Dear Jennifer Scappettone,

I see you are blogging for the Poetry Foundation this month of May.

I am writing to express a concern about a matter and to ask your consideration.

Four and a half years ago, a young poet and activist named Stephanie Dunn carried out a performance protest at a wine and cheese reception at the then-brand-new $23 million Poetry Foundation building. She carried out this action with my son, her partner at the time, Brooks Johnson. Both of them, in Dadaist and Infrarrealista spirit, mocked the formal protocols of the occasion and openly kissed and fondled one another in full view of the invited high-society dignitaries present. This apparently caused some discomfort to the wine tasters in attendance, who complained about the inappropriate affection demonstrated by the two performance protestors. Employees of the Poetry Foundation dutifully called the cops, who quickly arrived. Both my son and Stephanie attempted to skip past the police. Brooks managed to dart through the door, but Stephanie was violently pinned down and arrested. She was then taken to the Cook County Penitentiary, where she spent the night and where she was subjected to intense sexual harassment, and to such a degree that she feared she might be raped.

Some days later, Stephanie attended her court hearing for the incident. The Poetry Foundation sent two official representatives to this hearing. These individuals, to date unidentified, strenuously argued that Stephanie should be sent back to prison to serve time for her “transgression.” They did this, even, knowing that Stephanie had no legal counsel present. And had it not been for a public defender who happened to be there on another case and who chose to intervene on Stephanie’s behalf after overhearing the outrageous demands of the PF goons (I use that term carefully), Stephanie would likely have been sent back to prison, for who knows how long and with what consequences to her safety.

A few weeks later, on the occasion of a reading by the great Chilean poet-activist Raúl Zurita, Brooks and a small squadron of protestors from the Croatoan Poetic Cell returned to the Poetry Foundation Building. In perfectly peaceful fashion, they hung two beautiful banners, one praising Zurita and the example of the Chilean art-action group CADA, and the other asking if Emily Dickinson would have written her poems had she been prescribed Prozac from the Lilly Corporation. These banners, as you can see in the YouTube video linked at the feature Salon magazine article about the incident here, were immediately torn down and destroyed by PF personnel.
The Croatoan activists then proceeded to chant some slogans and to distribute a leaflet calling on the Poetry Foundation to spend its considerable monies on establishing poetry programs in the inner city, rather than spending it on a new Lakefront Guest House. These leaflets were appropriated by the outsourced, uniformed, and ear-wired PF Security detail, who then blocked the exit doors so that the Croatoan protestors could not escape before the cops–hailed once again by the PF to shackle fellow poets–arrived to arrest them. You can see this also on the YouTube video, even though it doesn’t capture the full scope of the event. Fortunately, the poet-activists were able to break through the Security blockade and disperse before the cops could haul them away to Cook County Penitentiary, as they had done with Stephanie.

A couple weeks later, Raúl Zurita, whose reading proceeded without further incident, was interviewed by La Tercera, Chile’s second-largest newspaper. In the interview Zurita spoke about the Croatoan protest in Chicago, praising the young poets for their inspiring courage and idealism, which he stated reminded him of the spirit that had guided him and other poets and artists when they carried out cultural-guerrilla actions during the late 70s and early 80s against the Pinochet regime.
To this day, the Poetry Foundation has not apologized for its utterly obscene actions. It chose to call the repressive apparatus of the State on peacefully protesting poets, who were carrying out cultural-guerrilla actions in fully venerable avant-garde tradition—Dada, Surrealism, the Situationists, CADA, Infrarrealism, to name only a few examples. And the PF violently endangered the physical well-being of these brave poets by doing so. It is astonishing that these events, which were prominently covered in major outlets like Salon and the Chicago Reader, and which partly inspired a similar, even larger action at the MoMA by young artists, has gone so little remarked upon by U.S. poets, not least those who have gone on, in its aftermath, to accept pay-for-blog money from the corporate-linked PF. In fact, it is worse than that, in light of the résumé of the current PF President.

I am asking you, believing you are an honorable poet, to publicly demand, in one of your blogs this month, that the Poetry Foundation, fully and without qualification, apologize for its violent and shameful behavior in 2011. It is only right and just that this happen. Too much time has elapsed without a full apology. Surely, future commentators of our time and scene will be remarking on, and marveling at, the prolonged and embarrassing silence. It shames us all.

Kent Johnson

PS: This is a letter written by the legendary UK poet JH Prynne to the Croatoans:

[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.