I’ve been casually reading the various blog dealings between Stephanie Dunn and the Poetry Foundation. If you want one side of the story, a basic summation is below, if you want the Poetry Foundation’s side of the story, well, let me know if you find it because I’d be curious to see it. I’m weighing in on this “late” partially because I think the arguments are a little silly and jilted and partially because I haven’t really thought it worth all that much attention. But it’s been irking me, so let’s have a go at the whole thing.
First off, I’m no fan of the Poetry Foundation, I do really wish that “they” (whoever received the bequest from Ruth Lilly and set up the foundation initially) had realized that holding onto a sum of money that large wasn’t the best use of it, and becoming a grant-making organization for poetic endeavors would have a wider-ranging effect than big building in Chicago. I think there are a bunch of really amazing models that could have come from that money, but the one they chose is the least interesting (and the least imaginative) precisely because it does all of its programming in-house . I’ve never met John Barr, but I’ll admit to being neverendingly annoyed by his tone of “populism in poetry” which always sounds like code for poems about dogs in sunbeams, but that’s kind of neither here nor there.
All of that aside, though, the “protest” on the poetry foundation seemed downright stupid, and is kind of making me question all sorts of things, and making me take a moment and realize why so many movements are marginalized even when they may have a pretty legitimate beef.
The story that’s coming from the non-poetry-foundation side is that Stephanie Dunn broke a (plastic) glass, then, upon hearing it remarked that the floors of the building cost $300K began to make out with some guy and then they both began to take their clothes off. Somehow, this was supposed to make the poetry foundation open workshop spaces in some impoverished area of Chicago.
Then, when Dunn was tackled by an usher and then carted off by police, the Poetry Foundation supposedly (and I only say supposedly because I have only read one actual side of this story) pursued prosecution (although I think, if Chicago is anything like where I’ve ever lived, the Assistant District Attorney actually makes the final decision on whether charges are brought, the PF could have dissuaded them and it would have gone away, I assume.)
First off, if this is the actual events, it all sounds fairly harmless, and besides for Dunn and her disrobing partner hopefully feeling foolish, the PF should, in my opinion, chalked the whole thing up to fools being fools and we could have all moved on without writing blog posts. But I’ve been (again, lackadasically) following the updates on Montevidayo and while the posts themselves are a wee bit shrill, the comments are downright stupid. It’s possible that a lot of these folks know Stephanie and don’t think her actions deserve prosecution, and this may be valid, but to an outside observer (me) they come across poorly:*
1) the Poetry Foundation is not your enemy. Should they do something more/other with the money they have? Yes, I think so. But do they have to? No. And they’re not quashing poetry. They’re not taking over magazines to control what poetry gets out in the world. They’re bringing cool poets like Raul Zurita to Chicago. That’s not so shabby. They are not your enemy, the indifference of the majority of America is your enemy. Do something PRO-active, not reactive. If you want a poetry workshop someplace, start one, don’t bitch that somebody else didn’t do it. That’s just silly.
2) I sincerely hope that the Occupy movement isn’t an actual correllative to this. I really, really do. But in reading all of this I must admit to being a bit scared that, at least, other people see the Occupy movements in the way I see this. Which makes me sad on like six fronts.
3) This isn’t some weird collusion between the poetry foundation and the Chicago police department. Stephanie Dunn committed a crime. If she thinks she didn’t she should go to trial, but you can’t commit a crime and then bitch about being caught for it. As the old saying goes, “if you can’t do the time…”
4) I hope by “abolishing the US Prison system” Micah Robbins actually means radically reforming (in the strictest sense of breaking down and then reforming). Because I can get behind a radical reformation of the prison system, which I agree is broken. Abolishing the prison system seems somewhat dangerous to me. I have known a lot of people in prison in my life, and a lot of those people REALLY deserved to be in prison.
5) I think boycotting the Poetry Foundation if you’re not into what they do is a great idea. Get a petition going, get poets to sign on. We are a small community, if you get enough people in the poetry world to boycott Poetry then they will change their goals. You do have power, if you want to do the legwork to wield it.
6) When you start with a person getting arrested and possibly being jailed for 8 days and arrive at the Arab Spring in one sentence you have gone too far. Way too far. Those aren’t even…you can’t…just, don’t.
7) The Poetry Foundation’s reaction does seem to be overkill, but leaping from that to them trying to stifle “all” poetry that isn’t “well-behaved” is an odd leap. I’m happy for people to read whatever poetry they want, and I’m more than happy for people to disrobe at my readings, but if you come to my reading and try to read your poetry I’m going to be annoyed. Wouldn’t you be annoyed if Kay Ryan came to your reading and started reading her own poems? That shit would be annoying.
eight) Putting this in a list with poets who actually risked something is borderline offensive to me. Poets have stood up, written, and died speaking out against tyranny and oppression (check some of the ones who are still struggling or in exile at PEN.) To say that this poet was doing the same thing is ridiculous. And then to be astounded that she would be put in jail for a week is even more ridiculous. James Bliss says it better than me. (via wewhoareabouttodie)
9) Making the Poetry Foundation culpable for the faults of the Lilly Pharmaceutical company seems a bit of a stretch, too. If that money had been split up and recirculated would it still have had the taint on it? Should it have been burned? I’m just not sure how that’s applicable. Horrible, yes, but not applicable.
10) Sure, rules of decorum should be questioned and maybe be broken, but YET AGAIN, don’t be surprised when people get annoyed at you. And if you do it in their house, don’t be surprised when they call the cops on you, and finally, don’t bitch about how you ended up in jail as if it were no fault of your own.
All right, I’m going to stop, since it gets redundant from here on out. I’ll leave with this: if you don’t like the Poetry Foundation, boycott them. Or stage a sit-in. Or do something radical. But, as James Bliss said better than me (really, go read his take, it’s funny and it’s right) don’t complain if you get hooked for it. If you truly believe that the Poetry Foundation is evil put something on the line and live with the consequences. I don’t think that will happen, because I don’t think anybody actually thinks the Poetry Foundation is a real “enemy”. It’s fun to bitch about, and it’s fun to blog about, but they aren’t stifling you. They aren’t disappearing your friends and family. They aren’t exiling you. And if you can’t stand 8 days in jail, plead guilty and get out (which is what happened). But don’t act as if the entire system is fixed against you. There are a lot of people in jail right now for doing less, who were wrongly accused and live through abuse and degredation every day. And the reason this makes me so angry is it feels like we’re putting Stephanie Dunn in the same category as them. And that is truly fucked up and ignores real injustice.
* All of these were randomly generated by one annoyed reading of the comments on this post. I apologize for not linking directly to everyone’s posts and citing everything, but a curious reader can find the correspondances, and I, honestly, just don’t want to do that much linking.