A SECRET HISTORY OF GOAL ZERO POETRY GROUP
BY KENT MUELLER
SUMMER 1983: a musician and poet named Mike Rosolek suggested to Kent Mueller, Nick Cipollone and Jim Pattison, or some combination of the three all boho writers more or less attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, that they start a poetry workshop. Mike had a small studio in a warren of lofts above a furniture store at 5th & National on the Near South Side of Milwaukee, next to a peculiar tavern named Kodrics Bar.
At the first or second meeting, a photographer and wild girl, Deborah Milne, showed up at Mikes suggestion, and I guess at her suggestion (or maybe Mikes) a genuine poet, John Jeske, some years older than the others, appeared and ignited the group, which to that point hadnt shown any particular talent or spark.
John had a two-room studio down the hall, a common interest in the Beat Generation, a bottle of whiskey and actual talent as a poet, all of which would heavily influence what became Goal Zero Poetry Group.
The name "Goal Zero" was an accident. At the third or fourth meeting (they were now occurring weekly) at Johns suggestion, the group gathered at Kodrics Bar and drew up a list of goals. These goals included: to conduct a workshop, read in public, publish individually and as a group, and so on. After drawing up and agreeing on the list, someone pointed out that we didnt have a name yet, and that a name might be a handy thing in accomplishing those goals. It was an afterthought, and since having a name didnt seem like much of a goal, it was added at the beginning of the numbered list as "Goal zero: a name".
It was a young East Side social butterfly, Jeanne Dawson, who after listening to the group debate various names for over an hour, leaned over, looked at the list and said, "Why dont you just call it Goal Zero?" It made perfect sense at the time, but would have the unforeseen repercussion of repeated misinterpretation.
John Jeske set to work almost immediately to arrange a public reading. The occasion was a benefit for the weekly newspaper The Express published by Mark Shurilla (AKA "Blackdog"), an old friend of Johns. Mark published a page of our poems and a full-page ad, and scattered several other references throughout the edition of the week preceding the event. In all of this massive publicity we were referred to as "The Ground Zero Poetry Collective". This was a surprise to the rest of us, and the event itself was presented by John as a fait accompli. Jeske was the only one whod ever read in public before this reading.
The event took place at the old Jazz Gallery on Center Street in Riverwest. It was a double bill, with the "Ground Zero Poetry Collective" opening for the pioneering industrial noise band Boy-Dirt-Car. Boy-Dirt-Car was the brainchild of Eric Lunde, peripatetic East Side figure and budding geomancist, and the band was later the subject of a disparaging letter to Ann Landers signed "Concerned Delaware Father".
I have a cassette tape of that first reading, but it was lost under a toaster-oven for over a year, and when I found it the case at least had badly melted. I remember listening back to the tape before it melted and how my head cold and sniffles made it sound as if I was snorting coke on stage throughout my reading. John was the last to read and he brought down the house.
The reading was a great success, and after a lengthy intermission during which all our friends left, what was left of the audience started to leave as soon as Boy-Dirt-Car started banging on car fenders. They truly were pioneers of the industrial noise movement, but ultimately they failed for the same reason that Goal Zero wasnt being featured in Gap" ads by 1993 they were in Milwaukee.
We immediately started a series of regular readings; for a good two years we were reading in public at least three times a month. We read every month at Kodrics patently illegal 2nd floor hall, at the old Gordon Park Pub, and at Saint Michaels Waiting Room, a coffee house whose "White Sufi" demeanor and no-smoking policy contrasted oddly with GZs party-on, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking and rather public pot-smoking audience. We continued meeting once a week at those South Side lofts or in Kodrics Bar.
It was at one of those first readings at Kodrics, not long after the Jazz Gallery debut, that a trim young fellow appeared. He struck up a conversation with us and mentioned how much he liked poetry. I think he brought up Coleridge as an example of the poets he liked to read, that and the Oxford shoes sort of put us on edge. Afterwards, we came to believe he was an FBI agent drawn, in those Reagan years, by the unintentional misnomer of "Ground Zero Poetry Collective" into thinking we were some sort of anti-nuke group. Well, we werent pro-nuclear, but we were hardly activists. Someone tried to pass him a joint, and the reading itself quickly degenerated with loud heckling by Tom Grabowskis brother-in-law.
