The Renegade Poetic Fortune-Telling Machine

On Joel Dias-Porter

Terrance Hayes

The legendary one-of-a-kind Renegade Poetic Fortune-Telling Machine can be found near the boardwalks of Atlantic City, but you will need to read between the lines of Ideas of Improvisation, the first full-length poetry collection by Joel Dias-Porter, to locate it.

Like the poet himself, the figure inside the machine wears a black and gold wizard’s robe with a Steelers logo on the chest and a tilted baseball cap. The Fortune Teller is made out of the refurbished parts of a straightforward tape recorder, the motherboard of somebody’s supercomputer, a Cape Verdean’s Volkswagen, miles and miles of speaker wire, an old-school slot machine, and a casino stool with a plush seat cushion.

the contents of the machine (which has the same dimensions as Doctor Who’s TARDIS Police Box) include: the Fortune Teller, his old-school records, a white disco crystal ball, a turntable, a cell phone, poker chips, tea bags, and the book Ideas of Improvisation. The latter is a Black man’s collection of odes and meditations, full of poems decades in the making, which reveal the people dear to him: his muses and loves, his memories, testimonies, and allegories. The poem “Whitman’s Sampler” reads:

Here, take this gift,
Which too long I was offering to feed my soul

This is the gift of a poet who has devoted his life to writing. The poems are not autobiographical in any typical way (and certainly not in the manner of a standard debut), instead conveying memories rooted in ideas of form and language. I think of Elizabeth Bishop writing and rewriting her poems in the long years between each book. The end result is not so much an autobiographical account as the document of an artistic process. These poems live in different forms at different moments in the poet’s life; the hours put into them make them invaluable. Imagine a meal so amazing it would take twenty years to prepare.

the renegade poetic Fortune-Telling Machine offers the Tarot of Voices when it senses you are in need of conversation with other poets. When it comes up, your reading of Ideas of Improvisation will be guided by resonances ranging from Hughes’s blues to Walt Whitman’s wildness.

whatever your question, the Renegade Poetic Fortune-Telling Machine will spit out a tarot card, conjuring an answer for you. The Machine answers your questions in the subtextual threads of Dias-Porter’s poems. Fragments of imagery and lyric flash in the text of each card. For example, the Tarot of Sisters card alerted me to presence of Black women in Ideas of Improvisation. The Tarot of Sisters card prompted me to revisit “The Bashō in You,” six surreal haiku-ish stanzas flashing with imagery of pistachios, ponytails, blackberry brandy. Inside the poem is the inner poem in red:

pearl earrings among dreadlocks your grin.

The image emerges like a koan-ish snapshot of beauty. The dreadlocked smiling presence becomes muse and ghost across the book. “The Bashō in You” is an ode to haiku and desire. The tone here, and in many of the collection’s poems, combines a sense of play and longing. I recalled the hair of women I loved as I read Porter’s poem. I have received a different fortune, a new joy and insight every time I’ve read these poems.

these poems are the meditations of a poet who has found his muses in music. The machine plays Kind of Blue some days. On other days Cesária Évora can be heard echoing through the piping. Birds and pigeons gather on the roof of the machine as it broadcasts haiku and sports scores on the hour.

The Tarot of Mystery and Tarot of Music cards may be drawn when you are in need of mobile solitude. Take the book and some headphones on a bus and travel overnight to your mother’s home.

the coltrane in youis an ode to friendship and language. But there is another poem inside the poem, a section of which reads:

wind spilling bottled spirits into prayer

Inside a meditation on cultural experience is a quieter thread of personal experience. Inside the stillness is a renegade sensibility. Inside the mythic figures and historical contexts is an intimate wind spilling prayer.

i have been a fan and student of Joel Dias-Porter’s work for my entire writing career. I consider him my brother and peer, my personal Walt Whitman, my lifelong friend and guide inside and outside poetry. I first heard Dias-Porter (whom I only knew as “Renegade” for almost half a decade!) read an early version of “Subterranean Night-Colored Magus” at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in Pittsburgh in 1995. All I recall of those three days (where some of the most established poets and writers took the main stage) is meeting Dias-Porter and seeing Renegade and his poets at the open mic. Renegade blew an imaginary trumpet with his hands and mouth, performing what I can only describe as verbal acrobatics while reading a poem about Miles Davis. It was my first conference.

