The EBBDA has the privilege and honor of interviewing Porsha Olayiwola for the 250th anniversary of Philis Wheatley Peter’s Poem on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral. The work Olayiwola does revolves around celebrating and uplifting Wheatley Peters, which is critical to the work we do, and we wanted to delve into her expertise and meditations on Philis Wheatley Peters. Please find Porsha’s biography on her website.

Porsha Olayiwola is a native of Chicago who writes, lives, and loves in Boston. Olayiwola is a writer, performer, educator and curator who uses afro-futurism and surrealism to examine historical and current issues in the Black, woman, and queer diasporas. She is an Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and the founder of the Roxbury Poetry Festival. Olayiwola is Brown University's 2019 Heimark Artist -In -Residence as well as the 2021 Artist-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She is a 2020 poet laureate fellow with the Academy of American poets. Olayiwola earned her MFA in poetry from Emerson College and is the author of i shimmer sometimes, too. Olayiwola is the current poet laureate for the city of Boston. Her work can be found in or forthcoming from with TriQuarterly Magazine, Black Warrior Review, The Boston Globe, Essence Magazine, Redivider, The Academy of American Poets, Netflix, Wildness Press, The Museum of Fine Arts and elsewhere.

Savita: When did you first read or encounter Phillis Wheatley Peters poetry? 

 Porsha: That’s an interesting question and I guess I am thinking about recounter or continuous encounters. But I guess my first knowing and understanding of the poet Wheatley Peters was when I was a girl, like a young person. I often tell these stories about like people I idolized as a young person because my mom, I don't know if she meant to do this or if she was just a teacher and she worked at this Afrocentric school, would often bring things home. In our basement, there was a series of posters of famous Black people or historical Black figures. One I used to stare at is the first Black woman astronaut, Mae Carol Jemison, who then I got to meet freshman year of college. It really blew my mind that this is the person I used to stare at all the time. Another one of those persons is Phillis Wheatley Peters, she was like posted in our basement on our wall and so a person that I looked at and considered I was having another conversation. That was like my first encounter of knowing that there was this person who was an enslaved and a poet writer and woman and black. I think that's my first kind of had to be like middle school or younger you know. I was talking to another poet recently and doing some of the work around memorializing Phillis Wheatley Peters and about how growing up it's almost as if there was a distance between learning and experiencing the work of Phillis Wheatley, because the work was written and allowed to be published within the same spans of the institution of slavery. So, the question is: is this a person myth or a writing rather that we can trust and validate to represent our experiences.  

I think another encounter, so to speak, has just been recently, primarily in my move to New England. That was probably 13 years ago, when I really started to revisit and reconsider the legacy of the Wheatley Peters. I think honestly in the last five years that I've really been indulging in her work. Maybe last six years, and part of that is because of the conversation that other black [insert] woman writers have been having about the poet Phillis Wheatley. So, it’s been several other encounters via other black women whether it be June Jordan or in the wake by Christina Sharpe she talks about it it's just all these other different ways.  I started writing poems about the poet Phillis Wheatley and researching and reading about her life. Obviously reading and dissecting her work with a new eye. 

Savita: That was beautiful I especially liked how you spoke about when you were in middle school and your mom having that poster. I compare that to growing up in Dorchester and going BPS. I'd always drive by the faces of Dudley murals and wished to be like faced on. To me that  was my depiction of the legacies of Boston and hearing that you're invested in her identity as a woman, black woman, poet, and someone who's enslaved doing this work --  in reading her poetry, what drew you to the poems themselves? What did you really find yourself drawn to or what did you try to emulate or draw inspiration from in your own poems? 

Porsha: There are two things the first thing is “twas mercy,” --- “as you brought me from my Pagan land.” I think that's one of the first drawing on one of the most popular poems “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” [I don't know from paraphrasing right], but I think that in conversation with this question of seeing oneself “on being brought from Africa to America” in the title.  Also, this notion of “twas mercy” and like what is this thing called mercy? Is this a merciful thing? Obviously, this is speaking from somebody who is so many spaces,places and time removed from the condition. But also, you know feeling worried, concerned about how the ways in which slavery would be representative again.

