Daily Free Press
By Taylor Brokesh
April is National Poetry Month, and registration for the inaugural Roxbury Poetry Festival opened last Thursday. The free event will take place June 5 on Zoom from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with some in-person events if health mandates allow.
The festival will feature more than 30 speakers and a keynote speech by 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown, according to its website. Poet Rachel McKibbens and author Safia Elhillo will also headline the event.
“As a fourth-generation Roxbury resident, it is so exciting to see the celebration of the power of poetry come to this neighborhood,” Mayor Kim Janey said in a press release. “As we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts are an important part of our recovery.”
Porsha Olayiwola, the Poet Laureate of Boston since 2019, founded the Roxbury Poetry Festival and now serves as its director. She has been working as an artist in the Roxbury area for the past eight years, she said.
Olayiwola said the idea was borne from her desire to connect “spoken word” and “page” poetry artforms.
“The goal is, one, to highlight the cultural history and livelihood of Roxbury,” Olayiwola said. “The goal was to have an accessible communion of local and national writers, plus access to poetry and poetic resources.”
The schedule will consist of several panels, workshops, readings and an open mic — all of which Olayiwola said she is “super excited” for.
Independent publisher Button Poetry will also sponsor a Publisher’s Poetry Slam to happen at the festival. The winner of the slam will earn a book deal, Olayiwola said.
Scheduled next is “Beast the Beat” — a hip-hop concert battle inspired by the online “Versuz” series. These events are planning to happen in person at Nubian Square’s Blair Lot and with COVID precautions and protocols in place.
Olayiwola said there are plans to continue the festival every two years in collaboration with Mass Poetry, which plans to host the Massachusetts Poetry Festival the weekend of May 13, which will now be a biennial event.
“We’re hoping this continues forever,” she said.
Maria Daniels, the director of Communications and Patron Services at the Boston Athenaeum library, said Boston’s history as an educational hub is interlinked with its poetic expression.
“Because of the universities that we have here, there’s always been a tradition of teaching and learning, and that includes the expressive arts,” she said. “You’ve got publishers who are publishing literary works, you’ve got people interested in reading and teaching and writing them.”
Daniels said that this literary heritage and Boston’s reputation as an artistic center continues today through festivals such as these.
“I believe the Roxbury Poetry Festival actually reaches out to many communities, and reaches out to young poets and looks for local voices in the way that people have been doing in Boston for a long time,” she said.
Olayiwola said the turmoil of the past year has inspired many people to turn to poetry.
“This last year and a half has been unnameable, has been indescribable,” she said. “[Poetry] brings us closer in a way that it names all the things we’re all experiencing, or maybe not knowing how to name ourselves.”