Susan Gray's "Killer Poet," a documentary about twice convicted murderer Norman Porter (click here for preview), is making the rounds. I thought before we all get duped a second time into hero-worshipping this sick son of a bitch, we should look back and be reminded of how this crazy bastard screwed up our poetry scene.
Lady Rutherfurd's Cauliflower
by Norman Porter
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
I'm including Norman Porter in the Nine Lives series of reviews because if anyone has had more than one life, it's Norman Porter; unfortunately, this time around, that's not saying much about his poetry.
In case you haven't heard, Norman Porter is responsible for one of the most senseless, brutal and despicable crimes in the history of Massachusetts, and was one of America's most wanted fugitives for twenty years (video). So there's something emblematic about the cover design of Lady Rutherfurd's Cauliflower. The pure white page is splashed with blood red letters.
Let's set the record straight. There is no doubt he committed the crime. In Norman Porter's own words, "Three guys went to rob a place and it went haywire." Here is how Porter's crime is described in a well researched article in the October 2005 issue of Chicago Magazine:
While Mavor [Porter's accomplice] took the store manager into the office and demanded that he unlock the safe, Porter shook down the customers. He pulled a checkered raincoat from the rack and handed it to Jackie Pigott, who worked nights as a clerk at the store, saying, "Put your wallet in this." Pigott didn't carry a wallet. "Well, put your money in it, then." Pigott produced two ten-dollar bills, but he was nervous and had trouble getting the bills into the raincoat pocket. The woman standing next to him tried to help by holding the coat steady. For some reason, Pigott turned away from Porter. And for some reason, Porter raised his shotgun and shot Pigott in the back of the neck, killing him. Then he reached down and picked up the two ten-dollar bills in Pigott's left hand, and said, "Now you know I mean business."
Jackie Pigott was twenty years old at the time of his murder.
While incarcerated for that crime, Norman Porter managed to smuggle a pistol into his cell, which was then used to murder one of the guards during his jailbreak. It is widely believed that he was caught when he robbed a liquor store and returned the very same night to buy booze with the loot. In the mid-eighties, Porter managed to escape prison yet again. This time he got away with it, for twenty long years, hiding in plain view in Chicago under an alias taken from a Spider Man comic book.
J. J. Jameson.
That's it in a nutshell.
Those who were duped by this master con artist, including myself, are left with Lady Rutherfurd's Cauliflower to remind us of his puttering penis, now that he's been taken away in handcuffs.
By literary standards, Lady Rutherfurd's Cauliflower is not the best book Puddin'head Press ever came out with. When Porter was on the lam it was an oddly shaped chapbook that was stapled and had pages that you had to unfold to read. I guess for that reason I never took it very seriously. After the authorities caught up with Porter, and the "Killer Poet" story became a national phenomenon for a few days (Porter's face appeared in Newsweek and on CNN, for example), Puddin'head Press decided to release a perfect bound, second edition of the book, probably hoping that the novelty of it would result in sales.
Now is as good a time as any to seriously look at this volume for what it is.
Although the poetry in this book is the same as the chapbook, some major things have obviously changed in the world, which causes one to look differently at this work. For one thing, we have to wonder about the honesty of the work. Take for example this excerpt from the poem "In Memory Of Allen Ginsberg":
As a child, a condition which lasted
to my mid forties
when I became parent to my parents,
I could never imagine
the two of them together entwined.
Okay, wait a second. This poem is written in the first person. I had always assumed that Porter (when he was Jameson) was talking about himself in this poem. Items such as this made me think, what a good life this man has led, maybe we should cut the belligerent old troublemaker some slack. But now we know that Porter was actually in prison until his mid-forties; then he escaped and spent a few years hiding in the notorious homeless society of lower Wacker, before he found sanctuary in the poetry scene. So, whom is he talking about in this poem? Not himself. Certainly not Ginsberg, because mother Naomi Ginsberg was lobotomized in an insane asylum, where she died in 1956, when Ginsberg was only 30.
"Inner/Outer" is actually one of the better poems in the book, but in it Porter nevertheless once again completely fabricates his history:
I went home, got out my Lionel Flier toy train,
dusted off the decades of ignoring her,
It's as if, while writing these poems, Porter knew he couldn't be honest about anything or he might get caught, so he filled his work with confusing points of view and unanswerable riddles. For example, in the poem "Jennifer Two" the first person narrator complains about the anarchist Joffre Stewart, but the facts are clear: Norman Porter worked as a handyman being paid off the books, living under an assumed identity. So how does he figure his taxes supported Stewart? Notice, though, how Porter manages to get some perverted notion across:
for the purebred Chomskian cunninglinguist.
