Brooks Johnson and Stephanie Dunn
Brooks Johnson and Stephanie Dunn Credit: Andrea Bauer

Local poet and musician Brooks Johnson says he attended an open house at the Poetry Foundation on September 7 for the same reason most people probably did: he wanted to get a look at the celebrated new building, and the foundation was offering free wine along with a group reading. He wasn’t expecting to see his friend Stephanie Dunn—a poet, musician, and independent activist—there. Dunn had recently staged a hunger strike on Daley Plaza in support of clean air, and when they bumped into each other after having partaken of the refreshments, it made them so happy she tossed an empty plastic wine cup to the floor, and they both stomped on it.

This drew the attention of the Poetry Foundation staff. Johnson says a woman approached and told them, in a “patronizing tone,” that “we should be more careful, because the floors cost $300,000.”

Whoosh: those words were fuel on a fire that was already smoldering.

Johnson, a second-generation poet (his father, Kent Johnson, created a stir in the 90s with pseudo Hiroshima-survivor verse), says he and other members of the Croatoan Poetic Cell, a hub of art activism housed in a below-the-radar warehouse on the west side, had been thinking about the Poetry Foundation’s $21.5 million Gold Coast headquarters for a while. “They spent so much money on this building in the wealthy part of town,” and there’s so much that could be done with that money in the city’s impoverished areas, he says. “We found it in poor taste and emblematic of economic and social trends that people are demonstrating against. We talked about doing a direct-action thing there someday, but nothing had been planned.”

Everything that happened at the open house, Johnson insists, was entirely spontaneous, starting with his own loud announcement that “these floors cost $300,000, and it would have been a more poetic gesture if we’d been standing on a dirt floor and the money had been spent on literacy and poetics programs in the ghetto.”

That was followed by an uncomfortable moment of silence, he recalls, and then Dunn—whose performance practice includes belly dances with a live python—began “doing her own person-to-person disruption,” shedding clothing and demonstrating a sudden passion for him. Over the protests of Poetry Foundation staff, he reciprocated. “We began making out in an exaggerated, comical manner,” Johnson says. When a security guard warned emphatically that “PDAs are not allowed in the Poetry Foundation” and said that the police would be called, they stepped it up, testing the foundation’s “stodgy rules of decorum” and the $300,000 floor by “rolling around” on it, “laughing and groping” in a show of “sexual slapstick” that included a plastic pig nose Dunn stuffed into Johnson’s mouth.

By that time the public had filed out of the room, perhaps in confusion. (Kathleen Rooney, one of the poets reading at the event recalls that “it was hard to tell at first that it was intentional, and once that became clear, it was hard to tell what the intention was.”) “We got up and tried to leave, but they wouldn’t let us,” Johnson says. “They said the cops are coming, and blocked our way.” Eventually, he was let go, but Dunn, who “tried to stand up for herself,” was handcuffed and taken into custody. At the 18th District station, she was charged with one count of disorderly conduct and released on a signature bond about three hours later. According to the police report, she’d been making “lewd gestures,” and had taken a bottle of wine from the reception’s bar and refused to return it.

Johnson says everyone expected the charges to be dropped. When it started to look like the Poetry Foundation actually wanted to “put a poet in jail,” he and some of the other Croatoans returned to its headquarters to protest—once standing, masked, in the courtyard until ousted, and again during a September 27 reading by radical Chilean poet Raul Zurita, best known for his own outrageous acts of protest.

At Zurita’s event they unfurled two banners from a balcony of the Poetry Foundation’s library, one a jab at the pharmaceutical source of the foundation’s endowment, the other a tribute to Zurita’s activism. They also passed out flyers telling of Dunn’s plight, then fled before the police arrived. The footage of this is up on YouTube for posterity, but it didn’t have the desired effect. In court on October 4, with the help of a public defender and to avoid going to jail, Dunn pleaded guilty and was given three months’ supervision. She’s also subject to a restraining order that prevents her from attending any Poetry Foundation event, on or off the premises.

The Poetry Foundation, in a written statement, says, “Like any other public venue or cultural institution, we are responsible for the safety of our guests, poets, and speakers. And, like any other public venue, when a guest disrupts the experience for others, or threatens the safety of those around them, we will take appropriate action, including summoning law enforcement, if the situation warrants it, as a last resort when all of our own efforts have been exhausted.”

“I’ve done things like this in Chicago dozens of times,” Dunn says. “No other cultural institution has reacted this way. The Poetry Foundation is like the Russian government, guarding a butterfly preserve with machine guns.”

Dunn will be reading and performing as part of Open Studios Chicago on Friday, October 21, at 2030 W. Hubbard; the event starts at 7:30 PM. She says the Poetry Foundation is invited: “They can come and get their poetic justice, drink free wine and blow off some steam, and go home when the sun comes up. I encourage their heckling and their nudity.”