Poet Confronts Chicago Violence And "Demagogue" President

Feb 22, 2017

The next four years will be very good for poetry.

That's according to Susan Azar Porterfield, who says our nation's current political divisions echo previous tempests, which sprouted an abundance of biting verse.

In 2003, Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and more than 8,000 other poets submitted their work to a global movement opposing the Iraq invasion. The book Poets Against the War collected 262 of those poems.

In 1967, poet Langston Hughes and singer Nina Simone collaborated on "Backlash Blues," a song that criticized the reaction of many white Americans to the civil rights movement.

"I know a lot of poets don't agree with me," Porterfield says, "but I think it's one of the duties of poetry to confront issues that we find dismaying."

Lately, Porterfield is dismayed by the current occupant of the White House. We'll get to that in a bit.

In her new poetry collection Dirt, Root, Silk, Porterfield looks for truth in all kinds of human relationships. The book won the Cider Press Review Editors' Prize, and is one of our Read With Me selections for this month.

One poem, "Know by Heart," focuses on a moment when the author visited Lebanon in 2003. There, she met brand-new parents from neighboring Syria:

I remember

she gave me the child to hold

snug against my chest,

the tug and scent of his small body

frank as a loaf of warm bread.

The family returned to Aleppo, which later would be shattered by war.

Another poem offers advice for a relative who's questioning her sexuality. The author previously read "For Cyd at Fifteen, Who Says She May Be Bisexual" in a 2014 interview with WNIJ.

Other poems are ripped from the headlines, including this one about Chicago's epidemic of gun violence:

“Chicago Killings Fall”

NYTimes

Give us this small fall for feed,
like peelings dropped from fruit.
We are grateful, oh Chicago,
someone standing with friends
in the playground didn’t die
someone smoking on his stoop
didn’t die
a gang member slipped into his car
alive
all the hot night a baby slept
in her crib
. . . they tell me you are brutal

In her latest WNIJ interview, Porterfield airs her concerns about President Donald Trump -- in particular, his use of language, which she likens to that of a demagogue.

"For him, language is a tool. It doesn't have value in and of itself, except for how it serves him," she says. "He'll say something because it's useful to him, and then the next day he'll say 'No, I didn't mean that, why do people take me seriously?'"

For Porterfield, language isn't merely a medium for poets and other writers; it's our most important mode of expression. "And to treat it so cavalierly, or for one's own benefit, just seems unethical," she says.

Porterfield believes everyone in the arts has an obligation to speak truth to power -- especially now. But she cautions that art must not descend into the realm of propaganda.

"If I wrote a poem about the importance of language, I might not mention any demagogues I know of," she says. "But one would be able to apply it to the current situation or, perhaps, demagogues to come. Or one could see it historically -- demagogues we have known."

Porterfield recently retired as a Rockford University English Professor. This semester, she's teaching at Northern Illinois University. "I'm working with first-year law students ... tutoring them on their written communication skills and getting them to appreciate that it's not only what you say but how you say it that's crucial -- i.e.,  words matter," she says.

 

Our February "Read With Me" series wraps up tomorrow with The Virginity of Famous Men, a collection of short stories by Christine Sneed. Listen during Morning Edition, after Perspectives, at 6:52 and 8:52. Then come back here for a video excerpt and other information.

As always, we ask that you use #WNIJReadWithMe when discussing these books or authors. And feel free to leave your comments below.