Homeless Control Slab at the PF building

Photo by William Fuller. The photoshopped version of the Spanish Civil War Republican slogan is by Tom Raworth.


A fascinating bit of news has come to our attention. It is in relation to the petition that began to gain attention four days ago, calling, quite reasonably enough, on the Poetry Foundation to devote a mere 2% of its nearly $250 million in capital to create an emergency fund for those poets, small presses, and poetry bookstores who are in special need during the virus crisis.

The petition now approaches 900 signatures. The PF has so far refused to even acknowledge the appeal.

A little bit of history is necessary, here, to grasp the remarkable irony of the twist in this story. Here we go:

1) On September 27th, 2011, a group of five civil-disobedience commandos entered the new $22 million Poetry Foundation building. The legendary rebel poet Raúl Zurita, former leader of the Chilean culture-action group CADA (Colectivos de Acción de Arte), CADA: Lessons for Poetic Revolts to Come, by Kent Johnson and Robert Neustadt  which had played an outsized role inspiring the overthrow of the Pinochet dictatorship, was the featured reader. The young commandos of the Croatoan Poetic Cell dropped two large, lovingly made banners, one praising Zurita and the CADA, the other protesting the PF’s wastage of the Big Pharma bequest that had funded their building. They proceeded to pass out leaflets calling on the PF to cancel plans for the construction of a Gold Coast Guest House and to invest that money, instead, on poetry workshops in poor neighborhoods of Chicago. The suit-wearing, wired security detail of the PF tore down and destroyed the banners forthwith and called the Chicago cops to arrest the peacefully protesting poets. Like Dadaists, Surrealists, or the CADA activists before them, the young rebels scampered off before the cops could throw them in the paddy wagon. Zurita himself went on to express his admiration for the Croatoan rebels, in a major story about the incident in La Tercera, one of Chile’s major dailies. (The Poetry Foundation President at the time, incidentally, was John Barr, an investment banker and key player in the Enron scandal, who boasted on his resume of personal ties to various financial and State institutions. His best known book, Grace, is written entirely in racist, Blackface lingo )

2) Three weeks previous, on the occasion of a performance-art action by two Croatoan members (who crashed a gala wine and cheese reception celebrating the opening of the Poetry Foundation building, which the legendary UK poet J.H. Prynne later wrote bore the appearance of a bank and acted like one*), the Poetry Foundation had dialed the cops, who managed to arrest one of the activists, a young woman named Stephanie Dunn. She was driven to Cook County Prison, one of the most violent penitentiaries in the nation, where she was detained in a cell for several hours, and threatened by guards and other prisoners. She later reported in a written account that she feared she would be raped. When she appeared at her hearing, some days later, pleading without representation** to not be sent back to jail, two nattily dressed representatives from the Poetry Foundation argued that this young performance artist–who had certainly not harmed anyone in her symbolic protest–be given extra prison time.

3) Here, for the record, are two articles about the Croatoan protests of fall, 2011 and the PF’s reprehensible reaction to them– one a lead story from Salon, the other a feature story from the mass circulation Chicago Reader:

4) As indicated above, just a few days ago, on April 15, a petition calling on the Poetry Foundation to demonstrate concern and compassion by releasing some of its nearly $250 million (the total amount of the PF’s portfolio is surely much larger***) was posted on the Twitter feed of the Chicago poet and translator Jennifer Scappettone. Dispatches immediately linked to it and contacted a few editors of prominent and well-connected online poetry sites, requesting that they share the urgent news. Predictably, none of them did, with the sole, honorable exception of David Lehman, at Best American Poetry daily.

5) Dispatches was under the mistaken assumption that Jennifer Scappettone had been the one to create the petition. But in fact, on April 17th, we received an email from the poet Peter Burghardt, one of the editors of speCt books, informing us that it was the speCt collective who was responsible for writing and first posting the petition, which was honorably retweeted from their change.org petition by Scappettone.