Or a highbred fallal fellatio.
The sexual remarks in this book are pretty creepy.
Your teeth marks
on my distillated scrotum
(from "I Looked For You Between My Legs")
This creepy, deviant humor could be Porter's greatest asset, but even in that, a closer examination reveals it to be mundane. Practically every poet has a poem personifying poetry, and Porter's not the first person in the history of the world to think up the term "iambic penetration."
The mundane also finds its way into his extended metaphors. "I Wanna Be A Carpenter Of Words" may have been his signature performance poem, but on the page it is clear to see that it is nothing but a borrowed parody that is afraid to discuss what actually happened on lower Wacker.
There is another thing that has changed. The Chicago Poetry Scene is no longer subject to the tiresome shtick that Porter developed during his years here. Porter's alter ego Jameson was a performance poet after all, and a big part of his audience's experience was being amazed that such a decrepit, have-sloshed, sickly old man could fart anything coherent out of his mouth at all when he took to the stage. Without Porter around to remind us how these poems should sound, without him hanging on to each of his words in his phony New England accent as if his throat was constipated, the work in this book becomes less humorous and more sophomoric. Without Norman Porter's heckling bringing out the sickness in everyone, we can take a closer look at his words. Actually, the work in this book becomes a little scary to an informed reader. Porter's constant infatuation with his own penis, for example, makes one wonder what kind of a deviant was in our midst.
And then there is the simple question of whether or not this production is tasteful. Two people died, after all. The bottom line is, as this book clearly demonstrates, Norman Porter did not become a nationally known poet based on the quality of his writing, but based on his multitude of crimes. Everything in this book suggests deceit. When reading the Author's Afterword, for example, it becomes ironic that such a dishonest person is lecturing us on honesty. Porter describes the function of the poetry stage as "for explaining how we got over it and what conclusion we have drawn from getting over it." Yet, in reality, at the time that he wrote this, Porter wasn't "over it" at all, because he never dealt with "it" to begin with. He was living a fictitious life, enjoying the benefits of not having to deal with the consequences of his crimes, in essence suckering the naive and manipulating the entire poetry scene. His stage was merely a venue for his deceitfulness, nothing more. Could the work in this book be the same?
Let's take a closer look at the writing.
There are a lot of references to Chicago and its poetry scene in this book, which makes it valuable for the nostalgia of it, but that alone can't save Lady Rutherfurd's Cauliflower from being the less than witty ramblings of a dirty old man, who apparently didn't reach puberty until he was in his fifties:
I was told in no uncertain terms
the real problem lay in that
I was only trying to screw old holds.
I should be trying to screw new holes.
(from "Construction Whore")
Norman Porter has a very limited vocabulary. This becomes apparent when he clumsily throws large words into the mix. Sometimes it is humorous when he does this:
I examined each finger, digitally,
I stroked the back of her hand,
with my fingernails I munched
the palm of her hand, hoeingly,
(from "Gretchen From Glitchenberg")
But more often than not it simply reeks of a Thesaurus:
Does changing a word, here or there,
alter nighttime phantasmagoria
(from "A Michigan Verity")
I think the reason Norman Porter took up poetry is because he didn't have the stamina or sobriety to write prose. If you look at it, most of the work in this book is simply prose with its sentences broken up to look like poetry:
Yonkil, our host, deposits himself
with his bier and tomato rolled cigarette
leaving the kitchen to the German woman.
She moves with assurance
as if she had already talked
to the real estate agent.
(from "The German Woman")
Yet the work lacks the meat of prose, so you can't exactly call it prose poetry. For example, Porter mentions his pet Saucepan in several poems but I never once got a clear image of the dog; this left my mind's eye empty, struggling to see a nondescript canine with nothing unique about it and no personality to speak of. The poem "Fibber and Belfast" is drab, uneventful prose, lacking in originality and metaphor. Notice the prose-like nature (and Porter's infatuation with his own penis) in the following:
Here she was
that very afternoon
refusing a nice fresh, robust cauliflower
thereby squeezing my hand tight
she might as well have snatched my cajoles.
This book does have a few moments:
I could grab a piece
of the Lady Rutherfurd of Berwyn
hold her gingerly between my toes,
viselike, if required,
so my chisel could try
to mortise away her complexity.
But these are far and few in between. In general, Porter is afraid to go the extra mile out of fear of incriminating himself, so he remains evasive and elusive, giving us some romantic suggestions but never with any detail. His is the point of view of someone who does not own his own life. How could he possibly lend it to you?
