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A Conversation with Brooks Johnson
[Editor's Note: The following is presented unedited. The opinions expressed in this interview belong to those involved in the conversation and do not reflect the views of the Poetry Foundation. Factual inaccuracies have been corrected in brackets.]
First off, I want to provide some background: In September of last year, the Croatoan Poetic Cell, of which you are a member, staged a demonstration at a Raul Zurita reading at the Poetry Foundation. Two banners were unfurled from a balcony, “VIVA CADA” and “WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF EMILY DICKINSON HAD BEEN PRESCRIBED PROZAC?” Cops were called in, but there was no legal action taken, unlike what happened to Stephanie Dunn, whom the Poetry Foundation tried to have locked up, after she and you staged an impromptu provocation at another Poetry Foundation event. In your own words, as quoted in the Chicago Reader, you guys were “making out in an exaggerated, comical manner,” and Stephanie even shed some of her clothes. After the second protest, Salon considered your band of cultural guerrilas as “merry pranksters” that were either “right” or, at worst, “annoying,” but certainly not criminals, and they compared you to the Occupiers, “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.” So please elaborate on why the Poetry Foundation has become a target for protests? Also, please provide us with an update on what eventually happened to Stephanie Dunn.
The poetry foundation is a neo-liberalist organization. That they have hoarded a 100,000,000 dollar endowment from a pharmaceutical heiress, or that their just-resigned [Ed. Note: John Barr will retire at the end of 2012 after nine years as President] President, John Barr, is a former investment banker and leading figure in the energy-deregulation orgy of the early naughts, kind of says it all. It’s pretty wild how consistent they are–from the outsourced Security to their notions of private property and eagerness to call upon repressive state apparatuses to draw these lines with physical force, arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. With Stephanie and later, when the banners were dropped at the Raúl Zurita reading, it became very clear that the poetry foundation suffers from a certain disconnect with the basic fabric of what constitutes poetry…they sort of miss the boat on Blake’s “poetry fettered fetters the human race.” Whether it’s some kind of naive belief in the fairness of the police and the courts or, like many typical neo-liberal citizen-subjects, they somehow manage to disavow the violence of the state as ‘out of their hands’ — perhaps it was merely the sort of institutional vindictiveness that has been all too common for all too long that was the guiding motive in their arrest and prosecution of Stephanie. She’s one of the most committed activists that I know and spends her time on things far more important and consequential than dealing with the po fo (let alone a bunch of legal bullshit for being too exuberant and refusing to be bullied by some man in a uniform). Had it not been for a public defender’s heroic and totally serendipitous intervention, she would have spent several days in jail. The poetry foundation actually sent two representatives to her hearing, to urge the judge to throw her in the slammer. She was eventually offered a plea bargain which was (I think) court supervision and a fine–just the succession of words in that sentence is nauseating. Mind-boggling, the cheekiness of it: how the foundation’s Harriet blog posted with such solemn “solidarity” for poets involved in the OWS, right on the heels of the PF calling the cops on poets peacefully enacting an intervention that honored the great Zurita! And who later expressed in one of Chile’s major dailies his complete support of us… I mean, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Baudrillard’s book The Conspiracy of Art does a really good job of pointing out the art world’s unabashed complicity in the state of things. The poetry foundation has become this symbol for general corruption in the arts because they are a corrupt arts organization–it’s hard to escape circularity when yr talking about this sort of thing–they are a part of this same ‘conspiracy of art.’ That is, the poetry foundation represents ‘a return to the repressed’ that took place in the art world after Warhol. Incidentally, Kenny Goldsmith was correct in saying that poetry is fifty years behind visual art. Both he and the poetry foundation are, in a certain respect, the vanguard of poetry as it enters a phase wherein its absolute nullity is realized and becomes immediately displaced into these forceful gestures of grandeur which are not too different within the symbolic order from a middle-aged crisis sports car purchase. Visual art assumed the cool smile of complicity decades ago. It’s about time that poetry caught up. As the legendary UK poet J.H. Prynne has said, in his open letter defending the Croatoan’s small, symbolic actions, the very institutional-Modernist architecture of the 27-million dollar Headquarters [Ed. Note: The cost of the building was approximately 21.5 million dollars] announces it: The PF is the MoMA of Poetry.* [see Prynne’s letter on the CPC actions below]
The thing is, though, it’s pretty much impossible to enter into this space and be critical without becoming a part of it: ‘the [ruling] class is fed by the accusations against it’. That’s why Felix Fénéon was so spot-on in aspiring only to anonymity. To be completely honest, I wish the Croatoan group would have been more nameless and faceless.
