Late in December 2016, struggling to make peace with Donald Trump’s ascension to the Presidency of the United States, poet Tom Riordan wrote his first “Trump” poem, and he hasn’t stopped since. To date, Riordan has written over 350 Trump poems, and he’s collecting them into an ongoing open-source book of sorts called “THE _ _ _ _ _ _ _. _ _ _ _ _ COLLECTION.” You can read much of it here or all of it here.
Dougherty: What made you start your Trump series?
Riordan: I think it was reading about Trump’s sojourn at Mar-a-Lago over Christmas of 2016, and seeing how interested I was in the details of his existence. That was the zoologist in me.
Dougherty: So you like animals?
Riordan: I do, very much. Homo sapiens and Homo fatuus included!
I look over.
Bibi’s holding Sara’s hand.
I reach to grab Melania’s,
who swats my hand away.
What does he do
to cool his wife?
I know a lot of guys.
he’s no saint,
as much a pig as me.
Believe me. Big league ballsy.
—from the poem “Mentor Netanyahu”
Dougherty: What made you keep going with the poems?
Riordan: It was challenging and fun. I’m just now finishing up that long, opening description paragraph you sometimes find in a novel, and now I’m starting to think about plot. Where am I taking Trump?
Dougherty: The zoo?
Riordan: The orangs would know just what to do with him.
Dougherty: When did you know this Trump series was going to be something pretty significant in scope?
Dougherty: Incrementally, as in “damn, where is this rash coming from?”
Riordan: Ha! Actually, incrementally as in “this is helping me cope.”
I’m sure prayer’s well and good—
but no substitute for activism.
_ _ _ _ _ would like nothing better
than Democrats down on their knees
in the Rosary Shrine, leaving him
and the rest of the Republicans
to run roughshod over the nation.
$4 million worth of new prayer
isn’t going to stop them, sisters!
Get up off your kneelers and fight!
—from the poem “Trump”
Dougherty: So would you throw all of this work away if the current president were actually the person that most Americans voted for?
Riordan: That’s an easy one! Yes. I would love to have the luxury again of trusting that the president had things in hand, not feeling like I had to watch the news, read the papers every day. Be free of that. Once I finish writing something, it’s already gone, so far as I’m concerned, so no great change, for me, if it really is gone.
Dougherty: I wonder whether we’ll be nuclear dust before anyone can read this interview.
Riordan: It’s very possible. I actually bought a box of those iodine tablets to help protect kids from fallout. Now I just need a jumbo size box of valium, and we’ll be ready.
Dougherty: How would you characterize Trump in nonpoetic terms?
Riordan: He’s a strange and dangerous creature in our midst. I can’t not watch. I’m too intrigued by trying to learn the details of what he is, and too afraid that he will get too close, to take my eye off him for long. At the same time, paradoxically, I think you’d find 6 of him if you walked into the locker room of any golf club in America. It’s odd he’s the darling of evangelicals. Do they play golf? Mini-golf, yeah.
Dougherty: So you buy the “locker room talk” excuse for the Billy Bush incident?
Riordan: Yes. I buy that he’s a common sort. But no, I do not buy all those voters’ excuse—that we should have such a common sort as President.
Dougherty: Has doing this kind of series made you think that you could be on to a cottage industry of poetic commentary?
Riordan: No. But I would let Rachel Maddow read them on air!
Dougherty: Cable news. 24/7 of whatever viewpoint you already hold. Information age. Donald Trump. I’m afraid to draw conclusions.
Riordan: Cable news, some anyway, also provides actual information. The rampant misinformation of the Trump age is actually demonstrating why trustworthy, mainstream news media are essential.
Dougherty: Sustained political poetry is relatively rare in the annals of literature. Do you get the sense that this time is different and calls for a more pronounced artistic response?
Riordan: Everyone’s been forced to respond in some way, no? Artists, too. Studying Trump and handling him artistically on a daily basis is what works for me, but I’m sure plenty of artists do the opposite—escape his tentacles by turning to genres as far away from him as possible.
Dougherty: And poets, in general?