Im sure the FBI agent, if thats what he was, wrote us off as nut cases and we never noticed active surveillance thereafter.
Meanwhile, others among us were busy making connections. Nick met the Chicago poet, Mary Shen Barnidge, now a theater critic for the Chicago Reader, at Woodland Pattern bookstore. She started getting us gigs in Chicago. Jim Pattison started a poetry calendar in our name, called Rabot,(look it up) which started as a broadside and later was incorporated into the Crazy Shepherd's line-up once a month. He later became their Poetry Editor, publishing a large number of our poems. Jim also got us our biggest gig in terms of pay and audience, booking us into Rainbow Summer at the Performing Arts Center in 1985. We weren't invited back.
We were still hanging out at Kodric's Bar. Tony Kodric was a Slovenian. During Prohibition there was some sort of brewing or distilling going on there, and the tavern featured a tunnel in the basement, long since bricked over. The tunnel went under the street and opened into the basement of the barber shop across the way. Kodric's had been a jazz bar in the '50s, and Tony told us stories of seeing some jazz greats shooting up in the phone booth. Tony's main crowd was working-class, and his was a pre-sports-bar sports-bar, with hundreds of trophies decorating the room. He had coached an amateur football team to a national championship, and promptly gotten sued by the Pittsburgh Steelers organization for using their "U.S.Steel" logo on the uniforms.
The regulars tolerated us rather well, even when we took over the bar for a couple of films, bright lights and all. One, a project of Jim Pattison called "Mark of the Poet", featured an opening shot of Mike Rosolek, a graffitti artist as well as a poet and musician, spraypainting in a railroad underpass. Another very elaborate film was shot by Peggy Haubert and her then boyfriend, with a truckload of equipment and a crew of ten. Unfortunately they broke up before the film was edited down, and neither of them claimed to know what happened to the footage. It was like a child custody dispute, except that no one wanted the kid.
Both films included readings in the condemned upstairs hall of Kodric's. Jim captured a golden moment when Grabowski's brother-in-law, once again disrupted a reading, threatened to beat me up during my turn at the stage. The brother-in-law was a huge red-haired drunk who later dropped dead in the street. Tom Grabowski was a sometime member of Goal Zero who needed no help making trouble for us. For three years in the early '90s we would have a Goal Zero summer party at my house, and this came to an end the year Grabowski invited about 20 underage drinkers he had just met at the lake front. Thanks, Tom.
Several of us were living in those tiny lofts above Bern Boys Furniture Store, next to Kodric's, at various times all through those early years. One early Sunday morning, after closing Kodric's the night before, I was woken up by Jim Shannon, yet another film maker, who dragged me upstairs to the fourth floor loft he shared with the photographer Francis Ford. Unlike the warren of rooms on the second and third floors, the fourth floor was one huge loft and, as "Studio Galactica", was the site of legendary parties. We started drinking and what-not, and after way too much what-not Jim filmed both John Jeske and myself reading poems while he ran the video camera and tinkered on a cheesy-sounding synthesizer.
There were many such strange moments emanating out of Kodric's and environs. Shannon was the spirit behind another incident one Sunday afternoon. He had made a series of stencils featuring feet: duck feet, monster feet, deer hooves, etc. We spent an hour spray-painting these stencils up and down Fifth Street. A drunken duck had wandered up the sidewalk and into Kodric's. Deer left their tracks up the sides of buildings. Monsters crawled out of one sewer and into another. At one point John Jeske was standing in the middle of National Avenue holding up a stencil in one hand and a spray can in the other. He was dressed in a long white lab coat, camouflage pants and a khaki T-shirt with a skull and cross-bones and the legend "U.S.Army Cook -- Death from Within". He was trying to clear the stuck spray-head, and that's when a squad car drove by, slowed to a stop, did a double-take, thought better of it and quickly drove off. It was too weird a tableau even for the cops.