I would have gone to hang with my rappers and basketball players if he hadn’t invited me to hang with him and the other WritersCorp folks—a group of poets who were teaching in the schools and prisons around D.C. in the ’90s. Renegade was already a friend or mentor to many young poets around the city, some of whom would become my lifelong friends and acquaintances: Yona Harvey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Douglas Kearney, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Jeffrey McDaniel, A. Van Jordan. In one way or another, I know all these writers because of Joel Dias-Porter.

you’d have to speak with professors, poets, teachers, bookstore clerks, students, poker players, law professors, jazz musicians, cashiers, and bus drivers to know all the poet formerly known as DJ Renegade has done as a poet. DJ Renegade’s IMDb page notes that he was born and raised in Pittsburgh, worked as a professional DJ in D.C., and competed in the National Poetry Slam from 1994 to 1999. It also lists many of the places his poetry, jazz music, and performances have appeared—from Time Magazine and The Washington Post to BET and The Today Show—and mentions that Renegade was named the Haiku Slam Champion in both 1998 and ’99.

The Carnegie Library website’s listing of famous Pittsburghers once included, in an entry for the baseball player Roberto Clemente, the following “haiku-like poems,” which had been spray-painted behind the outfield wall of Forbes Field:



The website goes on to name the poems’ author as “the poet identified only as…DJ RENEGADE.”

el magnifico,” dias-porter’s elegy for Roberto Clemente, combines the folk mythos of the John Henry figure and the intimate lamentation of lost fathers. The Tarot of Heroes card reads:


The poems create an archive of arts and athletes as surrogate father figures. Sons and fathers hear themselves in the “our.” The sound of praying emanates from mouths and music.

the renegade poetic Fortune-Telling Machine may offer the Tarot of Heroes or the Tarot of Mentors to remind you the ghosts are real: “Finally, finally, I come to believe in loss as a way of knowing,” Dias-Porter writes in “Elegy Indigo.” When one of these cards comes up in your tarot reading, be prepared to be guided by ghosts.

whatever your problem or dilemma, a poem from Ideas of Improvisation will have your answer. The book doubles as a poetic diary filling the reader with the life of the poet. The Tarot of Blood leads the reader to an elegy: “Father, Son and The Holy Ghost.” Inside the poem, another poem rests in red font:


The thread of dark red words weaves a quieter, shyer spirit inside the linguistic swagger of the surrounding text. The Tarot of Blood forecasts a raw, vulnerable encounter with Ideas of Improvisation. When this card comes up before your reading, the poems will lead you to the answers within. Be very still, and listen.…

a range of visual and verbal experiments unfolds inside Ideas of Improvisations. The most dynamic visualization comes in “Still Life,” a poem influenced by the visual textures of Jean-Michel Basquiat and somehow also by the quiet concreteness of haiku.

ideas of improvisation fills the reader with renegade psyche. It captures the poet’s dreams and fantasies. The poems are tarots of longing for people, odes and compulsive prayers for romantic company. Dias-Porter’s style carries echoes of the soul crooner and traveling troubadour. His visions and revisions maintain a constant pulse of romantic desire. A Pablo-Nerudan love frames the book. The poet is a blues haiku-ist and a lovelorn monk of the dictionary and jukebox.

if you cannot find a Poetic Fortune-Telling Machine, find the book of poems, Ideas of Improvisation. A book for lovers seeking repair but never revenge. For mothers wondering after eccentric sons, for sons wondering after nomadic fathers, for fathers and loners and gamblers and all us eccentric wondering spirits of the present unsettled world. The book holds poems written and rewritten, retitled and reconfigured, forgotten then revised several times over many decades, creating the poetic equivalent of a very fine Johnnie Walker Blue for the mind and mouth.

You must read the poems to discover your fortune. Your payment for this vintage new-age mercurial clairvoyant poetry is simply the price of the book.

Terrance Hayes is the author of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and To Float In the Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight. He is a professor of English at New York University.
Originally published:
March 27, 2023


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