Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Croatoan Poetic Cell Interview

Discovery of the word “CROATOAN” found carved into a tree, Roanoke Island, c. 1590

Raúl Zurita, in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera (October 4, 2011) on the actions of the Croatoan Poetic Cell at Zurita’s reading at the Poetry Foundation (September 27, 2011): “Sentí una profunda ternura al ver a estos chicos, porque supe que era el signo de una lucha mucho más profunda, de la poesía contra los poderes de un orden avergonzante.” (“I felt a profound tenderness on witnessing these young people, because I knew it was sign of a much deeper struggle, that of poetry against the powers of a shameful order.”)

William Carlos Williams, out of “A New Line Is a New Measure” (c. 1947) writing of Louis Zukofsky’s Anew:
      It may be inconceivable that in a single poem the world can be set right, but it is the truth. Nothing does happen, except in the minds of a few; but it is drastic, what sometimes happens in the minds of a few.
      Good taste, that’s the thing; and not by exclusion, in the vulgar way, but by an inclusion that puts its grace upon common objects, that raises the common to grace. That’s what a poem is . . .
What follows is an agglomerated interview with the stalwart members of Croatoan Poetic Cell, authors of two (and counting) actions at the pristine (some would say obscene) corporate home (some would say bastion) the Poetry Foundation recently constructed for itself at an expenditure of $21.5 million. Sign of the rote vapidity of the moneyed in its usual form: corporate vanity. Monumental institutional preening at its worst. The interview is pieced together out of raw footage collected by Jeremy Axelrod, author of the recent Salon piece (“It’s Time to Occupy Poetry”) about the Croatoan actions, with some added material. Needless to say, the Poetry Foundation’s fleet squad of newshounds, those omnivorous gatherers of all things “poetic” at Harriet sedulously “overlooked” the Salon piece. Maybe nobody submitted a pre-formatted and properly subject-lined “Harriet news tip!”

Interviewer: This Montevidayo post is said to be a “report” from you. Is that true?

Croatoan: Yeah, I wrote the Montevidayo post. Though, the leaflet which appears there was composed by the group over a bottle of whiskey the night before the Zurita action. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding or misinterpretation about whom these things are to be attributed to. I want to make clear that there is no singular person at the reins with this. Our aim is to move away from modes of authorship which are tied to specific personages and, in fact, we prefer anonymity. That being said, since Steph’s [Stephanie Dunn, arrested at the initial spontaneous action at the Poetry Foundation (September 7) on a “public disturbance” charge] name and mine are out there, here are the names of the rest of the people involved the night of the Zurita reading: Neda Mouzayanni, Raymond Zibits, Jordan Walsh, Ben Stephens. Use any of these names interchangeably or refer to us as Croatoan, CPC, whatever.

Interviewer: According to that post, a “half dozen” or so of your colleagues handed out a statement at the Zurita reading on September 27? I see the text of the statement on the website. Did you write this statement? If so, what is “the spectacle and its myriad illusory modes of reification”?

Croatoan: The quote you refer to ought to be interpreted through its Situationist connotations, I guess. [Cultural] institutions are an integral part of the Spectacle. They are the conduits through which images, objects, and language “transform” into high art or, precisely, that which is separated, somehow, from the rest of our daily life. One usually enters and interacts with these spaces as a sort of tabernacle, as sacred space wherein the desire is to be wowed or whatever by the art that a given cultural institution has deemed worthy of praise. Our feeling (which certainly isn’t a new idea or anything) is that this attitude is often overrated and problematic. Behind this edifice, it’s pretty clear that most museums and cultural institutions are in the business of storing wealth and getting tax breaks for wealthy patrons. The language that John Barr uses in talking about the Poetry Foundation, for example, is eerily reminiscent of the corporate language of marketing and branding. The PF and similar institutions are wholly integrated into the fabric of neo-liberalism; from the architecture of their buildings to their rules of decorum and ways of dealing with (i.e. silencing) “undesirables,” to the sort of art / poetry that they usually champion. Disrupting or queering the normally passive experience that folks have with a museum or an institution is a pretty effective tactic for fleshing some of these issues out.

