Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola has a simple tattoo. It’s slightly below her right wrist not far from her pulse. The tattoo is a little house, a roof and two walls, a symbol she shares with other poets both near and far. It’s an emblem for the Haley House Bakery Cafe, a gathering place in the heart of Dudley Square and home away from home for Boston poets.
For nearly 15 years, it's become a beloved cornerstone for a community of artists.
“Sometimes we’ll be in a place and everybody will suddenly show their tattoo,” Olayiwola says. “I can’t tell you what it like, what this place means but I can try to explain that feeling. It feels like a home.”
The revered cafe has closed its doors for what owners are calling a temporary hiatus as the nonprofit which owns it re-evaluates its business model. The hope is to re-open later this year, but because operations were suspended, the cafe management had to lay-off employees over this period.
At the last open-mic before the closure, people fill every corner and listen closely to the poets who grace the front of the room. The evening’s host, who goes by Golden, encourages those standing in the back to inch closer.
“There’s also a seat open right up here. Yeah, feel free,” Golden says to the crowd as music plays in the background. “We a family. Hey girl! How are you?”
Though the bakery cafe opened in 2005, the nonprofit by the same name that owns and operates it has been active in Boston for more than half a century. In 1966, it operated a shelter and food kitchen for homeless men and later expanded to provide housing for people transitioning out of shelters.
In addition to the cafe, Haley House runs a soup kitchen, food pantry and catering service. It also manages affordable housing units and offers a cooking and nutrition program. Only the cafe — which is especially cherished among local poets, artists, and activists — will be temporarily closed.
“This is a space that focuses very heavily on validating and uplifting the stories of marginalized and oppressed people,” says Poet Marshall Gillson. "When you're performing, you're like right up in the faces of the people in the front row which is really intimate and really intense but also really important because it means you can never feel disconnected from the community that you're talking to.”
The Haley House Bakery Cafe was one of the first places where I felt welcome after moving to Boston four years ago. On warm evenings my friends and I laid blankets on pavement and heard poetry echo across Roxbury. It’s where I gathered with other queer and transgender people of color in communal grief after a mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. At the Haley House, we mourned the 49 lives lost. That night, the mic was ours. The Haley House held our pain and our prayers.
“It’s really difficult to overstate the importance that the Haley House has had on me both personally and artistically,” Gillson says. And on top of that, it values doing the hard work of introspecting and learning and creating good art around those topics.”
The Haley House has also served as the home base of the House Slam team. Poets Porsha O and Janae Johnson founded the team in 2014 and won the National Poetry Slam a year later.
Together they created an alternative locale to open-mics across the river, a different vibe from the basement haunts of the Cantab Lounge and the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge.
At least twice a month aspiring poets match wits with skill and engage in a verbal duel known as a slam. Haley House Executive Director Bing Broderick still gets a lump in his throat when he thinks about the morning that first team returned from the championship in Oakland, California. They were Boston’s first slam poetry team to attend the national competition. Haley House covered their expenses in full.
“At 7:30 in the morning the entire crew walked in with this award which was a stack of books with a sword going into it,” says Broderick to the crowd at the cafe's latest open-mic. “They came from the airport to Haley House and presented it and it was one of the most amazing things. The House Slam has transformed Haley House...it's really important to us as we reinvent ourselves that you guys are a part of it.”
Though the future remains uncertain, on this night hot plates of jerk chicken and collards are served up in the kitchen.
On this night, Marshall Gillson reads a poem and the room goes quiet except for the snapping of fingers. “The story is about belonging,” Gillson says. “It's about the ways we hold each other, lift each other. It's about growing up and growing old, about how our chosen families choose us. How empathy is a decision you have to make every single day and we do because it helps us survive.”
And on this night, I’m thankful to be here, to listen one more time.
This segment aired on January 29, 2019.