What A Poet In Center City focuses on most intensely is the complex interrelationship between the four founding fathers of the Philly Free School- myself, Mike Land (John Rind), Nick Gruberg (Ricky Flint), and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum (Christopher Severin). It was easily the most explosive group context I've ever been part of- everywhere we went, we attracted attention. Part of the explosive energy was generated by our physical appearance together- I was the shortest, at 5'9/5'10, and we were all good looking, with dark hair and eyes. We looked like brothers. None of us particularly lacked education; Nick and I were already in graduate school; but we all drank, drugged, smoked, and shagged nonetheless. When we hit the streets, the Philly Free School guys did massive divide and conquer routines just by ambling into rooms (particularly bars, music venues, and art galleries). The streets of Center City Philadelphia had clearly never seen anything quite like us. Because the four-person square was split down the middle between bisexuals and hard-line heteros, we could as easily end up at Woody's as at Dirty Frank's.
But four abrasive, explosive personalities thrown into a cage together (no matter how glamorous the cage looks from the outside) is not easy to sustain; and, for us, the fractiousness was right there on the surface with the passionate elan. The "classic" period of the Philly Free School, with all four of us more or less completely engaged, lasted roughly a year, from mid 2004 to mid 2005; it wasn't exactly a Rimbaudian season in hell, nor was it an effortless joyride. It was a tumultuous congeries of both; was, in fact, the single most tumultuous year of my life. One of the big, cocaine-level highs for me was that I had (as I thought might be possible when I arrived in Philly in '99) created and let loose a wild beast into the Philly arts scene. There was something about the shows we put on at the Highwire Gallery that was feral- because we went out of our way to get everyone stoned and drunk, the nights there became bacchanals, with nothing timid, precious, or academic about them. The vibe was near-complete Dionysian abandon- well past the arid frigidity of Warhol's Factory, or the rich-kid pomposity of the Cedar Bar.
There is, to my knowledge, no real parallel to the Philly Free School shows anywhere in the history of American art- not just for the bacchanalian frenzy, but for our wild, egalitarian sense of multi-media. The Philly Free School shows at the Highwire Gallery featured poetry (bare or with accompanying videos/images), paintings, bands, films, and even DJs. The shows were successful; people came. Even as the lurching four-headed beast ripped holes, willy-nilly, in everyone and everything it touched. There was always a violent undercurrent following us around. What we were together wore us down individually, as well. The lurching beast was not especially discriminating- it would not stick at tearing into its own flesh. We all wound up with blood on our hands- through sexual conquests and competitiveness, unrequited love, deep-in-our-cups harangues in many directions, and especially gossip, gossip, and more gossip. America stood on the edge of a major recession- the times were not particularly generous. Yet I still believe that the spirit of those Free School shows at the Highwire Gallery is worth preserving- rare visions of reckless American freedom, but executed with thoughtful taste. That's another reason why this book is worth reading, and why I wrote it.