Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola. Photo by Betsy Levinson

Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola: ‘Politics seeps in everywhere’

May 27, 2024

By Betsy Levinson —

Porsha Olayiwola grabbed hold of the stage at First Parish last Sunday and held the audience rapt as she spooled together a series of poems speaking to her passion and her politics.

Boston’s poet laureate spoke at a fundraiser for Just Bookish, the Dorchester bookstore she hopes to open in late summer with business partner Bing Broderick. The Robbins House and the First Parish Racial Justice Action Group sponsored her Concord appearance.

Olayiwola shares her passionate poetry. Photo by Betsy Levinson

But while the crowd expressed its appreciation of her art, her political views came to town with her: In April, Olayiwola was first invited, then disinvited, to speak at the Concord Academy commencement. She found out about the switch-up when a reporter contacted her. 

At the time, she told the Boston Globe she “didn’t have any proof as to why they removed me,” but her “educated guess” was that it had to do with her politics.

Olayiwola, who teaches at Brandeis and Emerson, has tweeted support for the Palestinians in the conflict with Israel. 

“Politics permeates all aspects of my professional and personal conversations,” Olayiwola said. “Poets and artists reflect the times… It’s part of the job to speak the truth.”

She says she found the dustup surprising but holds no grudges.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Politics seeps in everywhere. We are feeling the effects across all areas of life.”

A nod to Ellen Garrison

The afternoon’s emcee, DEI Commission Co-Chair Joe Palumbo, referred to Concord as a “racially isolated community” and thanked participants for supporting Olayiwola’s work.

The poet nodded to Ellen Garrison, a Concord resident and granddaughter of formerly enslaved Caesar Robbins, who became an educator after attending Concord schools.

A late April Town Meeting vote urged the School Committee to reconsider its choice of “Concord Middle School” and name the building “Ellen Garrison Middle School” instead. 

Left to right: Olayiwola, Bing Broderick, and Joe Palumbo take questions from the audience at the poetry reading and fundraiser. Photo by Betsy Levinson

Olayiwola gave a ringing endorsement to naming the building for Garrison, saying she loves the idea of “renaming schools and reclaiming spaces.”

The School Committee subsequently voted to go with “The Ellen Garrison Building at The Concord Middle School.”

Building a bookstore

Broderick said the bookstore in Fields Corner is largely finished after raising almost $1 million for construction.

 He said it is to be a space for community-building and selling books by “underrepresented authors and genres.” Poetry slams, lectures, readings and open mic opportunities will foster a sense of belonging.

After a fundraising pitch to the audience, Broderick announced that an anonymous member of the gathering offered a $10,000 matching grant challenge.

“We are about $100,000 shy of our goal,” said Broderick. Now, he and Olayiwola need money for books and materials, maybe a cafe.

“We’re moving in 9,000 books,” said Olayiwola. “I’m excited about getting our own shelves.”