Let’s us slow down and elaborate on your objections. First of, you object to the Poetry Foundation because it’s neo-liberal, but that’s the reigning ideology right now, at least the supposedly friendly face that’s presented to the masses. Neo-liberalism is the idea that nothing should get in the way of (big) business, because (big) business means economic growth, which is supposed to be intrinsically desirable, no matter the environmental and social costs. If big business makes a lot of money, then all of us will benefit, supposedly, because this money will trickle down to even the lowliest among us. Also, since big business is controlled by the elite, then the elite must be cheered and supported, and not vilified. This elite is not only the most enterprising and innovative, it also embodies moral virtues such as industry, prudence and even charity, which brings us to Ruth Lilly, heiress to the company that makes Prozac and Cialis. With those two miracle cures, your dick and brain can be chemically fixed from the anxiety and impotence caused by Neo-liberalism itself, but Ruth was not satisfied to gift you with just a permanent stupor and six-hour erections, she was also concerned about your more ethereal if no less rhythmic lust, that is, your barely acknowledged craving for confessional or conceptual poetry. Hence, her magnificent 100-million-plus-dollar gift to the Poetry Foundation.
As Steve Evans has pointed out, this gift was timed to draw attention away from a DC decree exempting the Lilly Company from being sued for its Autism-causing Thimerosal. Big Pharma kills and deforms on a massive scale, and in spite of its routine bribery, is forced to pay a fine every now and then, and Lilly has been penalized repeatedly. In fact, its $515 million fine by the US Justice Department in 2009 is the biggest ever in a healthcare case. Not bad for a toxic industry that features monstrous Merk, Monsanto and Glaxo, etc.
So the money is a little tainted, ain’t it, but if it can do good, now, why bitch? Don’t be a cynic and charge that, just like our health industry, American poetry costs more per capita, yet we don’t seem to get anything but financial, physical and spiritual ruinations. A huge part of this cost is the mostly borrowed tuitions that are pumped into our creative writing programs, money that fattens the banks and corporate universities, above all, but with some left over for the teaching poets to keep each aspiring near-rhymer hopeful. In any case, with so many big coins from Lilly, you’d need an abled money administrator, hence the Republican investment banker, John Barr, was enlisted. That is only logical. And since the Poetry Foundation needs the dough to continue to roll in, they must court the high rollers, but gutter punks like you and Stephanie have crashed their fancy parties, tongued each other, then hung an impolite banner. For letting you sniff their camembert cheese, you farted in their faces!
Seriously, though, you object to these Neo-liberal benefactors and administrators for how they make their money in the first place, and also to specific instances of their corruption, such as when John Barr’s Poetry Foundation allegedly paid Stephanie Barr, John’s wife, $23,000 to set up a poetry contest [Ed. Note: John's wife Penny Barr created the Children's Poetry Laureate position and has consulted on other children's poetry programs]. Instead of “gestures of grandeur,” as in their palatial headquarters and mansion for guest poets, you want them to spend money in rathole neighborhoods where people like you and I live, but they can just turn around and say, “Hey, it’s not public money but only the Poetry Foundation,” which, in spite of its populist posturing, is an organization run by our ruling elite and serving, ultimately, their aims. Of course this setup applies to all of our larger cultural institutions, be it museum, concert hall or university. Capital fornicating with supposedly rebellious Art has produced a slew of weird bastards, such as when uber-Capitalist John D. Rockefeller hired the salon Communist Diego Rivera to make an anti-Capitalist mural for the Rockefeller Center in Gotham, only to have this mural destroyed.