When Tony got cancer and had to sell the bar, late in 1985, the Milwaukee Journal ran an article on him and he was quoted as saying that "the poets" had been his best customers in recent years. I remember--and my wife Linda will never let me forget--paying off the last $20 of my tab by dropping an envelope in the box at his funeral.
After Kodric's closed we went back to meeting in the lofts upstairs. Jim Pattison went on a membership drive and ran some sort of ad in the UWM Post. One of the spirits who turned up was a young Scott Zieher, who brought his own bottle of whiskey. He read an incredible and lengthy poem, "Wellaway and the Cell Start", about his father who had died shortly before he was born. He got so drunk that night that, wandering around on the rooftops outside the loft, he tripped over an electrical cable and came very close to falling three stories to the ground. We immediately recognized a kindred spirit. Scott became a key member thereafter. His departue for New York in the early '90s was one of the signs of Goal Zero drawing to a close.
The core membership of Goal Zero revolved around Rosolek (until he took off for Paris and then London under various names), Jeske, myself, Jim Pattison, Nick Cipollone and later Scott Zieher. It was heavily oriented toward the masculine. A huge amount of beer was consumed and drunken outrageous behavior was the norm. Other sometime members included Joseph Lane Smith; a weird guy out of Sheboygan who called himself "Archie Sharp"; John "Taco" Pintor, a neighborhood character who was caretaker at the notorious "Banana Building"--a rooming house across from Bern Boys; and later and more steadily Harold Annen, a core member by the time we "crescendoed".
There were only two female members who survived this atmosphere for any length of time. One was Yolanda Martinez and the other was Deborah Price Hughes Jaehne Nightwood Etc. Deborah Milne, the photographer who appeared at the first meeting, quickly became bored with us and moved on. She was a legend on the Milwaukee scene, and died at 30 in the Summer of '84 of a heart attack, before she could complete the ne plus ultra photography asignment of a fashion shoot for Playboy.
Yolanda could party with the best of them, wrote well, but still came and went periodically; an atmosphere in which we tried to out-drink and out-yell each other on a weekly basis and once in awhile read a new poem seemed to be too much for any woman. The open admiration for guns, knives and tales of warfare among various core members probably didn't help. Deborah Price Hughes Etc.(she was always amending her name) lasted for an even shorter length of time, leaving after the Second Anniversary reading and not returning until the Fifth Anniversary event.
Our Second Anniversary reading was exemplary of the problem. Originally scheduled for Kodric's, we had to move it at the last moment to the second floor hallway of Bern Boys Furniture Store. I think this was because John had used John "Taco" Pintor for target practice on Fifth Street in broad daylight. He fired from the doorway of Kodric's and "Taco" dodged the shots across the street, running back and forth from doorway to doorway. Tony Kodric may have felt that this could endanger his liquor license. Or it may have been about this time that Tony accidentally set John's hand on fire pouring one of John's special "Flaming Brandy" shots. The third degree burns might have annoyed Jeske at the time and he would have been boycotting Kodric's.
At any rate, my typically fuzzy memory recalls that the official event was the second reading of the day, the first having taken place at Woodland Pattern Bookstore in conjunction with Locust Street Days, a street festival in Riverwest. We were paid maybe $20 each, but the big payoff was the two cases of beer in the basement. Already well-oiled, we arrived at Bern Boys early that evening and, as I emerged from whose-ever car, an evil wind took the multiple copies of our poems from under my arm and distributed them the length of Fifth Street. They were made at John's expense and meant for distribution among the throngs of admirers. They blew around for days afterwards. It was a bad sign.
Upstairs, we retreated to John's third floor loft. There were copious amounts of red jug wine, bought also at John's expense. At one point I was twirling a large bamboo-and oiled-paper umbrella and accidentally almost took out one of Jim Shannon's eyeballs. It may have affected his aim because a few minutes later, when he discharged a shotgun, he blew a huge gash in the wooden floor and made numerous small pellet holes in the large windows of the loft. The noise scared off a portion of the then-gathering audience, as I recall. It was about that time when Mike Rosolek wrestled Deborah Price Etc. to the floor in a vain attempt to drink wine from one of her shoes. Such was the atmosphere that a woman had to tolerate to be part of Goal Zero.