 But in any case, I think that was poet’s eye that drew me to the work, I think poets are reconsidering the work, under our new guise.  Now, when I read that poem, I get chills. I think I got chills before for a different reason, but now when I read it, I get chills. I get chills when we get to that “remember Christians, Negros, Black as cane may be refined and joined the angelic train.” I think about it in the context of a poetry in the context of the sonnet, in the Volta, and the shift and the change, in the threat. Now I hear a threat in it, a promise even.  It feels you know more radical than I ever imagined. Me, myself, identifies as a poet and then look at the work with that lens and then in the context of her life just wow.

Savita: How would you say she's impacted your own engagement with poetry and even the writing of poetry or the legacies of black women overall? 

Porsha: I think in a couple of ways again knowing I'm in lineage, I feel in lineage of living here in the city of Boston and being the Black and woman and poet and then also occupying the space. I feel like the direct lineage and descendant of this poet and there are people, who's writing, whose work, whose life I keep in mind when I'm writing, and I feel like she's definitely become one of them. She influences the content of my writing, I have one too many poems about the Phillis Wheatley Peters and some more to come. The remembrance of revolting and small gestures in the craft itself makes me think about her as resilient and beautiful in the face of you what June Jordan calls the “difficult miracle of black poetry.” It is this idea of what you know: a poet is a Spanish poet is a Spanish poet in Spain, but a Black poet in America is a question mark. The context of Phillis, being who she was seven years old, new language, wrote and published, having to attest her authorship in front of humans about her own work is just like really from me the urgency I need to remember. I should always write the thing I need to write. I have to say it with truth and be honest. 

Savita: Being the poet Laureate of Boston, how do you think Boston is shaped by Wheatley Peters? & How should we celebrate her? 

Porsha: I wish we were shaped more to be frank. There are a couple statues of her. I feel like there are places that really hold on to her legacy and practice it, but I do wish it could be a little bit more widespread. There should be a national Philis Wheately day. There are so many iconic folks who have come through Boston, specifically Black folks, and I wish we did more. I wish she was more widely celebrated. 

I think we also need to have rencounters with the poet. [...] I do think right now there's a resurgence and a like urgency around understanding her legacy a bit more. I think if we can publicize and get it to the masses to like really actually have this conversation [to honor her] legacy.  People don't say Peters, that she's free woman and got married and then that you know so like all of those conversations I think would be great to have. More poems written about Phyllis Wheatley more writings about Phillis Wheatley more conversations around Phillis Wheatley written into the curriculum. If I was teaching any kind of Black history or Boston history, there's so much especially you know if we're talking about the revolution where the country starts -- it's at many times the start of the ideas of things.

Savita: Did you happen to read honorary fan and Jeffers the Age of Phyllis? What do you make of Fanon’s poem and the picture she was painting of wheatley peters versus susannah wheatley and the narrative that was being painted? 

Porsha: I love it I actually think it's really well done or this “what we want to see” as the girls are saying. I want to see more of it or I want it to be capitalized or have more conversations about it. I mean it's so great to envision reencounter, reimagining or like really just shedding the light on the things we shut the light on. Right now there's a Phyllis Wheatley surge, which is interesting because Ade Solanki was here writing a play on Phyllis and London. It’s an interesting global perspective on Phyllis Wheatley in the context of how we've been socialized to understand her fight. Anyway loved it I really enjoyed it I thought it was a great mix of the modern poetics alongside history, it's like you know kind of the work I want to do really [secretly].

Savita: If you could talk to Phyllis Wheatley Peters what would you ask her?  What type of conversations would you want to have with her? 