I can see how that might seem sort of contradictory–to, on the one hand, point out the nature of their ill-gotten pile of money and the corruption within the organization, and then turn around and demand that they use this money to help people who have been completely disenfranchised and fucked over by the very systems and dynamics that the poetry foundation and the official field of cultural production is reliant upon. And even if they did decide to, say, try to actually set up a couple of community poetry centers in, as you put it, our rat-hole neighborhoods to bestow poetry upon the masses, it would be commensurate with the whole ‘gospel of wealth’ mentality which the Carnegies and the Rockefellers were so fond of. It would just be another occasion for these people to feel self-satisfied and better forget about the insidious power paradigms they are a part of. I’m sure that it would end up being a very colonial gesture. But, I guess it would be chill if they just anonymously gave a few million dollars to the Panthers or various far-left anti-capitalist organizations or something. As a representative of the poetry foundation pointed out to me, if we had really wanted them to set up these poetry centers in the ghetto, we should have gone through the proper channels and written a proposal and then maybe the poetry foundation would have considered such a thing. But obviously this dynamic is deeply problematic and leads to the sort of bizarre bastardized partnerships like the one between Rivera and Rockefeller. These are strategies through which the ruling elite attempt to pacify a potentially revolutionary class–you know, scraps (both material and cultural) from the master’s table and all that. You point to the poetry foundation’s ‘populist’ posturing, which is an attempt to disguise their absolute complicity in the state of things–that it is an organization run by and for the ruling elite.
It’s also really important to note that the poetry foundation is essentially buying off poets in order to keep this fact safely within the realm of the repressed. For example, the poetry foundation has commissioned you–someone who has really deftly situated his poetics within the collapse of too late capitalism–to blog for them. They are even paying you so that maybe you don’t have to worry quite as much about eating and making rent–what a kind and magnanimous gesture. But it is Poetry Month after all. All you have to do is give them some radically-tinged writing they can point to where they can say ‘See? We are on the side of the people. Look how open minded we are. There is room for everyone beneath the happy poetry Big Top. Instead, you take advantage of their generosity and interview these punks that raised hell at their soirees–farted in their faces, as you say. How rude! Yr spot on, too, in pointing out the foundation’s glomming on to conceptual and confessional poetry–two modes that allow ethics to be completely subordinated to aesthetics which is, I guess, the story of high modernism. It’s a strategy through which any practiced memory of the revolutionary avant-garde tradition can be neutralized, dismantled, and erased. It’s funny though, I think that all it takes is for people to acknowledge this dynamic in order for it to begin lose its power. Take their pungent cheese and mold it into effigies of John Barr, top-hatted pigs, and AK-47s. So far, attempts to do this sort of thing have been met with violent exclusion/exile or smug silence on the part of the po fo but who knows, maybe they will publish this interview…
But they shouldn’t publish this interview, since that would only prove how magnanimous and fair they are, and how needy and compromised we are, and we are needy, since we ain’t got shit. Beside money, these institutions will also dangle access in our faces. Though I think the New York Times is a terrible rag, I’ve published there twice, thinking it’s a chance for me to reach a wider audience, but then my writing was edited to fit their establishment agenda. Or take the Zurita incident, where you unleashed some guerrilla art at an event honoring a supreme guerrilla artist. Characterizing what you guys did as a “most profound struggle, that of poetry against the power of a shameful order,” Zurita himself saw you as comrades and kindred spirits, and yet, it was precisely this orden avergonzante that had invited Zurita to give that reading, thus providing a stage for your rebellion, and his approval of your rebellion. In an interview with Daniel Borzutzky, published at, guess where, the Poetry Foundation!, Zurita characterized neo-liberalism as “an inferno,” so it is neo-liberalism, this globalist profiteering system that reduces people everywhere to indentured servants, first, then consumers second, that is at the heart of the problem. But it is always a power struggle, isn’t it? With our current arrangement, power is merely toying and flirting with its artistes, few of whom are insubordinate, in any case. Of course, one can still write or paint as one pleases here, but if one is excluded from the podium, public square or table, then what good is it? Even our most docile and accommodating artists are marginalized, much less the troublemakers.
