Introducing Press Pass, a new Arts Column where your favorite editors explore different aspects of art and culture in Boston.
In April 2018, Boston-based poet Porsha Olayiwola led the Wellesley Out Loud team to victory at the annual College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), where they ranked as one of the best teams in collegiate poetry. After COVID-19, however, the team’s connection to Olayiwola petered out. And while Olayiwola would still “love to be back,” she’s been busy in the meantime as a poet laureate with the Academy of American Poets, Jacob Ziskine poet-in-residence at Brandeis University and an artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
On Jan. 26, Olayiwola organized “Canon, Canyon, Cannon,” a poetry reading at the Gardner Museum featuring several local and national poets who were invited to share work that engaged with and redefined literary canons, canyons of language and personhood, and cannons that dismantled barriers of entry for engagement in the arts. Poets who shared their work at the event included Olayiwola herself, Michelle Garcia Fresco, Charlotte Abotsi, Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah and Paul Tran.
She only shared one poem with us that night, a yet-unreleased poem about the late Rodney King, but we were haunted by it nevertheless. Using images of water that stretched from the swimming pool King died in to the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, Olayiwola’s careful craftsmanship with words was obvious.
“I have a friend who used to say that the people always deserve new work,” said Olayiwola, who works to create more spaces for poetry to be shared and heard, such as this event. “I just wrote a new poem, and I had been afraid to write the poem because I was like, does anyone care about this? Is this anything? But then I saw the story and I started thinking about all of the other writing that influences me to write what I need to write or what I want to write.”
Michelle Garcia Fresco
A strong believer of using poetry as a medium of social justice, her work focused primarily on her Dominican identity, coping with loss and mental health. A favorite poem of ours was “La Lastima,” Spanish for shame, which spoke about her struggles with self-image and womanhood. Fresco drew in the audience with her powerful performances.
“Sometimes people don’t see how when you read something on a page, like periods or spaces, that’s [sic] intentional choices that the author makes, so on stage you see that with pauses, with eye contact. In some pieces when you want your work to hit a little harder you have to kind of take up space, and you have to let the room sit with your work a little bit more,” she said. “Anyone can read a poem off a page, but to be able to perform it you have to know how to connect with the people in the room on a real human level because in a lot of ways, all of our experiences are very shared.”
She’s quite well-known in the international sphere for her spoken-word poetry. Her poems, all of which were deeply personal to her life, spoke about desire, womanhood and hidden shame, loneliness and insecurities. Our favorite poem was a simpler one about a road trip that was a pure tribute to friendship.
“Something I had to learn and come to was to center myself and to write for myself, and when I share it it’s my hope that it can connect to anyone in the room but it’s really my communities, my immigrant communities, my black communities, my black women communities, but at the core it’s always me who I write for,” said Abotsi.
Oppong-Yeboah, who’s taught at both high school and collegiate settings, had quite the entrance: his performance began with him lying on the ground, unmoving, and continued to be just as dynamic and innovative as it continued. The first poem, about the struggles of black youth growing up, gave us shivers.
“In some ways they are like two separate worlds for me,” he said. “Less so than teaching informing my poetry, I think poetry informs my teaching, and I think I learn consistently from my students.”
CW: Sexual Assault
They dazzled in a jumpsuit as they began the innocently named Lipstick Elegy. Both a love letter to the women in their family as well as their Vietnamese heritage, it alluded to deeper themes of rape, queerness and survival that marked many of the other poems in their collection.
“The book itself is about reinventing our life, becoming who we are in the wake of catastrophe and the wake of personal adversity, and the book ends on a poem about bioluminescence, sea creatures who create their own light,” said Tran.