6) Burghardt was a former housemate, in college and in Chicago, of the carpenter, poet, and collage artist Brooks Johnson, when the latter was in the forefront of the Croatoan actions targeting the Poetry Foundation. Peter and Brooks were also fellow musicians in the experimental rock band “El is a Sound of Joy,” which regularly packed shows in the city’s underground noise-music scene during that time. In fact, when Johnson moved from Chicago to New Orleans, some four years back, he gave his friend Peter his letterpress machine as a goodbye gift. All speCt books and ephemera are now printed on that letterpress. As Peter wrote to us, “Brooks actually gave me the letterpress a couple of years after I moved away, so the petition never would have happened without him in that sense.”

7) Brooks Johnson is Frac’s son, and didn’t even know about the petition when Frac forwarded the letter to him, from his dear old friend, Peter.

8) What goes around comes around. Long live the example of the Croatoan Poetic Cell. Long live speCt books. Poetic justice finds its way. Occupy the Poetry Foundation.



*Prynne’s letter of solidarity with the Croatoan Poetic Cell, sent in October, reads as follows:

[To the Croatoan Poetic Cell]:
Everyone bleats off saying that the Occupy movements aren’t serious, don’t have any coherent ideas, have no positive understanding of important issues. We hear a lot of that over in the UK, too. Of course this is rather amazing and paltry. Very large numbers of mostly modest citizens have come out of their passive shells and affirmed nothing more nor less than utter distaste for the current political and economic machines that supposedly regulate our lives. Unlike formal revolution, which has leaders and defined purpose, this is revulsed protest on a massive scale. The sense of it is not in articulate aims or ideas, but in the sheer fact of the numbers, the tidal waves of emerging intuitive refusal to accept the control frame of social order imposed on the freedoms of human life. It’s so obvious that the vast network of global capitalism is falling to pieces, not by antagonism from outside but by implosion from within. This system claims to define and direct the practice of life on the planet, and now it’s evidently busted.

Poets and artists have an honourable share in resistance to imposed control, especially since language is a major instrument of social oppression by power hungry institutions. So it’s more than right that concentrations of power and control in the art world should be challenged, by spontaneous incoherence and flights of free invention. The Poetry Foundation building in Chicago deserves to be a prime target, because it’s a capitalistic formation based on undemocratically accumulated wealth: the place *looks* like the corporate headquarters of a banking conglomerate, and that’s indeed how it functions. It seems like anarchism to say these things, but actually it’s liberational dissidence, to reclaim and occupy the free space of the mind and imagination, and to open these august portals of institutional repression. 

Indeed it is a kind of trespass, to stream into controlled spaces and just overflow them, not by reasoned argument but simply by shared presence: demography! Thus the legal formats of punitive exclusion are also challenged, not by violence but simply by spillage of peoples in large numbers and by acts of individual self positioning. The poets involved in this struggle should stand firm and should not be intimidated.

**Dunn began pleading her case without representation. It was only when a compassionate Public Defender in the room, overhearing the demands made by the PF reps that Dunn be sentenced (a “poetry institution” trying to get the State to send another poet to prison!), that she volunteered, on the spot, to defend Dunn, getting her released on a stiff probation.

***According to the 2018 990 tax reports, the Poetry Foundation has $45 million more than it was originally bequeathed. But that amount has surely climbed considerably with the major stock surges of 2019, before the COVID crisis. As well, the (in)famous bequest gift came in the form of Eli Lily stock, which has been soaring during the COVID crisis (see screen caption below). The rocket-spike shown in the graph should all be capital gains for the Foundation’s holdings in Lily stock. speCt books has said they plan to dig into the historical tax returns and the property value increase of the Foundation’s building to better assess the institution’s total portfolio. speCt books also notes that informed sources in the philanthropic sector have stressed, in response to research queries, that nonprofit entities who accrue more capital than they spend are typically seen as unethical, even by those in the big-money nonprofit world. Such practice has often proved legally troublesome for nonprofits who have engaged in money hoarding activities. But that doesn’t seem to be stopping the Poetry Foundation. As Prynne says in his letter above, the Poetry Foundation looks like a bank and acts like one.