Yeah it’s pretty bleak, I guess. It might perfectly well be true that it’s always a battle for power where entities like the poetry foundation are always a couple steps ahead of whatever opposition might erupt because they set up the board and make the rules. But I would say that poetry, in spite of the maneuvering on the part of those who try to win influence and allegiance with cultural and material capital, remains a very strange and porous (if ultimately tragic) field. I just read a really good essay by the UK poet Sean Bonney where he says “If esoteric poetry is potentially the unspoken expression of the destruction of capitalism, then it is just as potentially the unspoken expression of the fascism that is always lurking at capital’s centre.” That being said, I think artists/poets need to be engaging in some pretty extreme logics. The intention ought to be to seek new forms which are ‘off-limits’ and which undermine or negate poetry as such. By that I don’t mean the sorts of forms that pseudo-Pop bubbles like Flarf or Conceptual poetry have taken. The negation of poetry (and everything else for that matter) stems from an ethical imperative and needs to happen in a way that cannot be absorbed into the body of capitalism without becoming a little professional cubbyhole in some sort of IST. Ethics and aesthetics absolutely need to guide one another. Some people have criticized our performance at the Zurita reading as terrorism. That’s fine. Artists and poets ought to develop strategies for expropriating cultural capital.
Since just about every totalitarian system has tried to impose an absolutely literal and non-ambiguous poetry, many of our recent “innovative” poets have opted for various kinds of murkiness and fuzziness that don’t even warrant the label of esoteric. Echoing the onslaught of contradictory signals that is our mass media, these poets congratulate themselves for trivializing or negating what they just said merely a second ago. To be “innovative” now is to constantly pivot away from everything, so that one becomes a spinning top while no one is watching. In a fragmented, jump-cutted and neurologically damaged culture, we don’t need a flitting and glancing poetry, but one that can maintain its focus and does not flinch. Instead of a twitching poetics, we must have poems that can think through. As an empire, we have long preyed on others, but going into an accelerating collapse, we are also cannibalizing ourselves. As her poets pilfer, dumpster dive and, uh, appropriate, America is eating her own heart, mind, eyes and genitals, all to feed that insatiable, cliché ridden, jingoistic and smirking mouth, but isn’t it high time we remind ourselves that any poetry worthy of the name should always be an act of radical resistance against the prevailing zeitgeist, and not an alignment with it? As for extreme logics, they are certainly needed in all spheres of our society. With that in mind, I want to bring up the Occupy Movement, its aims and, so far, more or less merely symbolic achievements. I understand you were in Oakland. What did you learn, and what do you think the Occupy folks must do in the months ahead to attain more concrete results?
I was in California for most of the winter. I arrived in Oakland the day of the second port shut down. It was really exciting, honestly. There was this weird ecstatic hum in the air. We all pretended to be militants parading down the street. It was fun. People danced. It was difficult to make group decisions with that many people. One guy standing next to me sincerely suggested that we make decisions by voting on our iphones. I told him that he was an idiot and asked if he was a cop. Other things I heard (paraphrased from memory): ‘I realize it’s a total wingnut thing to say, but ultimately I think that people need to start thinking though and discussing the logics of secession.’ ‘On the neighborhood level this means people remaining in their homes and resisting the tyranny of private property through foreclosure or eviction: collective defense, rent strikes, opening up unoccupied homes to the homeless, distributing free food, basic medical and mental health care and ultimately, people making it clear that the police are not welcomed in their neighborhood’. I don’t know–any of that is probably a gleam on some hallucinated horizon. And in any case, I actually do feel kind of foolish trying to “say what I think Oakland must do,” ya know? People from Oakland and those that have been struggling there for a while know best. At the same time, people were (and certainly still are) pretty serious about doing foreclosure defense and about making their squats explicitly as opposed to implicitly politicized. Oakland is not the only city in which people are in effect seizing their homes back from the banks through whatever means.
