, I sound the gathering. I bring out the trumpets and the horns whenever I need to shake this crypt dust settling my bones. I turn my stereo up. Just the other day, so-and-so tells me he wants me to teach 'im the moves. N*gga, I can't teach style. Can't learn blood to pound to a drum pulse so slick it glide. So free it ain't. Can't teach 'im or nobody else who not from where we from what's innate. I mean, man, shit, there is a place I need to get to, a grin I need to spread, a quaking of my foundation ungrounded from laughter. The code's an impenetrable thing; how the slide is suave, how the count off for the take off is the dip low, the count out. The down swing recollects our plot of land on this earth. Picking a leg high a knee raised, a turn to the left is the way we know to leave our massacre behind, man. The dance floor is a square padlock you can't crack. Each space we take there is meant for us to occupy. Each brethren is attached to our side, our fronts, our backs. This pattern is a shield against depression or oppression or hunger hanging out of someone's blue eyes. Our bodies arrange a constellation in memory of the boy who was slain with no indictment, for the guillotined girl who went forgotten, for the housing stacked like the gut of the ship, the dogs and the waters. The blast off happens in sync and our spirit ruptures ceilings. We ritual. Sacred. Secret. Originators of a beat cascading. The electric slide is how we leave here, how we ascend. This kinship is how we get to a place named joy and go home. That's blood, history, man. Ain't no teaching that.
BILL That's Porsha Olayiwola, Boston's poet laureate and author of the new collection "I Shimmer Sometimes, Too." That poem was called "The Electric Slide is Not a Dance, Man."
BILL How is the slide "so free it ain't"?
PORSHA Mm hmm. You know - wow. Thank you, for asking that question. I think about, I don't know, I guess the joyful experiences and what it means to carve out joy in an oppressed body and how sometimes you have had to pay for so much of that joy or that style or that trendy thing. And it has cost us so much, You know? It looks very joyful and very exciting on the outside. But sometimes, you know, it's a thing rooted in so much more.
BILL How do you - may I ask how you carve out joy in an oppressed body?
PORSHA I mean, I think just by sometimes choosing or electing to not think about those things, you know, or like - in the book, there's a series of dance odes. You know, I just... I enjoy dancing, you know. And I'm not a good dancer, but I like to write dance poems. And I think that is such a joyful exercise again in the body of choosing to be this, this person or having all of these identities and choosing to dance it away, you know what I mean? Or sitting and eating, like relishing in those moments with family and with community, I think is joyful. I'm into fashion. I like to think I'm into style. And I think that is also against the grain or a moment of joy that I relish in.
BILL Another theme from the very first poem in this book, I Shimmer Sometimes, too, is the theme of family. Will you tell us about that: in your work, in your life?
PORSHA Yeah, sure. I mean, with this debut collection, I definitely wanted to pay homage to my family. I love my family so much. And they're just wonderful and great people. And I do really try to weave in, I guess, tension. There's, I think, tension in all of the poems of holding the love for family.
But also, there are other complicated things happening through the narrative. And so I don't know, it was really important for me to bookend the book with pieces about my family. And I think a great deal of the earlier portion is about my family. And I don't know, it's been really interesting because we all evolve and they've been very evolving. And so they are already very supportive of my work. But recently, they've been so supportive of all of my identities as well.
So it's been nice to, I don't know, feel that love or engage with them in a loving way. And like also to know that the poems helped me realize the growth, or the distance that we've come through love. So it's been nice. I don't know. It's been nice to hold some of these poems because some of them hold a lot of tension. And that's like inter-family homophobia, right? Or some of it's about depression. But it's... it's been nice to see that these things have been true and are different now.
BILL Yeah, you start with the father that you don't have - you still, he's still not in the United States?
PORSHA No, he's not. Yeah.
BILL And what might have been. Would you mind sharing that very first poem?
PORSHA No, I love that poem. Sure. But that was a long one, too. Is that OK?
BILL It's okay with me.
PORSHA All right.
PORSHA It's called "Had my parents not been separated after my father's traffic stop, arrest, and deportation from the United States of America."
we might all be sitting about the pink kitchen table with the white legs. my father, a taxi driver, might have come home late in the evening with two large chuck steaks bloodied, red, fresh, best he could bring. he might have seasoned the meat, his thick brown hands gently letting loose salt how god did earth. he may lay a sheet of cayenne over the flesh--a homeland conquered by sun, a fire gouged between cheeks, eyes watering a flag of surrender. my father might have survived the night to serve us.
my father, with his skin shiny, his head smooth, might have built me a treehouse in the front yard with tools from his orange metal box. and my mother, sharp, discerning, the quiet keeper of sacred emblems, our family's marrow, might have never let me climb in that tree house because as it were, gunshots littered our streets the way the dead plague a hospital.
had my father not been deported, he and my mother might have had another child. it's likely they'd build a new back porch and have a garden with peppers just like our neighbor, ronny. my mother might grow a row of cabbage, all green and light, tight and balled like fists. it'd be a wednesday and my father, my brother and i might whisk our bikes down lake shore drive or pitch a tent in the backyard or watch terminator or the movies where eddie murphy played a cop from beverly hills. My father may have been filled with enough cracks in his face to cause an earthquake of laughter to ripple through our home.
dusk, with the light gleaming in from our living room windows, i imagine he might step into one of my mother's bright silk dresses. the purple one. he'd squeeze his feet into her pumps and prance around the house he bought her as a gift years before. my mother might have giggled at my father's silliness. he may have sauntered over to her with his palm down and his wrist bent as though he was expecting to have his hand captured by a long-awaited love.
my mother might have said something like, man, if you don't take off my good dress, you finna buy me another one. and my mother may not have really been mad. and you could tell by how she cocked her neck back and to the side, alabaster gleaming a curve into her face. she might have smiled through the threat and my father might have held her around the waist with one arm and p ulled her into his chest, how i do the woman i love when i miss her so much it aches.
and my parents may have kissed, maybe on the lips, and my father, full, may have reached his hand to my mother's string of beads, removed it, and placed the necklace over his own head to lay along his chest. her earrings may dance from his lobe. and my father, a man who gave like a tree, might have lined his fingers over my mother's tombed heart and swayed his hips to its cadence.