[Note: A very prominent, controversial poet and critic, who has contributed poems to Dispatches, wrote us thoughtfully to take issue with our claim that the Poetry Foundation had acted unethically, a few years back, when they sought to arrest young Chicago poets who peacefully protested, during a reading by Raúl Zurita, at the Foundation’s new $23 million edifice. We asked this poet’s permission to publish his letter, sending him the below reply, at the same time. We indicated to him that we would be happy to have an open exchange on the issues in question. He declined to share his letter, so we publish our reply to him, only, sans his name. The key points raised by him can be inferred fairly well from our comments below, which reference his objections. We of course reiterate our invitation to the Poetry Foundation to send us their perspective, though we realize that is unlikely, given that the PF is openly boycotting Dispatches, with the exception of odd and cryptic backchannels that seek to change the topic at hand.]
Thanks for your message. May we publish it in Dispatches? We’d like to have an exchange about this, if you are open to it. This would be our first reply.
The Poetry Foundation may technically be “private,” but it is first and foremost, supposedly, a cultural institution, representing the traditions of poetry. One of the hallowed traditions of poetry is of course dissent, in manifold varieties, including categorically impolite kinds. Épater la bourgeoisie, etc.
You obviously know it, but it seems to bear reminding in this case: “Occupations” and civil-disobedient types of actions are legion in poetry’s history, not least amongst the “avant-garde,” a legacy the PF is obviously connected to, through the history of its magazine, and through its extensive online archive, where dozens of perfectly misbehaving scoundrel poets are honored. In fact, the event at which the Croatoan protestors peacefully hung two banners and passed out leaflets (at no time did they seek to stop the event from proceeding) was a reading by Raúl Zurita, one of the leaders of the Chilean CADA, a militant and totally illegal artist-poet action cell during the Pinochet years. The Croatoan protestors were there, in no small way, to honor Zurita and the example of his revolutionary resistance during the 1970s and 80s, which had included various radical actions at cultural institutions, public or private, in his own country. Zurita himself praised the protestors, both at the podium, and later in a prominent interview regarding the PF affair, in one of Chile’s biggest newspapers.
Now, your suggestion that the PF, because it is a “private entity,” should be expected to treat peacefully protesting poets just like General Motors would be expected to treat peaceful protestors is a bit strange. It is also quite strange (even somewhat funny) to suggest that the PF might have been motivated to call the Chicago Police Department out of a fear of imminent “terrorism”(!): The perfectly peaceful action took place in full midst of the national Occupy Movement (a phenomenon the Harriet blog covered widely and–or so it seemed–sympathetically), and was clearly linked to its democratic, populist spirit. In fact, a few weeks after the Croatoan group action at the PF, a much larger group of young artists in NYC (its leaders partly inspired by the PF event, it was later learned) occupied the foyer of the MoMA for a lengthy amount of time. To my knowledge, and unlike with the occasion at the PF, the cops were not sent to chase down and arrest the protestors, even though the artists brought normal museum operations to a halt at that “private” space.
Private entities always have a choice in their actions. And those choices, in situations such as what we’re talking about, where cultural institutions are implicated most particularly, must include ethical considerations beyond the merely legalistic ones. Wouldn’t you agree?
So, we do reject the assumptions underlying your argument here. Are you familiar with the letter of solidarity the great UK poet J.H. Prynne sent the protestors? We can share it with you, if you like. In it, he does agree with one thing you say: That the Poetry Foundation is a private entity, and that it is entangled, via the résumés of those in its highest offices, to both big finance and the national security state (he says it looks like a bank and acts like one). And he proposes that the intrusion of such a highly capitalized cultural institution into the poetry field is not only absolutely unprecedented, but insidious in manifold ways, and demanding of urgent resistance.
We repeat our call for the Poetry Foundation to apologize for its shameful actions and for poets to boycott its activities and its magazine until it does.