Porsha: Oh my God so many.  I think I would just want to ask how she is doing, hugs, probably drink some tea. The next day I would probably asked for like a workshop, and have her just walk me through one of her favorite poems. I'm interested in her favorite poem that she wrote. The next day maybe we do a little bit of writing together, walking in the garden, and I could give her one of my poems. Then the next day, probably more tea, but actual tea you know like: what was going on, where did you meet Jon Peters, I want to know everything.  I want to know who tried to play you, who really celebrated you (because she was like apparently really popular) and how do you maintain your friendship.  It’d be a whole experience for sure  

Savita: I am going back to this question of memorialization and how do we memorialize people especially like in honoring them in their full legacy. If you could create some type of monument in honor of Wheatley Peters and insert it into Boston what type of like monument would you create (it doesn't have to be a monument in like the traditional sense)? 

Porsha: I mean it definitely be poems. It could be a monument called an anthology to Phillis. I think it would definitely have to be poems and all that comes with poetry whether that be the sharing of, or the writing of, or the reading of.  I think if it had to manifest itself physically, possibly in and like a monument of poems not like the ones made of stone that are hard, but similar to the clear material the Holocaust monument is made of. Something like that, but like all poems, or poems on the outside of buildings – either poems on her palms and conversation on her palms. Poems everywhere and poems for young people. I think it would be cool to do some kind of glass anthology of poems written about Phyllis. Have you heard of Octavia Brood. Octavia’s Brood is a series of short stories that were submitted and collected regarding futuristic short stories, but it's called activist brew.  

Savita: How do you manage the act of remembering and the sort of grief that comes with the act of remembering? While, also wanting to celebrate this person who created their own livelihood, like renaming herself and that sort of like reclamation.  But also like the grief that comes with the child being taken at seven years old and having to like live through enslavement. How do you deal with that when encountering her work? 

Porsha: I think I feel it emotionally and I like I really do let the thing haunt me and let it take me where it needs to go and to become possessed a bit which is fine I think. So I let that happen and that is a part of the grieving for me or like the spirit of the thing unrested. I think there's that moment where I pray about it, put it on my altar, but spend time getting to know why the thing has decided to be with me. I told you I just read In the wake, so now I'm thinking about it and part of it what Christina Sharp talks about wake work and doing the work of aspiration of putting the breath back into the thing.  That’s what I think about, for example Honoree Fannon Jeffers’ book puts the breath back into the actual thing, it's a living moving thing. I think about it in the context of writing poems and considering that a major part of what's alongside the funeral or the wake of it. This really deep sorrow is also the joy or like at least choosing to experience it that way, hence that event. The pleasures of Phillis, brings life back to it. I think actually mourning, being with, and listening, like really listening. It's like not even me, like I didn't say let me go and do this which I did, but you know something move me to.

Savita: How would you define resistance and (re)encountering? 

Porsha:  Do you mean craft wise? Alright, this is how I'm gonna define it in this moment, I imagine resistance as the pushback against death death or dying. I think the death or dying is a metaphor or the actual thing, but for extended across a number of different things whether it be in justifying things that have tried to kill you whether successful or otherwise. I think it's still resistance and I think can come and show up in different ways all kinds of different ways.  I suppose I would add deliberate there but the deliberate pushback. 

You know I hate black joy, which sounds terrible but it's just like sometimes I'll be like doing a poem that is somewhere at the intersection of the middle passage because that's just where I am, and they'll be like well what are you saying about black joy. I gotta tell the story. it's not my fault like I have to move through the actual grief in order to get some joy and maybe that is the place of black aliveness  

Savita: I was wondering how does Wheatley play into the conversation or like the theme you have a lot regarding like water? 