Norman Porter lacks the honesty of his own idols such as Walt Whitman. He may have experienced his adventure in Chicago but he is no Nelson Algren or Carl Sandburg, and though he may be as manic as Allen Ginsberg, that's where the similarity ends. Neither is he a Mumia nor a Leonard Peltier. And he may have been a drunk, but that didn't make him Bukowski.
I'm glad that I finally took this book seriously enough to read it with a critic's eye. What I found by taking a close look at this book is that I disagree with Porter's philosophy. Much of what he is saying is nonsensical and uninteresting. At the end of one poem the moral is "But in the end a car without wheels / is better than no car at all." I don't agree with that. Not at all.
After over a year of deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that Kurt Heintz was correct in calling J. J. Jameson a "myth." As I read Lady Rutherfurd's Cauliflower, after learning who Norman Porter really is, all I could think was, myth or no myth, what a bunch of bullshit.
--C. J. Laity
CAN NORMAN PORTER ESCAPE FROM PRISON FOR THE THIRD TIME?
An Editorial By C. J. Laity (Edited Version)
The following is dedicated to my friend Kent Projansky, who was killed on December 18, 2004,
when he was shot in the head during a robbery.
If popular opinion is any sign, it looks like freedom is a long shot for Norman Porter, who many in the Chicago Poetry Scene only knew as J. J. Jameson--a rude, cantankerous old man who used to yell "Shut up and read the fucking poem" if he didn't like what you were saying at the poetry microphone. A third prison break (or twenty-third prison break, if you count the juvy-years) might be his only chance for escape from his shackles and bars.
As you probably recall (unless you were living in a cave), it was discovered in March 2005 that Jameson was actually Massachusetts's most wanted fugitive, Norman Porter, who was considered a violent criminal who had received two life sentences for two murder convictions. The "killer poet" story made international news and Porter suddenly became a famous poet--not for his work, but for the evil deeds of his past. The newspapers still refer to him as an "award winning" Chicago poet, though Porter had received no major accolades outside of audience hoots and howls, as far as I can recall.
Let's face it, folks--Jameson only existed as a means for Porter to escape justice. Since that dreadful day when we learned of this news, I have been following this story closely, and there is no doubt that Porter was a monster back in the late 1950s and early 60s. After a "month long" crime spree, he was involved in an organized stick up job that resulted in the brutal murder of a 22-year old man, John Piggot, an innocent clothing store clerk who was indeed shot point blank in the back of his head with a sawed off shotgun. Many believe Porter, who was wearing a mask at the time, was the triggerman. Porter was even convicted of the crime, but later recanted his confession after his accomplice was killed in prison. While awaiting trial for that murder, Porter orchestrated a brazen jailbreak on Mothers Day that led to the murder of yet another person, a prison guard, David Robinson. Porter was caught days later, when he robbed a grocery store and then (some reports claim) was stupid enough to return with the booty attempting to buy some liquor with it. For the next twenty-five years, Porter manipulated the system until he was trusted with a furlough and then he used it to escape from prison yet again! And this time he got away with it. He lived the following twenty years in Chicago, posing as a beligerant alcoholic poet named J. J. Jameson.
Any way you look at it, this is a horror story beyond belief.
To the few who employed him off the books, fed him or gave him shelter, Porter seemed to be a generous man full of charity during his twenty years on the run; he remained a loyal friend to his select circle of comrades. In her new book Ordinary, poet Carol Anderson thanks him for being a "steadfast oak." Martha Modena Vertreace-Doody even dedicated one of her books to him. The fact that Porter was able to impress a few people like this during his time on the lam makes it harder for the rest.
To a certain point he had me fooled; he was, afterall, my poet of the month when his true identity was discovered. However, I never became close friends with Porter. Although I respected his poetry and featured him time and time again in my events, as a human being I felt he lacked a certain common decency. I felt a certain dishonesty in him; he always seemed to be trying to manipulate me with his words, and he always remained at a distance--quite frankly, he was pretty mean to me. I forgave him time and time again for his mean spirit; supposedly, he was an elder who had spent his youth as a peace activist, had been there protesting the Vietnam War, and for that reason I thought he deserved some slack.
What a con that was!
