We were a group that had coalesced around the creative writing classes at New Paltz, and I think the majority of us (I was not among them) were taking classes at the time. We fancied ourselves poets, remnants of the same urge that had brought out the Beats and the Romantics and the German Renaissance and the like: we were opening new borders and ripping down old walls and reimagining poetry, which was the only thing worth doing with writing.
There was Everett who studied with Tony Robinson, the ranking—and I think he was the only—member of the creative writing section of the English department; Everett had a piece accepted and then killed by the New York Times Magazine. He was big and bluff, curly-haired, thick fingers like sausages. Tom—slim, long-haired, dressed always in clothes that smelled like they’d been in a pile in the basement—had investigated dioxin poisoning in the area for years, and eventually broke into the New York Times with an article detailing it. He wrote haiku to relax. Gail was tall and blonde and very, very sensitive: she and Fred would eventually become the only two from the group I know of who would become adjuncts at the school, which was really something we all secretly hoped to do. She wrote villanelles. It might be difficult to consider how one could change poetry by composing in one of the more formal of its styles, but it was a mark I thought of our strength and resolve that no one questioned it. Robin was tall and blonde and could be distinguished from Gail by not being sensitive. She’d actually had a poem published and been paid for it. Admittedly, it was only ten dollars, but still. Fred was bald on top and the third one, besides me and Gail, who’d been divorced. Grizzly was out and out crazy and I think was just looking for companionship.
We’d come together through Fred, who’d somehow gotten in touch with all of us one at a time (except maybe Grizz who had a habit of just showing up in places where everyone knew him but no one remembered having said anything to him about getting together: the psychotic—and Grizz was eventually hospitalized and put on sedatives because he really, really was crazy—have their own methods for finding things out they want to know) and put out the idea that we might put our talents to use by leading, collectively, a new school of poetry.
“Great,” Everett said. He was one of the few adults in the group who actually worked a regular job and played violin professionally. “You mean publish our own magazine?”
“Maybe something like that,” Fred said.
“We got money to do that?”
“We could sell advertising space,” Gail suggested.
“Sure,” Fred said.
“Who’s going to buy ads in a magazine put out by unknowns?” This was Robin.
“Is there a market for what we do anyway?” asked Tom.
“There isn’t for the stuff I do,” said Grizz, and everyone knew he probably wasn’t referring to writing.
Gail nodded. “Formalized structure isn’t much of a paying market.”
Fred said, “Maybe we could print it gratis.”
Robin said, “Gratis? You mean like no one gets paid?”
“Well, not to start. Maybe later, when things get going, people can get paid. But you know, all the authors get comps.”
I sighed. “Not any worse than we’re doing now.”
Robin said, “I don’t think a printer will accept comps. A printer wants money.”
Someone mumbled, “I want money,” and there was a general mumble agreeing with him.
“Okay, okay, maybe that’s something that’ll come. We have to look at the long haul on this and think of the impact we could have.” Fred wanted this dream desperately. He’d been rejected by every journal he’d submitted to and even the mimeographed, unedited pamphlets like Street and Junk Mail had returned his stuff. This was probably where he got his idea he was on the cutting edge.
And then I said something that sounded stupid even as I said it. “Why don’t we just do a Xerox of our stuff and distribute it ourselves?”
Everett frowned. Robin leaned forward. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. We type our stuff up and use the copier in the library and then put them in the Laundromat and the bars and places.”
There was silence.
Grizz nodded. “I like it.”
That should have been a clue.
It was put to a vote, although we hadn’t determined we were taking votes on things or even that everyone there would be involved, and we decided someone would type up our shorter poems and take up a collection among everyone involved to Xerox several copies (because it cost a dime a sheet at the library). And then, for maximum visibility, and because it meant spending less money, we’d paste the copies on windows and phone poles and bulletin boards all over town and school.
“Don’t we need permission for that?” Gail asked.
“Fuck permission,” Tom said. “It’s better to ask forgiveness than ask permission.”
“What’ll we call it?” Robin was getting a little more excited at the prospect.
“Trashcan. You know, like the Ashcan School.”
“The Slim Edge of Hope.”
“Okay,” Fred took over again. “Okay, we can decide later on what we’ll call it. We’ll play with some titles.”
“Hey, do we want to put our names on it?” This came from Gordon, another guy who actually worked for a living and wrote really short poems with obscure titles like “Hark, And Thus”. He had slipped in the door a little later than the rest of us and stayed quiet in the back.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if we’re not gonna ask permission of anyone to put this shit up, and it’s got our names on it, we’ve got some problems.”
This took a moment to sink in. It was generally agreed that publishing in obscurity, for now, was the better legal option.
“Do we wanna just put stuff up unattributed?”
“Hey, why not.” Robin was really getting into the idea. “I mean, all the best stuff is graffiti and this would be like graffiti.”
“Graffiti artists tag their stuff.”
“So let’s tag our stuff.”
“I don’t know. Like a group name.”
“The Last Mad Poets.”
“The Last Poets Who Matter.”
“The Poets Who Don’t Matter.”
“How about Deli Poets?” We were meeting in Fred’s rooms above the Main Street Deli.
Tom was staring out the window. “There’s a fire zone sign out there.”
Everyone looked at him.
He shrugged. “You can’t park in a fire zone. Fire Zone Poets. Poets in the Firing Zone.”
“Poets Living in the Fire Zone.”
This was from Grizz. It was just Zippy the Pinhead enough to appeal to almost everyone.
So we became, officially, the Poets Living in the Fire Zone. Everyone who had access to a computer was conscripted for keyboarding duties, and some of us who only had typewriters were going to type things up as well, so it wouldn’t look uniform. Fred and Gail bought wheat paste in tubes and Tom collected some cash for copies. The rest of us contributed short, short poems. Some were only a couple lines, some a single stanza. Nothing was longer than fifteen lines. It was agreed no one would sign his stuff when submitting and the typist made any editing decisions.
Two nights later we had our first issue. It was a bizarre looking amalgamation of fonts and sizes, typescript and dot-matrix print. It looked like a ransom note, only rather than individual letters cut from various sources, it was as if whole paragraphs were culled from newspapers, books, magazines, suicide notes, stuff scribbled on the backs of envelopes, crumpled, discarded love notes, the odd jottings you made when you woke in the dark from a dream. Fred, Gail and I conscripted Bicycle Dan who was always up for this sort of thing and went out after midnight with our tubes of wheat paste and roughly ten copies each and plastered them on every surface we could find.
The next morning I went out to survey our work. With only a couple exceptions, like the bulletin boards where anyone could put up anything, every single copy had been ripped down. The window of the deli, where I’d seen Fred paste his first one, sported four corner shreds and a middle section with a few discernable words.
Fred found the rest of the copy in a nearby wire trash can. He pulled the remains out and brandished them like a battleaxe. With his beard and balding head and bulky middle, he looked like a Viking gone to seed.
“Rip this down!” he said. “Rip this down, my ass!” He shook the paper vigorously. “Rip this down, and eat it!”
We collected a new batch of poems that day and retyped them on the fly and made a new batch of copies. We had a new title. We rebranded our poetry sheet Rip This Down and Eat It, by the Poets Living in the Fire Zone.