Porsha: You should know I'm writing a book now at the intersection of Black folks in water. That's where I'm at and so in doing so I think I was probably reading In the Wake and I don't know what it was. I hadn't heard this and I had thought about it but I think it’d reach me at the right time and understanding and knowing that they name this woman after the ship. Yeah so I think that is how she made her way into it, they called her ship, and I've been writing about ships and waters and things like that. It's endless and then I don't know I'm also just doing kind of not random work but I'm doing kind of works in the city like I think I was doing something I can't remember, but I I feel like I was presenting – I presented a mini lecture on the police review and kind of fell into a hole of writing a paper you know, because I'm doing all of these works around Black folks and water. There's so many poems that I'm writing and thinking about but then there are two that I wrote that kind of sucks me in. I have to write more so they have like 5 different poems but that happened with Phyllis Wheatley. 

Savita: I was also wondering what drew you to poetry in the first place, like how did you get into writing poems. What spurred that?

Porsha: I think I was always secretly a poet. As a young person I probably I wrote theories in middle school where I imagine these short paragraphs in which I would explain my theories on life. I thought they were great, I still think they stand true, might have been a genius who knows. So I started writing those, but then I think the first poem that I wrote and read out loud I was in 8th grade. I was running for class office and my speech, typical that my speech was a poem, was inspired by Michael Jackson lyrics.  The set of quatrains (if you will), so that is probably like the first poem I wrote. I used to recite poems like I just used to recite poems at assemblies since the 5th grade, like specifically hey black child. I was really well known for at that particular poem, and then in high school I had a history teacher who ran the poetry club, which competed in something called Louder than a Bomb. I'm from Chicago and it was a spoken word festival. Then I started writing. When I went to college that's when I started writing consistently. By that time I had already decided upon Africana as a major and then that's how we got where I am today. 

Savita: Did you have a poet that specifically influenced or inspired you during that time like a continuous figure? 

Porsha: I think I probably had continuous figures and or poems. I loved Audre Lorde's litany for survival as well as and I think the poem that I just was obsessed with was June Jordan, “A Poem about My Rights.” I was in love with that poem. I wasn't reading much poetry, I was reading a lot of Black literature or Black feminist thoguht. I spent a lot of time there.

Savita: What advice would you give to aspiring poets today? 

Porsha:  Read, read a lot, write a lot, and then talk about it to other people, who are doing the same thing. Reading and writing, share it. Engage in like communal writing. 

Savita: Do you have like set aside space for that to just write?  

Porsha:  No I wish I did matter, which I think it's the key honestly. And I think you can have it like happen or I'd rather I think that I have it happening in different ways, but I do think it's important to I found that the workshop and the MFA was really great for me. I think if you can reinvent that, whether it be via e-mail with a friend or etcetera, but I have one of my favorite writers living in my house, who is also my fiance, so we often are sharing and giving feedback to each other 's work.  That is kind of it, but no I wish I had more of it. I guess the other form of it is when I'm writing with my students, so that's occasionally good too. 

Savita: Do you think what phillis Wheatley Peters did with Obour Tanner was the form of like communal writing, like even though they weren't necessarily writing poems together but the act of letter writing to each other?  

Porsha: No that was just text messaging, OK no just kidding, no but I do think it is. I do think it is. I mean the fact that it is here and published as one thing. I think as a poet anything can be a poem and there are things, I mean there it's an epistle if you will right, but yeah I know something about it is very romantic, something about it is literary for sure. So yes of course. There's this poem I was reading that was just saying that sometimes  the poem is not the poem but the actual act of the thing is the poem. Do you know what I mean ? Like the act of writing to someone you care about it doesn't necessarily have to be a poem but that sense of community you're building is the poem. 

Savita: Before I ask you about what your favorite Wheatley peters poem is is there anything you would like to add or like say about Phillis Wheatley peters and just the act of remembrance and her legacy in Boston and in general the world.

Porsha: There isn’t anything other than the fact of remembrance like actively remembering or re encountering, like constantly coming in conversation and reconsidering her work and her legacy should be a part of the work of all of us. I think we can look thing that we owe and not just her but like folks who were historically marginalized. 

Reading on Imagination