It's time to Occupy Poetry

Merry pranksters call the Poetry Foundation elitist and beholden to Prozac cash. Are they right, or just annoying?

Published November 13, 2011 5:00PM (EST)


One evening this fall, two young activists walked through the bright, modern library of the new Poetry Foundation headquarters and marched up to the glass balcony. Some 30 attendees had gathered that evening in Chicago to hear a free poetry reading, and now many turned to view long, hand-painted banners unfurling from the second floor. With solemn fanfare, the two men, members of a small rebel alliance called the Croatoan Poetic Cell, had launched their latest defense of poetry — shortly before someone at the foundation called the police.

“What would have happened,” asked one banner, “if Emily Dickinson had been prescribed Prozac?” Idle speculation aside -- one pictures long, glazed-over afternoons spent knitting frocks in New England -- the protesters were implying that Prozac stymies creativity, and that the Poetry Foundation, lavishly funded by a pharmaceutical fortune, does business with the kind of people who might, given the chance, have put Dickinson on antidepressants.

The story of how a nonprofit literary foundation became a stage for anti-Prozac agitation begins in 2003. That year, Ruth Lilly, the heiress of the pharmaceutical family, gave a fairy-godmotherish gift of $200 million to the Poetry Foundation. In the cash-poor world of poetry, it was like dropping a quivering church mouse into a gourmet cheese emporium. Since then, the foundation has built a sleek new headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop, which boasts a gorgeous library, a public garden, an auditorium and the offices of Poetry, the foundation’s storied magazine.

To the CPC, the foundation has also settled comfortably into its new role as an oppressor of the masses: a monied bastion of “state-corporate control,” according to their leaflets. They believe the foundation now wields the anti-creative influence of its financial overlords.

As the Occupy movement nears its third month, the CPC — though not strictly an Occupy offshoot — is among the many groups decrying arts institutions as clubhouses of the 1 percent. In October, New York protesters occupied Sotheby’s, MoMA and the Artists Space gallery in SoHo. “We, the artists of the 99% have emerged!” one protester wrote. “Not as pawns in your fraudulent art market where the royalty of Wall Street rule.”

If anything links these protests with the movement, it’s not a particular agenda, any more than Zuccotti Park’s graduate student tenants share the economic philosophy of its hobos. Rather, it’s a general cynicism about large institutions that has spilled from politics into culture.

One upside to these protests is that they promote a conversation about financial regulation, income inequality and the conditions of our democracy. Another is that we can now read about the many weird guerrilla antics that the Occupy movement has inspired in groups across the country. The CPC is just such a group, and its members have an intriguing mix of qualities: they’re friendly, intelligent, brazen, pretentious, earnest, nutty and sometimes drunk.

The CPC headquarters is a warehouse somewhere in Chicago, and it’s considerably less swank than that of the Poetry Foundation. “We have been living in a construction zone for the past three months,” says cell member Brooks Johnson. “We have a lending library here, someone is always playing music. We all sleep in the same room (the library) in a pile of unwashed blankets, couches, arms, legs. Sometimes it becomes difficult to figure out where you end and someone else begins.”

The night before the Poetry Foundation reading, the group opened a bottle of whiskey and composed their manifesto. Because Ruth Lilly’s fortune came from the manufacturer of Prozac — Eli Lilly & Co. — it follows, they argued, that the foundation has been tainted by anti-poetic drug money. Indeed, the opulence of the new building reflects the kind of corporate materialism they feel has stifled poetry all across America. Swank décor, they argue, does nothing for poetry. Rather, “poetry happens when we are shaken out of our psychic, linguistic, phenomenological, and indeed even physiological compliance with the spectacle and its myriad illusory modes of reification.”

In breezy, congenial emails to Salon — lightly peppered with typos and ampersands — the CPC elaborated on its ideology, alternating between clear wording and strange abstractions. Asked to explain what the leaflet meant by  “the spectacle and its myriad illusory modes of reification,” Johnson answered that cultural institutions “are an integral part of the Spectacle. They are the conduits through which images, objects and language ‘transform’ into high art.”

It’s a Situationist take, in short. Situationism is the view that we’re deeply influenced by the rooms we enter — at its extreme, it holds that we’re the hand puppets of architecture. A famous example of this phenomenon is the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students inhabiting a mock-prison gradually began to act like actual prisoners and guards, the former rebellious and the latter ruthless. Rather than turning students into jailhouse brutes, the Poetry Foundation headquarters turns its visitors into a flock of docile bourgeois spectators, as the CPC sees it; the trouble is that such spaces constitute “a sort of tabernacle, a sacred space wherein the desire is to be wowed or whatever by the art which a given cultural institution has deemed worthy of praise.” The CPC prefers a more egalitarian setting for art — they demand that the foundation fund the construction of two new buildings in lower-income areas of Chicago. They also promote “disrupting or queering the normally passive experience” that people have at poetry readings, museums and other art events.

