Tom Portwood: non-profit activist, volunteer, free-lance writer and poet


Born in Ruston, Louisiana in 1949, Tom Portwood’s earliest memories were of Colombia and Rio de Janeiro in South America between 1951 and 1959. During his 4 years in Rio, he remembers “the heartbreaking poverty,” “the smell of black bean soup drifting over parts of the city from the ramshackle favelas (slums) that dotted several of the hillsides,” and the “great beauty...of Sugar Loaf Mountain, the wide Rio beaches and the Atlantic Ocean.”

His family moved to a suburb near Los Angeles in 1959, and he graduated from the University of California, Riverside in 1973. He has worked in the non-profit community arena for almost two decades, both here and in Texas.

During his career as a free-lance writer, fund development consultant, and non-profit agency program developer, he has helped promote assistance opportunities in the areas of health and dental care, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, child abuse, transportation and women’s health. In Houston, Texas he served on the Ryan White HIV Services Planning Council and other community groups. For the past 3 years he has volunteered with the United Way of Stanislaus County, served on the UWSC Council on Promoting Health and Well Being, and written several stories for its Annual Report 2005 and 2006.

Acknowledging the “immense” needs of so many, he says he “loves seeing new, worthy programs funded and enjoys the satisfaction of assisting agencies, which in turn help so many families at moments of real crisis in their lives.”

Tom has been a creative writer much of his life. His poetry includes descriptions “of the harsh urban landscape of the homeless and other outsiders,” and many poems about memories, family and friends. He joined the awg (another writing group), when he moved to Modesto in 2003 and credits the group’s fine poets “for giving him the confidence to pursue his poetry more seriously.” His poetry has appeared in Poets Corner and hardpan, and several of his poems were produced on the CD, “Cold Bare Rain” by Zootsutti Music.



From a Civil War era photograph of a deathly emaciated Union prisoner of war, photographer unknown.

I know -
you wince at the very sight of me
as I gaze out at the camera –
my Auschwitz-like eyes disturbing you
from your soft daily routine.
I am Andersonville –
once a lusty lad fighting
Johnny Reb
bayonet to bayonet
this pathetic scarecrow, mere matchstick bones
and sunken face
half dead, and naked for your edification
propped up like a broken puppet as a warning to all.

I am the prototype unleashed
the lesson you gaily ignore.
I know -
I can see it in your eyes
the uneasy glance among yourselves
I look more than vaguely familiar to you:
I am brother to the 700,000 slaughtered at Verdun
the fifty million people
(some say twice that)
gunned down, gassed, bombed, impaled
starved, incinerated – take your pick -
in World War II.
I am Treblinka and Nanking and Cambodia
the Vietnamese girl torched by napalm
caught screaming soundlessly on newsreel film.
I am Rwanda and Burundi and Dresden.
I am Darfur. Need I go on?
I am the buck n ball, the daisy cutter bomb, a pellet of Zyklon B.
I know -
I flirt shamelessly with your bleakest thoughts.

I am Andersonville
the self-inflicted wound
you let fester in the human soul
I know -
I make you squirm.

(“I Am Andersonville” first appeared in hardpan, October, 2006)


I am an old and crazy quilt of a man
the ragged, smiling derelict
you drive by
on your way to the ballet
with your lovely wife.
By morning
you’ll find me sleeping
on yesterday’s newspaper
lying so still
on the sidewalk
I could be dead
you never know.

This street – your street too? –
is my private cave
its foggy neon glow
bathes me
in a tinny nightmare
undertaker’s blue

What’s the purpose
of his life?
you seemed to want to mouth outloud
when you were out on your walk
the other day
and dropped four bits
in my upturned palm.

Thank you, sir.
God Bless you, sir.

Let us say I exist
for your amusement
something to chuckle over
with business friends
as you go to lunch

here’s the truth:
you are the one
who lives in a house of sand
a paper world
of frail concoctions
mortgages and power lunches
stock market swings, designer jeans
only the latest of the latest
for you and yours

your world could collapse
in a minute
mine might last the night
you never know.

So go ahead
with your greeting card life
enjoy your shiny gray jaguar
show off that pretty wife of yours
at the ballet tonight
I’ll go on wearing one brown dress shoe
scuffed and beaten
my one shabby sneaker
pocked with holes
huddle close
to the smudge pot flame.
When next
you see me
lying on the street
I could be dead
you never know.

Stone Soup Food Pantry, Houston, Texas
Saturday, December 15, 1990

One by one
they sense the trapdoors
One by one
and cell by cell
but laughter
is the coinage of the day
this day
as they wait in line
for beans and rice and cans of soup.

Willie and Cocoa
and the others
gossip as though
at marketplace -
comparing T-cell counts
like baseball trading cards -
lost to the world and the world's caring.

Anger and despair leak out
in little ways
with jokes and slights
and accusations
with knowing nods and
cigarette butts
passed down the line
in their idle chitchat
pain assumes its final grace.

One by one
and cell by cell
they will fight the killer
spit in its eye
as it devours them
in the county clinic

But this day they laugh.