By the fall of 1986, I and later Jim Pattison had become partners in the Wright Street Gallery in Riverwest. Goal Zero met there on occasion, but still mostly met in the lofts in the Bern Boys building. After a disagreement with the original partner at Wright Street, Jim and I started Metropolitan Gallery in August, 1987. The location was the former home of St. Michael's Waiting Room, the no-smoking coffeehouse we'd read in once a month not long before. The place had since closed of its own foul vibes. We began to meet at Metropolitan every week.
The regular readings had fallen off by then. Gordon Park Pub had changed ownership. Not long before it did we were sitting in the back room after one of our readings, being interviewed by two sweet girls who had taken over the Poetry Editorship of The Shepherd from Jim Pattison. All was going well and then Jeske pulled a gun and aimed it at the head of John "Taco" Pintor. This was an old game with John and Taco but for some reason it upset the two girls; they left immediately.
St, Michael's had closed, Kodric's had closed, and except for occasional readings at The Uptowner, owned by Steve Johnson who had owned Gordon Park Pub, we were reading out very little as a group. We had read at various places in Chicago over the years, including the notorious "Get Me High" Lounge whose owner, a former carnival cyclodrome rider, actually thought he was Jack Kerouac. You had to cross the stage to get to the restrooms. We'd read at Link's Hall and perhaps a half-dozen other places in Chicago. Our only other road trips were to Madison twice and once to Whitewater, Wisconsin.
Aside from places closing or changing ownership, our biggest problem with regular readings was coming up with fresh material. We'd usually try out new poems on each other at the workshops; it wasn't much of a challenge to come up with a new poem once a week, but fresh material to fill a 15 or 20 minute reading two or three times a month was almost impossible. For these reasons, we were in retreat from public readings at the same time that poetry readings were expanding exponentially.
All of a sudden, starting around 1986, poetry was everywhere and everyone was a poet. By the early '90s The Gap and even McDonald's had television ads playing off the stage-poetry scene. The McDonald's ads surely represented the crest of a wave, and it's been all downhill from there. Although Goal Zero were pioneers we never managed to cash in on the craze.
By this time we'd all achieved a goal of reading out individually at various times. By 1990 Jim Pattison, Nick Cipollone and Scott Zieher had all become local Poetry Slam champs.
The Poetry Slams had begun in Chicago at the "Get Me High" and soon hit the big time at The Green Mill in Chicago, getting coverage in The Wall Street Journal and franchising nationwide, including Milwaukee. Mark Kelly Smith, the founder of the Slams, was well known to us, since we'd sponsored a couple of readings of Chicago poets, including the then unknown Mark, with experimental music groups from Chicago like Musica Menta and Liof Minimula, at Kodric's in '84 and '85. These events were very well attended.
To this day, because of those readings, I feel that Mark Kelly Smith owes us one. He should really feature Goal Zero at a Chicago Slam at The Green Mill. He never has. Bastard that he is, he probably never will.
Metropolitan Gallery moved to South Fifth Street, one block from the old Kodric's, in 1989 and Goal Zero moved its weekly meetings there as well. Before it did, the old location in Riverwest was the scene of one of Goal Zero's last true public appearances. Billed as "Goal Zero Reads for a Week" and "8/8/88" in honor of the date of the decade, this event was largely Scott Zieher's idea.
Aomng other features, the location included a basement full of used books, stored there some years before by "Polish George". Polish George was a well-known Milwaukee Beat who'd at various times and locations ran Dancing Bear used bookstore. The books were one of the inspirations for the event. The concept was that Goal Zero would literally read for a week using those books, brought up in stacks, as the basis to write poems during a minimum 40 hour "working week", Monday through Friday. The event would be open to the public, who could stop in during gallery hours and watch us work.