Interviewer: Your flier objects to Stephanie Dunn’s arrest on the grounds that a poetry organization shouldn’t seek the arrest of someone who commits “what is essentially a poetic act” at one of its events. One question here is when (if at all) it’s reasonable to arrest someone for a non-violent public disturbance. But the question I’d like to ask is: Where would you draw the line between the freedom to perform poetic acts and the freedom to disrupt an organization’s events? The question applies, I think, to both Stephanie Dunn’s acts and those on September 27 at the Zurita reading. (As I understand it, Mr. Zurita was not in the least bothered by the surprise, but it’s arguable that his approval is not the only consideration, as the reading was planned and housed by a foundation that invited him as its guest.)

Croatoan: It is never “reasonable” to arrest someone for a non-violent public disturbance . . . though I suppose that from the perspective of an organization like the police, whose prime directive is to serve the wealthy and to protect the sanctity of private property, this sort of arrest is perfectly reasonable. . . . We understand that oftentimes civil disobedience results in arrest and we all accept this as a possibility when we undertake actions. We also understand that an arrest can be used as a tool to highlight the injustices behind it.

Interviewer: The Chicago Reader claims that the police report related to Stephanie Dunn’s arrest indicates that she took a bottle of wine from the Foundation and refused to return it. Do you think it was within her rights to take this from the Foundation (though it’s certainly a negligible loss) on the grounds that she disagrees with its use of money and objects to the attitude with which its employees responded to her when she threw a cup of wine to the floor?

Croatoan: Look, we are thieves . . . and ones with a pretty strict code of ethics; namely, that we don’t steal from people and that whatever is stolen is shared joyously and without discrimination. Stealing from corporate entities, or banks, or the gods, or whatever has a long and venerable tradition. It’s how we got fire, how Hermes became a god, how so much great myth, art, & literature has been conceived—acts of thievery and transgression, which restore a certain sort of balance; tiqqun. In any case, it was a fucking bottle of wine which, as you say, is pretty negligible in all actuality. Especially considering the Poetry Foundation made $2,189,154 from interest and securities in 2010. See the Foundation’s tax returns here.

Interviewer: It sounds like around six of your colleagues have organized their demonstrations together and united under the name “Croatoan Poetic Cell.” If so, why this name? And do you have a particular connotation in mind with the word “cell”?

Croatoan: While six of us participated in the Zurita action, there are more than six of us. I can assure you. “Cell” has both biological and political connotations. In essence, the global struggle lies in combating biopolitical power which governs (read: coerces) and defines individuals and what they can do with their bodies, minds and voices. We feel like we are a small ripple in this much greater context of what’s happening globally, which the occupations are a big component of. The hope with this project is to create dialogue which might embolden others to autonomously practice their own forms of intervention, institutional critique, and direct action, rather than to make some kind of definitive statement with our actions. You could also call us a rhizome or a tong (see Hakim Bey’s excellent essay “The Tong” here).

Interviewer: What demonstrations have you or your colleagues planned besides those at the September 27 Zurita reading and the impromptu protest with Stephanie Dunn in late August? Have you been picketing or demonstrating at any other times? Do you plan to continue disrupting events, as your statement seems to indicate?

Croatoan: The night Steph and I met, she tagged the wall of a bougie art gallery (which was displaying photographs by Ginsberg and paintings by Burroughs). I ended up taking the fall for that one. A few of us in the CPC (before the official conception of the group) also planned and organized a midnight march this past May Day. Funnily enough, a group of about forty of us were on our way to occupy the Federal Reserve when Steph was arrested for sitting atop the Haymarket statue and playing a banjo. Some of us in the group have been participating in the occupation here in Chicago—in fact, we met one member of our group the first day that Occupy Chicago began. However, many of us are frustrated with the cloying & overly compliant attitude towards the police that the leadership of the Chicago manifestation has been pushing.