It was easy to get carried away there. It was easy to talk about what could be with people there. Maybe that’s all that we are left with from the occupy movement as such. The idea of the Oakland commune. I mean Oaktown is very far from something like a revolutionary moment… Perhaps things would have been much different if the CIA hadn’t rained crack on Oakland and everywhere else. Constant chemtrails in Cali.
I left Oakland around New Year’s and found myself in Slab City for about a month walking around in the desert–talk about the ‘poetry junkyard’!. I tried to get back for the demonstration on feb 5th but when yr hitchhiking yr pretty much at the mercy of Hermes. My friend Ray (who was also a part of the action at the Zurita reading) and I wound up in Santa Cruz the day after. Where we met up with David Lau and a few other people who had just come back from Oakland still sort of smelling like tear gas. They were trying to get information about their friends who’d been arrested, making sure they didn’t get lost in the Kafkaesque sea of whichever jail in a sea of jails around the bay. From their accounts and from talking to a lot of people that were there that day, it was a total fucking mess. People wading across Lake Merrit to get away from rubber bullets. The cops just started launching teargas and kettling with virtually no warning. Folks fought back some. 400 some people were arrested that day. That all sounds generic, though, because I wasn’t there. I got to Oakland a few days later and after that, it seemed like everything had become more clandestine, more secretive. A lot of activists were (quite understandably) worried about infiltrators. The police had taken to rolling around town with photographs of people and arresting them on the spot. Really scary stuff.
Your account of Oakland jives with my experience of various Occupy camps, and I visited nine of them, several repeatedly. There was excitement and hope but also a lot of confusion and vagueness of purpose. As is well known, the Occupy Movement has insisted on having no leaders, or even a set of clear demands. Starting out, they were spot on in focusing on the banks as the nexus of our problems. They targeted the investment banks of Wall Street, and not the White House or Capitol Hill. They also highlighted the role of the Federal Reserve in bankrupting our country. But as the movement got larger, these key messages became drowned out. At Zuccoti Park, I even saw a sign that said, “Free Iran!”, as if we need to encourage our mass murdering government to bomb yet another oil-rich country. So the actions you’ve described in Oakland, fighting foreclosures house by house, claiming abandoned buildings and shutting down the port for a day, may be necessary, but they don’t get to the heart of the problems. These small skirmishes won’t change anything structurally, won’t win you the war, and though we dread that word, the other side, with its vast organization and clear cut, top down command structure, is more than prepared to fight us by any means necessary, while we echo each other in general assemblies that most of the time go nowhere. I’m sorry to sound harsh, but that’s the reality I witnessed. What the skirmishes have accomplished, so far, was to alert people to the fact that there is a war going on, a domestic one, and these are the two sides, the 1% that is our military banking complex, and the 99% that are the rest of us. Similarly, your action at the Poetry Foundation was an attempt to map the battleground. Now, on to the real battle!
One thing I will say is that a revolution is categorically different from a war. I agree that what has happened so far has been largely (if not entirely) symbolic. At the same time, I do believe that many of the strategies that people are beginning to experiment with are a part of the process of communization. If these things happen on a larger, more intense scale I think that they would start to manifest some deeper structural changes. You know, I’ve been digging on these essays by the Wu Ming group lately, who are these five anonymous Italian writers who authored a handful of collective novels–these epic historical novels…that is, each book seems to be trying to write through a specific period in history. I keep nerding out on these guys and recommending it to everyone. What’s possible and how far there is to go. Constantly receding into the distance. Anyway, these two essays attempt to catch a glimpse of what might constitute a revolutionary moment and what sort of narrative might intertwine with the fragment of history that surrounds that moment (or vast continuum of moments). They end up talking a bunch about the notion of synecdoche and how these smaller, very brief revolutionary moments that have occurred throughout history seem to behave outside of linear time, that the revolutionary class in relatively remote corners of the world, with little or no communication with the ‘nexus point’ or whatever of a given revolutionary moment can somehow intuit in bizarre ways what is at stake and what is to be done.
1) The following letter from J.H. Prynne, responding to the CPC actions at the Poetry Foundation (written on 11/13/11), was published in one of the releases of the Fiery Flying Roule, a pamphlet serial produced during the Oakland occupations and distributed there:
[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.