Riordan: In general, I think poetry has turned up its voice in opposition to Trump. I’m aware of poets and artists playing a national role more than ever in my lifetime.
Dougherty: Any names?
Riordan: SNL leaps to mind. Scores of individual poems by individual poets, speaking up about Trump and the issues Trump raises. Javier Zamora, for example.
Dougherty: Do you think Trump has ever read a poem?
Riordan: Yes, in middle school DT was very proud of how he memorized and recited “O Captain! My Captain!”
President Trump’s new Homeland Security chief Gen. John Kelly has announced that three-time Poetry in a Jiffy champion Imelda Donnelly is his pick to head up the Federal Emergency Poetry Agency, or FEPA.
The sprawling agency has been bitterly criticized for having been too slow to compose mobile poems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“They just weren’t expediting it fast enough,” Ms. Donnelly commented. “There’s no excuse for taking so long to get emergency verses in place. I promise you, that pace will pick up under me!”
—from “FEPA Chief Named”
Dougherty: If Trump came to you and asked you to teach him to write poetry, where would you begin?
Riordan: I’d say, “Ditch the day job.” Then, “Sit under that beech tree, no phone, nothing, and just think—until I tell you to get up.” If he was still there in the morning, then I’d give him a cup of tea, a pencil, and a pad.
Dougherty: I’d laugh.
Riordan: I’ve been asked to teach a lot of kooks to write poetry. I never laugh till I get back in my car [laughter].
Dougherty: Poets might need a list of words that rhyme with Trump. What are some that come to your mind?
Riordan: Frump, grump, sump.
Just call me Trump.
The basic monosyllable makes sense,
it sounds like lump.
Or dump. Or mump. Or rump or sump.
That’s how I tend to see myself.
My other, full names, Donald John,
don’t seem legitimately mine.
—from the poem “Automaton in Search of Master”
Dougherty: Trump comes to you for suggestions for Poet Laureate. What would you tell him?
Riordan: “Have them appoint me, and make my collection about you a best seller.”
I said I’d tell the truth. There was no reason
to make fun of him. “And the—ahem—
the metaphor? Or the comparison?
About what might be down below—the size?”
I said, “If anything, you’d have thick balls.”
That pleased him to no end.
“You’ll write that, Tom?” I said I would.
He offered me a future Poet Laureation.
—from the poem “What Rankles”
Dougherty: Laureate aside, I hear there are usually some job openings at the White House. Interested?
Riordan: Yes! I’d like to be a valet or something, someone who stands attentively in the background and gets to hear some of the household background bullshit.
Dougherty: The ghost writer for Trump’s Art of the Deal book recently predicted that Trump would resign soon. What do you think?
Riordan: I just don’t know. I don’t see “the good of the nation” or “embarrassment” motivating him to resign, but what will he do when great pressure is applied by other strong, powerful leaders? I don’t know. Or threatened with jail, and offered a deal to resign? I’m still not sure. For all I study him, I don’t think I understand what his bottom line values are. It’s possible that #1 is simply strife.
I do it to do it—
what it is, it really doesn’t matter—
standing still, do nothing, is a form of death.
I’m such a dynamo.
I might create a mess, but that’s the beauty.
Call it chaos. But I’m never boring.
Never stop, think, listen. No regret.
—from the poem “XI. ☧/T”
Dougherty: I think that many have passed through distinct emotional states in the wake of the 2016 election. Have you noticed that your energy about the Trump phenomenon has changed since you started this series?
Riordan: I’m sick and tired of it. It occupies a significant portion of my mind every day. There’s a very inviting option waiting for me: “Just drop it. Ignore it. (Accept it.)” It’s a test of strength. But I’m a very stubborn person, too.
Dougherty: What questions would you (or do you) ask yourself about Trump or about writing?
Riordan: I ask myself whether my writing, including writing about Trump, has any purpose beyond keeping me busy. Keeping me busy from what? Harder work that actually does some good in the world? Or surrendering to entertaining myself passively—via TV, say? Surely nothing terrible would happen either to me or the world if I stopped doing it for a month and tried to find out. But I’m afraid.