Interviewer: Do your complaints about the Poetry Foundation relate to the experience you or your father Kent Johnson have had with submitting work to Poetry?

Croatoan: I’ve never submitted to Poetry—not sure whether my old man has or not. At any rate, my old man has NOTHING to do with the CPC except as a cheerleader from the sidelines. Besides, his Old Left politics are not exactly in line with the anarchist sources of the CPC. I really like the Jack Spicer serial piece “6 Poems for Poetry Chicago.” I don’t think they published those, though.

Interviewer: To what extent were you or other Croatoans (if I may refer to your group collectively) inspired by Occupy Wall Street, or by the general anti-Big Money sentiments that have gained such widespread expression in protests this past year?

Croatoan: While we all hold varying opinions about strategies and tactics involved in the movement, we are certainly deeply inspired by the idea. It feels like this is only the beginning. Through these various occupations, we are finding each other and making the sort of deep connections that are so necessary in the continuing struggle.

Interviewer: Do you have any thoughts on the recent “Occupy Museums” protest at MoMA?

Croatoan: Another recent example of détournement / institutional critique (which can be found here and in the forthcoming issue of Sous les Pavés): Edmond Caldwell disguised an excerpt from his novel into counterfeit covers of the yuppie-paradigm-skewed choice for Boston’s “one city one book” program. Hilarity ensues. To be honest, none of us had heard about the Occupy Museums movement. I’m really glad to know about this group. It’s deeply encouraging to see others taking up the mantle of institutional critique. That they have situated their grievances within the context of the labor movement is really important. Some of us are members of the IWW and believe that a general strike is still probably the only tactic which stands a chance of enacting the sort of transformation that so many are talking about. The CPC stands in solidarity. Hopefully the feeling is mutual.

Interviewer: The fliers you handed out state that “the home of poetry . . . certainly doesn’t look like an Apple store.” What is the “home of poetry,” exactly, and why should its aesthetic be different from that of an Apple store?

Croatoan: The home of poetry (if it isn’t a mendicant wanderer) is a commons. The existence of the Po Foundation HQ is really a strange thing because it attempts to spatialize poetry in this way that doesn’t usually happen (at least not so overtly). The architectural language seen at the Po Foundation is not just that of an Apple store. There is a Starbuck’s not too far from there that also looks eerily similar. The building is completely typical of current corporate aesthetics. We feel that these sorts of spaces are psychically hostile towards the sort of imagination and freedom which is necessary in the establishment of a commons.

Interviewer: In short, why do you object to the Poetry Foundation? Why is “the true spirit of poetry precisely about disturbing the peace”? (I realize you’ve made statements about this already. I’d simply like to hear an abbreviated version, if possible.)

Croatoan: We received a message from J. H. Prynne, of all people, who articulated our feelings better than we have been able to. I can’t tell you how much it meant to hear from him. Here’s an excerpt from his letter:
      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.
Interviewer: One last question: does your group meet in a warehouse? As a kind of headquarters. No need to tell me where, but it’d certainly be fun to describe your “hideout,” if there’s something like that around.

Croatoan: This “hideout” you mention . . . I don’t know if I’d describe it as such but some might, I suppose. Our aim is to make this place into a functioning community center. At the previous punk house some of us lived in (Dr. Who’s Wherehouse of Ideas), there was a free school which, unfortunately, has gone relatively dormant though there are still a few classes and we plan to begin again in earnest as soon as the major building projects are finished. We have a lending library here, someone is always playing music. We all sleep in the same room (the library) in a pile of unwashed blankets, couches, arms, legs. Sometimes it becomes difficult to figure out where you end and someone else begins. If you’ve ever seen The Abyss, you might get the idea. It’s a really strange, constantly morphing space filled with dust, oceans of random objects and non-Euclidean geometry; unitary urbanism, so to speak. We have been living in a construction zone for the past three months. Currently, we are in the midst of building rooms, installing heat and electricity, and getting the place ready for winter. We want to actuate an autonomous zone here on the West Side, to use it as a place for education, creation, and subversion.