It might be a stretch to say that poetry saved Liam Porter’s life, but the longtime newspaper reporter and editor thinks it might have helped turn his life around after he lost his job at The Inishowen Independent during Ireland’s drawn-out economic recession.
Poetry wasn’t the only light he saw in the darkness, but that was a good thing, because there was plenty of darkness.
“I was applying for jobs and going on interviews and not getting any positivity,” says Porter of Raphoe, County Donegal, who has about a dozen family members living in the Philadelphia area. “You begin to devalue your own self-worth. My wife was working, but it was hard to be home every day to see the postman coming and bringing another bill and knowing I couldn’t contribute. Our girls were going to dance classes and all of a sudden we had to say ‘You can’t go there. We don’t have the money.’ It came to the point where I was calculating that maybe they might be better off without me. Then you know you’re not in a good place.”
Darkness. And then, a light. Several lights. While turning his situation over in his mind, he went for a walk around town, a walk that took him past the home of a young man he’d coached in soccer. A few years before, that young man took his own life. “I remember standing at his front door,” recalls Porter, “and thinking, ‘no, whatever you want to do, it’s not that.’ It was very instrumental in changing my mind.”
He had talked himself out of attending a free program, funded by various levels of government, called Discovery Zone that helps unemployed professionals like him learn to market their skills and experience as entrepreneurs. Then, they called him and persuaded him to come in. “The room was filled with people pretty much me own age, architects, builders, lots of qualified professionals who lost their jobs through the recession.”
He went through the 12-week program, which, he says, “made me realize I had a lot to offer.” He’d always been a staff writer and editor, never a freelancer. He learned how to turn the skills he honed in newspapers to do public relations and other writing for businesses and even does some sports reporting for local newspapers. (Porter wrote several pieces for www.irishphiladelphia.com on the 2012 matchup between Donegal and Mayo for the Sam Maguire cup.)
“But I’d always thought of myself as a reporter, not a writer,” he admits. And he certainly wasn’t a poet. However, since he was already starting on one new challenge, he figured he’d give himself another: A poem a day. A commitment to write one a day, to wake up every morning, even the darkest ones, and find something to turn into a poem.
“I’d read about this blogger who’d lost her job and posted her efforts to do Julia Child recipes every day on her blog [Julie & Julia],” says Porter. “It was like an affirmation to do this. I was just going to do one poem a day. And it wasn’t about the poetry. Once I had one done, I knew I had to be here tomorrow to do the next one, affirming what I’d decided: No going back to the worst of that dark place.”
This month, “Dance in the Rain,” a book containing more than of those poems, each accompanied by a photograph, was published in Donegal, and available in bookstores in Ireland and online. The title comes from a plaque given to him by a friend that reads, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. . . .it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
“Over the year, I kept going with that positive energy, putting them up on Facebook. Sometimes you think social media is a wee bit of a crock, but when anyone would click on “like” or leave a comment, who actually took time to read it, it meant a lot to me,” he says.
That positive frame of mind also helped him pay more attention to what he came to see as his good fortune. “I think I’m lucky. I have good people around me, good family support, though I probably didn’t tell most of them the extent of what I was going through, ” he says. “Some of them were surprised when I wrote a post on my blog about it, but I was taking comfort from them anyway. That’s why it’s important to never underestimate an act of kindness, no matter how small.”
And, as it turns out, challenges are addictive. So while he built his new business—Liam Porter Media—and wrote his poem a day, he also vowed to “do more things to help people,” a Porter family tradition. “That’s how we were brought up,” says Porter. “During a skit at a local show, they joked about my brother, ‘Did you see Joe Porter in that pothole.’ ‘Oh, sure and those Porters are stuck in everything.’ And we kind of were. Football, music, dancing, quizzes-whatever was on we were involved in it. That’s the way my sisters are over there.”
Porter’s sisters, Carmel Bradley, Fionnuala Porter McBrearty, and Una McDaid, who live in Delaware County, are the forces behind the Delaware County Gaels’ “Dance Like a Star” fundraiser, the Act 2 summer theater camp for kids, and many other projects. For many years, their nephew, Ciaran Porter, ran the youth recruitment program for the Philadelphia Gaelic Athletic Association.
Porter got involved in several fundraisers, including runs for childhood cancer foundation and autism groups. “I even climbed Mt. Errigal a couple of times for charity,” he says.
Then the ultimate challenge presented itself. In Ireland, “Dancing with the Stars” has its own counterpart, called “Strictly Come Dancing.” Likewise, the “Dance Like a Star” fundraising event that helps support the Delaware County youth sports club his family is intimately involved with has its own Irish cousin, named after the show.
“One day, Deele College made contact to see if my wife Lorraine would take part in the dancing fundraiser for the school, where our daughters Kate and Niamh were students,” recalls Porter. “She said no. They asked if Liam would and my first reaction was ‘no way!’ Than I thought of Sabrina Barnett right away. She had played Gaelic football for me as a coach. I figured, that’s my good deed done. I’m not saying no, I’m getting you someone and I’ll find her a partner. And she said she do it—but only if I would. I think I got played some where along the way. I said, why the heck not. I’d already spent a whole year stepping out of my comfort zone so, okay, go for it.”
Not only did Porter dance out of his comfort zone, he and his partner won the competition. And that plaque that contributed the title to his book of poetry? It was a gift from Sabrina, and a fine tribute to a man who had truly learned to dance in the rain.
“And now,” he jokes, “I have a trophy that says I’m the best dancer.”
Below, one of Liam’s poem. See another page from the book here.
LEARNING TO DANCE
Behind those inner walls of sheer self-doubt and inhibitions,
lies the rhythm that sneaks sometimes from head to tapping fingers,
drumming out time as they dance on a table top,
beating out words on a keyboard.
Beyond that though, everything is measured.
The trick is to try to free the tempo that for so long had been beaten down,
then rolled into nothing more than taps of a toe.
The journey from head to feet is one that is fraught,
with mistimed movements and always counted steps.
Even when walked first, hand-held slowly,
through every single motion, they manage to bemuse.
Trying the patience, it is time to shift the weight of expectation,
to repeat and rehearse, until there is something;
like freedom of movement.
Until it looks at last like a dance.
— Liam Porter