"Showbiz", Zurita, Drugs, and Conviviality: Some Thoughts on Brooks Johnson's Poetry Foundation Actions

by on Oct.02, 2011

It seems that the one thing that a lot of the commentators/actors in the thread about Brooks Johnson’s protests at the Poetry Foundation agree about is that the ensuing discussion is “stupid,” I think there’s been quite a bit of insightful things said (if sometimes unconsciously), suggesting that whatever the action accomplished or what it entailed (there seems to be quite a bit of disagreement about that), it did succeed in tapping into a “nerve” among poetry readers and writers.

Therefore the protest was a success on some level: it stirred up some discussion about the poetry foundation, it caused some people to write to the foundation and ask for it to drop its charges against Stephanie Dunn..

One might also say that it succeeded in making the poetry foundation into a stage; in theatricalizing the Poetry Foundation; in making Art out of space that is used to limit art to a conventional idea of poet. In so doing, it seems they created something exciting and interesting – if befuddling to many. (But then isn’t Art something that befuddles, disrupts common sense?)

I think we can see the protest in terms of Lucas’s posts about Zurita and “conviviality”: that in getting drunk and naked, Stephanie Dunn created a kind of convivial vulnerability, a wound in the poetry foundation that perhaps echoed Zurita’s own practice of pouring acid in his own face:

As a “concrete and unspoken” event, the screech that Zurita intuits in the televisual image echoes beyond language as we ‘know’ it. Both gasping void and stuttering, overwhelming flow, the screech is a religious, multisensory intensity that the book materializes when it offers passages in Braille to be touched rather than seen. INRI thus disorients us into a blindness once brutally experienced by Chileans: “There was also a detail, another fact about that crucifixion: one of the reports tells how before killing their victims the military personnel gouged out their eyes with hooks…”

In this reading, I think Kent Johnson’s statement that the Poetry Foundation has nothing to do with Zurita and that it’s a matter strictly for American poets to deal with is shown to be mistaken. From reading Zurita’s text, studying his actions and just hanging out with him, it seems to me he has a very international approach to poetry. He sky-wrote his poems over New York City, he’s published his works in translation, his Spanish-language version of Song the new edition is a different version from the original, thus one version of one of his important works exists only in US publication. To turn Zurita into a strictly “Chilean” poet strikes me as a striation and constriction of Zurita’s powers. And it seems to me that the protests indeed enacted a “strange meeting” between Zurita and american poets.

(We might also remember that Zurita’s protests/poems were in opposition to a Pinochet dictatorship caused by US foreign policy and advised – fittingly – by the U of Chicago School of Economics. So Zurita’s poems are hardly Chilean, They are Chicagoean!)

I noticed that one of the main points of disparagement of the actions was that it wasn’t clear, wasn’t mature, wasn’t coherent. Rather it was “showbiz” or “pobiz,” terms that are some of the most fundamentally despised terms in poetry. Stephanie was just getting drunk and naked – how immature and stupid. That’s not a real critique, this rhetoric goes.

But Zurita himself did not give “clear messages” (see Lucas’s quote), did not position himself as a level-headed “critique.” In fact, he was all about “showbiz” with his sky-writing (which is why Bolano criticized him as “messianic” but then he obviously inspired Bolano to write his masterpiece Distant Star so the proof is in the pudding) and various glamorous STUNTS (and I mean that in the most admiring way) that turned into news in Chile in the 70s and 80s (after Zurita’s reading at Notre Dame, I talked to a Chilean-born professor who was awestruck that he had gotten to see Zurita as he had grown up thinking of him as a kind of “celebrity”).

US poetry’s hatred of “showbiz” is one of the things I hate most about poetry discussions: if it isn’t totally fucking boring, it must be suspect. If it’s too visceral, it must be for the riffraff (this goes back to Clement Greenberg’s ideas about elitist high-culture “avant-gardism” that opposes the simple-minded tastes of the masses). Bring the showbiz, I say. Bring the stunts.

Also: to me there’s few things as despicable as the cynics who want to act “above it all.” The cynic is the perfect subject for maintaining the status quo.

However, I think Tim Yelvington-Jones is right to point out what he calls the “ableist” rhetoric of the banner that Brooks hung up in the Poetry Foundation asking, “What would have happened if Emily Dickinson had been proscribed Prozac?”

