Norman Porter, alias "J.J. Jameson"
On 22 March 2005, Norman Porter was arrested in Chicago by the Massachusetts State Police Fugitive Apprehension Unit. In September of 1985, he had walked out the Norfolk Pre-Release Center in Norfolk, Massachusetts, where he had been sent to serve a life sentence on a murder conviction going back to 1961. He was 65 years old on the day of his Chicago arrest.
That arrest made front-page news in the Chicago papers. All accounts of it have Porter going quietly and admitting to his culpability for skipping jail. But he lived quite openly for roughly the last decade of his fugitive life, possibly even longer, attending and participating in various readings. He often MC'd and curated readings as his talents in performance poetry grew, to the point where the name "J.J. Jameson" was reasonably recognized among many grass-roots poets, poetry-goers, and people wishing to sample the experience of reading their work before an informal audience. By keeping this kind of public profile, it can be said Porter genuinely hid in plain sight. Porter's alias of "J.J. Jameson" and distance from Massachusetts were sufficient to conceal his identity until near the time of his arrest.
Porter supported himself as a handyman, doing light carpentry in private homes and maintaining rental apartment buildings around Chicago. He was also active in his Unitarian congregation on Chicago's West Side, near where he came to live in the years prior to his arrest. As "J.J. Jameson", he was known as a labor activist, an anti-war activist, and volunteer for various causes.
After Porter's re-arrest, a deep inner conflict arose for many writers in Chicago. Known only by his alias, Porter was able to genuinely influence others by his intentions and apparent integrity. His support and advice were well-known and -respected. He displayed a spirit and humility that were hard to ignore in his readings. "J.J. Jameson" appeared to many as an earnest, goodwilled writer in pursuit of self-improvement. Retrospect now places that pursuit alongside the escape from serving a life sentence.
e-poets.net regrets adding to the myth of "J.J. Jameson" by including his work in the Book of Voices. As the site's main editor, however, I hasten to add that I was as fooled by Porter as anyone else was in his immediate Chicago environment.
When news broke of Porter's arrest, I considered deleting all references to him on the domain, and I was encouraged to do that by friends. Instead, his work will remain online for a time so that we may better remember it and examine the extraordinary events surrounding it. Readers/listeners can review Porter's online effects here and consider for themselves how they would have fared if a person came to them with such poetry. Without any clue that the man was wanted, would they have thought it was camouflage? Or would they have taken it as an earnest effort in spoken word art by a naïve practitioner? Would they have ignored it, or referred friends to it? What lessons about life -- and not just poetry -- can we learn from this? And because Porter used an alias, not just a pen name, there now remain all kinds of challenges surrounding his work as it connects with his identity.
Porter's work was originally included in the Book of Voices because it strongly represented what I call "feral poetry," namely poetry that arises in the absence of academic training or background. Feral poetry can be composed by people with a wide range of literacy, but its authors are not privileged to the fullest academic experience. Some feral writers may have, in fact, rebelled against the academy, taking with them the few ideas that serve them best and leaving behind the rest; this experience typifies much of the performance poetry that arose in Chicago and elsewhere as a result of slam. In ecological terms, this kind of rebellion, when broadly practiced, can enable new creative potentials for artists not considered by the academic mainstream.
Porter's poetry is not something to put beside the works of T.S. Eliot, but his spoken word did appear to have worth. It was classic saloon poetry of its time, and often cited among local fans of that form. Rather than judge the poetry on its academic station, I chose be more inclusive and anthropological. I included it in the collection to document a wider representation of poetry as it was practiced and to some degree admired among local poets, though not necessarily prescribed.
- Kurt Heintz, founder, e-poets network