We all brought typewriters and those few, notably Jim Pattison and Harold Annen, who were computer literate dragged in their computers as well. John Jeske set up a taping system to continually record the conversations, which in the course of a long day were generally banal ("burp, maybe I should go across the street and buy more beer"). John was continually overrecording the tapes and playing them back at the same time, so the end result was almost unlistenable. Still, for what it's worth, we have over 50 hours of tape plus a written document that runs over 250 pages.
The event also included a display of all our posters and copies of Rabot, and featured a public reading on 8/8/88, which counted for our Fifth Anniversary event. Some filming had been done by Jim Shannon and the result, along with all the previous footage we could find, was shown that night as well.
The most notable aspect of the whole event is that it began with the onset of the city's longest heat wave on 8/1/88. Temperatures hit over 100 that first day, recorded out at 106 at some point, and never fell below 95 in seven days and nights. The whir of fans, multiplying as the days went by, competed with the insufferable dun of over-recorded tape loops.
We sat around pouring sweat, read books desultorily, once in awhile someone said something. We drank large quantities of beer, changed tapes and kept the increasingly abusive audience at bay with stolen yellow "construction area-keep out" tape. The heat wave broke finally, just a little, with a tremendous electrical storm that Friday afternoon, just when Deborah Price Etc., who'd come back for the event and found us just as disgusting as ever, launched into an incredible and all-too-true denunciation. She recounted all the events of the disasterous Second Anniversary reading and inspired the present audience to revolt, all in righteous payback for being toppled and having her shoe wrestled off lo those three years previous. As she said, "When the knives come out, I leave."
It was a tremendous performance and the one tape cassette out of 39 that played back clearly, complete with the hoots and hollers from the audience. But although John made three copies of each tape, nobody can locate that particular tape to this day, all existing copies having disappeared in some mysterious God-like way. Nonetheless, it was danged cathartic.
We continued to meet on a more or less weekly basis until sometime in 1992, read out very rarely as a group after 1990, and Metropolitan Gallery itself closed in 1993. Goal Zero's last public act was a Tenth Anniversary reading in August of '93 at Makoe Seawright's Blues Oasis on Holton Street. Although we partied as before, it was plain to everyone that the wind had gone out of Goal Zero's sails. The reading was desultory and lackluster. Yolanda Martinez showed up for that one, as did John "Taco" Pintor, already dying of cancer. He died finally in 1998, not long after Tom Grabowski did a Brody off the 35th Street Viaduct.
But the rest of us are still friends and as we approach the Millenium are left with some odd memories besides the above. Here, in closing, are a few of them:
John "Taco" Pintor, whose simple poems always seemed to include one line that someone would recognize from the classics, chasing the car that bore Goal Zero to its first Chicago reading. He ran behind us for five blocks down National Avenue as we callously waved to him from the back window, with no intention of taking him along. He finally ran out of wind and fell off, as we laughed our way to Chicago.
Coming back from one of those early Chicago readings with Joseph Lane Smith at the wheel, we took back roads and decided on a whim to stop in Lake Forest and steal some rich people's garbage. For strictly sociological reasons, we planned to analyze the contents back in Milwaukee. We grabbed several black Hefty bags and threw them in the trunk, sneaking back to Milwaukee like a gang of thieves; when we opened them we found nothing but lawn clippings inside.
Tom Grabowski, sneaking around the Oriental Pharmacy on a Sunday morning, stuffing all the Milwaukee Journals with bogus, self-made derogatory "Golden Chicken" restaurant fliers.
My wife Linda relating how, before we ever met, her friends Geo Kiesow and Tom Landry came back from a night at Gordon Park Pub raving about this new poetry thing after a Goal Zero performance; Kiesow later went on to head the Milwaukee Poetry Slam and still does so.
In sum, maybe we had an influence, maybe not. But we did have a hell of a lot of fun. As we approach a new Millenium and Goal Zero's 17th year, maybe hell is about all we can expect.
Written for the Goal Zero/Gallery 218 Millenium Project, December 17th, 1999, by Kent Mueller.