Not only is this ableist, but it’s also indicative of something I’ve also written about in the past: how in American poetry, everyone seems to want to see themselves as “clear-headed,” uncompromised, pure and “outside” (whatever there is to be outside of). A very romantic idea of the uncorrupted outsider. (It’s hard for me to hate Poetry Foundation for bringing Raul Zurita to Chicago to read!)

This model is so pervasive in American poetry that not only Brooks Johnson uses it but pretty much every Hollywood movie, and even, as I’ve noted in past posts, Tony Hoagland, professor of poetry at U of Houston, sets himself up as an outsider to the very MFA students he teaches, somehow turning the poor, young MFAs into corrupted “insiders.” Hoagland attacks these young poets for being “poisoned” by poor “influence” from the “degenerate” (kitsch) version of the “New York School.” As I’ve written elsewhere, the canon is full of human masters who stand apart from the corrupted, inhuman rabble.

A much more interesting model is to favor corruption, infection, contagion.

Brooks also calls the Poetry Foundation a “mausoleum.” But it’s exactly in the mausoleum, in the “crypt,” that a lot of the most interesting necropastoral acts take place. The problem is not that the Poetry Foundation is a mausoleum, but that it isn’t.

Finally: I think Brooks and Stephanie have managed to “corrupt” the Poetry Foundation and the Zurita reading in some interesting ways: They turned the bureaucratic space of the Poetry Foundation into a stage, theatricalizing and foregrounding the a space, and they mediumized the reading and the foundation in a way, sending it out across the Internet. One might say they opened up the foundation: opened it up to further corruption, opened it up to participation.

One more thing: Lets all email and call the Poetry Foundation to tell them to drop the charges against Stephanie Dunn.

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Daniel, that is a great contribution to the discussion, your post above. I’m going to participate in your contest. Let me see… A suggestion in the next couple days, I hope.

    Johannes, this is an interesting post and you say some excellent things (don’t agree with *everything*, but very good– especially, I have to say, your qualifications of something I said. I think that qualification is insightful and fair enough!) Also what you say about Zurita and the Chilean man who was “star struck” by him: It’s so interesting how other cultures can honor and respect their poets so differently. When Forrest Gander and I met Zurita for breakfast in Santiago a few years ago, nearly everyone in the whole packed restaurant turned to look at him as he walked in and the whispering and glances his way the rest of time were obvious.

    But this is the main thing I wanted to say, and I wanted to note it in case the Croatoan folks don’t get to your post for a while: there is a BIG mistake (a bad misrepresentation, really) in your post: It’s title and your framing of the action in the text… The action was NOT Brooks’s action; it was a collective action, undertaken by the Croatoan Poetic Cell [CPC] (I’m just getting the name right now). There were seven young poet-artists at the PF directly involved–Brooks just happened to write the report. So that really should be corrected. The whole point of the group, as I understand it, is to move poetic subversion beyond the mere page and into collective performance. So it’s important to note this.

  2. Johannes

    OK, thanks for pointing this out. I somehow missed that./Johannes

  3. t.w.

    Uh, I just saw the footage, and this was neither ‘showbiz’ nor ‘politically coherent’ in any way. it was just kind of retarded. Saying that, I totally support being totally against the poetry foundation. Someone should ‘stage’ something a bit less impotent and bumbling. Ciao.

  4. t.w.

    I also want to dedicate this song to you Johanesss, wink whink http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTJdWN6BqwU

  5. Johannes

    I prefer my version to the footage version.


  6. Carina

    I think one must absolutely get drunk and naked to have a significant discussion about poetry these days. this is why poets need a reality tv show. stephanie dunn has brought us one step closer, and thus done a great service to american poetry.

  7. STephanie Dunn

    Hey there–ooh. omph. eech. youch! ha HA! Thanks for all the throwing down in the padded poetical boxing ring, ya’ll. If you want to know what happened with the charges from the poetry foundation, you can contact me: sdunn1342@gmail.com
    It is on the lucky feather of a shit-soaked dove I’m not in prison right now.
    Go on. Email me. My courtdate was on Tuesday.

  8. Fake Art/Fake Protest - Montevidayo

    […] We need FAQs to explain them to people. They have no clear message. They are poets without a clue (or are they?) Their faces are not the right shade of green. Their complaints assemble themselves into no […]

  9. Rosie Posie

    Stephanie Dunn is a disease-ridden poser. She really just wants to be famous and have sex with other women’s boyfriends and/or husbands. Her actions may not have anything to do with poetry–except the ‘poetry in motion’ of her filthy crotch.