The reading the CPC “queered” with the Dickinson banner was that of their hero Raúl Zurita, a Chilean poet who became prominent after speaking out against Augusto Pinochet’s military coup in 1973. Though tortured by Pinochet’s thugs, Zurita survived to become a leading member of CADA, the Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (Art Actions Collective). His protests against the Pinochet regime in the 1980s included skywriting his poetry over New York City and splashing ammonia on his own face, which nearly blinded him. While the CPC doesn’t claim to have Zurita’s heroism (or to share his taste for ammonia), its members are inspired by his example. Their second banner that night bore the slogan “Viva CADA!” and Zurita seems to have appreciated the gesture: the Chilean newspaper La Tercera quotes him speaking with tenderness about his new fans. In this light, the CPC is startlingly reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño’s novel “The Savage Detectives,” in which a group of ardent young Mexican writers dub themselves “visceral realists,” seek out an obscure poet they idolize, and band together against the “establishment” — bursting, for instance, into a poetry workshop they wish to disrupt and later challenging a literary critic to a sword fight.

The Zurita protest may be found on YouTube, and the footage offers its share of pleasures, if only because of the sheer awkwardness involved. In another clip, shot during the wine-and-cheese reception after the reading, the protesters quibble over the legal semantics of “trespassing” with some very uncomfortable-looking ushers, who try to bar the exit until the police arrive. Despite the blockade, the two banner-hangers somehow managed to slip out in time to avoid arrest. The foundation has since hired actual security guards — more money, more problems. (Poetry Foundation officials declined to discuss the CPC or its protests.)

The CPC’s leaflets also protest the arrest of Stephanie Dunn, a 24-year-old who, at a foundation event a few weeks earlier, had staged an impromptu protest. At first she only threw a cup of free wine to the floor, but after foundation employees objected, she partially undressed and started an enthusiastic make-out session with Johnson, rolled around on the floor, and at some point stole a bottle of wine. When I asked Dunn why she was arrested, she answered, “For having too much fun.”

Dunn is not a member of the CPC, but she is their friend (apparently with benefits), and she clearly shares much of their outlook. “The night Steph and I met,” Johnson writes, “she tagged the wall of a bougie art gallery … a group of about 40 of us were on our way to occupy the Federal Reserve when Steph was arrested for sitting atop the Haymarket statue while playing a banjo. Some of us in the group have been participating in the occupation here in Chicago in fact we met one member of our group the first day that Occupy Chi[cago] began.”

As for the bottle she stole, Dunn cheerfully invoked her “Right to Wine.” But the CPC had a more interesting comment: “Look, we are thieves ... and ones with a pretty strict code of ethics; namely, that we don't steal from people…. Stealing from corporate entities, or banks, or the gods, or whatever has a long and venerable tradition. It's how we got fire, how Hermes became a God, how so much great myth, art, & literature has been conceived — acts of thievery and transgression, which restore a certain sort of balance.”

If they have a God, it’s clearly not Hermes but Loki, the Norse trickster, and they’re glad to see the faith is spreading. “It's deeply encouraging to see others taking up the mantle of institutional critique,” say the CPC. “We feel like we are a small ripple in this much greater context of whats [sic] happening globally.” As for the Occupy Museums crowd, Dunn remarks, “I hope they're having a blast! I have a thing for kissing statues and licking paintings, but unfortunately, due to my court-ordered supervision, I cannot participate as visibly or intensely because if I get arrested I will go to jail for a while.”

Odd as the CPC’s agenda may be, it does reflect a common (and romantic) notion that wealth is at odds with artistic authenticity. Nor is it new to fume that poets in particular grow dull amid the trappings of capitalism. In a recent Vanity Fair article on the photographer Milton Gendel, James Reginato tells the following anecdote. Sometime in the 1940s, two American editors at the French Surrealist magazine VVV gave their boss, André Breton, engraved Christmas cards. Breton had them fired immediately. “These snakes at my bosom!” he screamed. “I have fought the middle-class bourgeoisie all my life. And now they bring me Christmas cards!”

Moreover, shenanigans have always had a place in the art world, and they can sometimes needle us into taking a fresh look at things. Sure, one can find plenty to admire in issues of Poetry and in the programs of the Poetry Foundation (in full disclosure, I’ve written articles for them), but one may well ask whether the foundation could do a bit more for the lower classes in Chicago, or whether its wealth now distracts from its mission. It’s also worth considering the CPC’s observation that “the language that [foundation president] John Barr uses in talking about the Poetry Foundation ... is eerily reminiscent of the corporate language of marketing and branding.” For them, the fact that Barr used to be an investment banker on Wall Street says it all.

At the same time, these protests reflect an unwitting hypocrisy: The group claims to fight for the common people but in fact has put its own priorities above those of people who attend poetry events. There’s irony in a protest that seeks to defend poetry by disrupting poetry readings. Those who would rather not have their evening “queered” are simply too bourgeois, it seems, to count. In much the same way, one wonders why Ms. Dunn claims to defend art by licking paintings. Between that kind of activism and any form of accountability one finds a buffer of obtuse pseudo-theory, a convenient layer of cerebral anarchy.

“Croatoan,” as American history buffs know, was carved mysteriously on a post in Roanoke Island, N.C., — the last trace of a colony that disappeared sometime in the late 1580s. Its governor returned after three years away to find the fort deserted, and the colony was never found. If today’s Croatoans — like some of the Occupy Museums protesters — don’t find a better tack, they will prove more aptly named than they realize. Like their namesake, they will disappear into a footnote.

By Jeremy Axelrod

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