For the rest, Norman Porter was a mean person, who interrupted their poetry, talked trash about people behind their backs, made rude remarks right to people's faces, and was borderline violent when he would be hopped up on his regular cocktail of narcotics and alcohol. I can remember when I hosted a lovely poetry reading in the park and for some reason Porter, like a schizophrenic, suddenly lashed out at Pamela Miller with insults that I won't even repeat here. When Wayne Allen Jones appeared on the scene, Porter said Jones must be a mass-murderer because most mass-murderers have three names (as in, John Wayne Gacey). I thought that was an odd thing to say about Jones, who was dedicated to publishing Chicago poets; it became even odder when I learned about Porter's real murderous history. One of the first times I encountered Porter, he became violent with me at a poetry reading at former Cafe Aloha host David Rubin's house. One of the last times I encountered Porter, he came to my birthday reading and harshly insulted me at the microphone. I knew I was suppose to take it, because the event was billed as a "roast," but I could not believe how cruel Jameson was being and it didn't seem to be all in good fun--it made me feel awful.
Shelly Nation is one of those who saw some light in the monster; she once attempted to rally the Chicago Poetry Scene into supporting J. J. Jameson, and appeared before the judge in the case pleading that Porter was a good guy because he managed to help a prostitute find a legitimate job, among other deeds. "He's just a very caring person," she told the judge. She testified that Porter "has always treated everybody very fairly." Who is this "everybody" that she was talking about? I'd like to know, because "everybody" I've heard from, save for Porter's close friends, have a different opinion about twice convicted murderer Norman Porter.
For example, a man named Pete Johnson claims that he sold a computer to Jameson and that Jameson refused to pay the balance for it. Johnson also doubts that Jameson started the "two daycare" centers that Shelly Nation testified about. "What actually happened," says Johnson, "is that the Third Unitarian Church had a daycare for many years but it was poorly run financially and they were always behind in their rent and were finally terminated. Another daycare was started up at TUC, probably while JJ was on the board of directors (and maybe was chairman). However, it would have been started no matter who was on the board."
The popular opinion is that Porter committed the crime and should now do the time. In a poll conducted by WCVB-TV Boston, an overwhelming 92% voted that Porter should remain behind bars for the rest of his life, and only 2% of those voting said he should be set free. The letters that ChicagoPoetry.com received are parallel to that ratio, with the overwhelming majority of them in support of the victims of violent crime over the plight of the villain.
For a long time Porter himself was in denial about his responsibility. In a letter he mailed to me from his prison cell, Porter offered this excuse: ". . . my opposition and some state police rolled up my two first crime partners and then my second crime partners – and put them altogether and said it was me." After six months back in jail, Porter did, finally, admit that he was responsible for the murders. "People would be alive today if it wasn't for my behavior," he said before the judge. Porter also apologized for escaping from prison. "I was worn out. I was just simply worn out," he said. Worn out? After receiving two life sentences for two brutal murders, at age 45 Porter already found himself in a minimum security facility where he could sign himself out to go take walks any time he liked. He wasn't exactly doing hard labor! If he would have stuck it out for another five years he would have most likely been set free. But he didn't. Instead, he abused the laxed system, the very system he helped to create with all his prisoner rights activism, and he escaped. As a person with very liberal political opinions, I am completely offended by Porter's abuse of the liberal policies of his day.
The families of the victims have not forgotten the pain that Porter caused. Members of the Robinson and Pigott families said they would testify against his parole. Dottie Johnson, John Pigott's cousin, said ''[Porter] is a very smart individual, who can manipulate the words." David Robinson's daughter, Joan Robinson, his grandson David Robinson, and nephew Peter Robinson, all said that Robinson's death at age 53 still brings the family pain 44 years later, and that Porter has already been rewarded with nearly 20 years of freedom he didn't deserve. ''Now that he is again behind bars, that is where he should stay," said Joan Robinson. They called Porter a con man, a liar, and a manipulator. "He is still the same manipulative person who has used the system, and it dishonors the life of my father and the life of Jackie Pigott," said Joan Robinson. Claire Wilcox, Pigott's fiance, said Porter "took a beautiful, kind soul" and argued that Porter's escape and freedom "devalued [the victims] lives."
I think it's time to face it. Norman Porter is not Mumia. Norman Porter did some evil things in his life which have caught up with him. So he did a few generous things while he was a fugitive. Well good for him. I would hope so, after the life he led. But that is really besides the point. Let's not make him out as some kind of Robin Hood, who killed two people and escaped from jail in order to help a prostitute find a legitimate job.
In any case, there will be no place in the Chicago Poetry Scene for Norman Porter, if he ever does manage to escape again. His book might have gone into a second printing, but can any of us really imagine Norman Porter getting up to read poetry at the local venue after all of this? I think I'd tell him "Shut up and don't read the fucking poem" after all the shit he's put the poetry community through.
Note: Here is a review of Norman Porter's book, Lady Rutherfurd's Cauliflower.