The two members of the poetry collective SevenTenBishop stride up Milwaukee Avenue toward Myopic Books. Zebulun is sturdy and bespectacled and sports a bushy red goatee, a straw fedora, and a blue button-down shirt. Daniel Nagelberg is pale and thin, with dyed black hair and wearing a thrift-store T-shirt. When they stop outside the store, ready to improvise a block-long free-verse poem in bright pastel chalk on the sidewalk, a scowling manager emerges. "Yeah," she says, a preemptive hostility in her voice. "We're not going to do the sidewalk chalk thing today. OK? We've decided not to do it."
The two are bewildered. Why not?
"We just don't wanna. I just don't wanna deal with it today. Don't get an attitude. OK? Go to Quimby's. And make sure you ask."
"I'm not getting an attitude," says Zebulun, clearly crestfallen. "I'm just...disappointed."
They duck into a small boutique next door, where Zebulun knows the woman behind the counter. "That's the first time I ever told anyone we were gonna do it," he says. "And I'm never doing that again. I was really being courteous. And she was really nasty. 'Go and do it at Quimby's and make sure you ask them first.' Well, man, I'm 32 years old. I was raised right. I came here, goddamn it, and told you what was gonna happen! We've done this a dozen times, police have even walked right past us." They briefly discuss calling someone they know who works at another bookstore, but soon it begins to rain, so they head across the street instead to get some coffee.
In conversation the pair is kind of a punk-poetry version of Jay and Silent Bob. When asked what kind of poetry they write, Zebulun answers. "He does longer-form pieces than mine. A lot of surrealistic environments, all verse, mixed, free--I'm not really sure of the technicity of it. Mine are predominantly verse or quatrains, small blurbs, four lines each, usually no longer than a breath." Nagelberg nods.
SevenTenBishop is named for the apartment building where Nagelberg and Zebulun met in 1999. When they found out they both wrote, they did some research and printed a 500-book run of each of their poetry collections. Then they realized they had to market them. "We sent out over 150 review copies to places all over the country," says Nagelberg, "and got no response whatsoever. We'd make follow-up calls, and they'd be like, 'Oh yeah, it's on the shelf, if someone wants to review it, they'll get to it. We get so many copies of books,' stuff like that."
"The idea for the chalking really came out of, how do you promote yourself now--with some dignity, for one thing, but also where you can't intrude on anyone?" says Zebulun. "People's space is so precious, and there's all this media--you have to do something that's temporary but still stunning."
Nagelberg, who grew up in Skokie, began writing in high school--"really sordid tales of, you know, chopping people up, satanic references." These stories morphed into an anonymous antiteacher zine. "It was completely juvenile, but it was great to have that buzz of handing it out and having people read it. I had to stop, though, when one of my teachers sued me for libel. I basically called him a rapist."
Zebulun was also something of a misfit. "I wasn't an outsider because of my mode of dress, I was more on the outside because of my behavior. No matter what I did, I didn't belong anywhere." After moving to Chicago as a teenager and playing in a series of local bands, he moved to 710 N. Bishop in the early 90s and became a hermit of sorts. "For a while I was communicating with most people solely by E-mail. Something would happen, I would be really hungover, and I'd say, 'Man, I got this idea,' and I'd blow this little four-line thing together and send it out to my whole mailing list, like a little message in a bottle. A letter of affection. And they were the only bulk E-mails I ever sent out that people replied to. I just got this sense that this is the first thing, and the only thing, I've ever done that has communicated with people."
In June, before a reading they did at Quimby's, they began composing on the sidewalk in chalk. "We didn't know what we were gonna write, we didn't know if we were gonna get arrested," says Zebulun. "We had prepared ourselves with a lot of bottled water in the car, just in case the pigs showed up and we had to pour it over the thing. And people were coming out of their restaurants and their shops, looking it over. When we got finished, we were covered with sweat and dirt, oil. We walked across the street to look at it. We had covered the whole block with this beautiful cascade of pastel."
They found the experience so exhilarating they decided to travel around the country on a chalking tour. "We knew we had a limited amount of time," says Zebulun. "Even though we don't have jobs, we knew we had to get in and get out on as small a budget as possible." In one week they drove 2,500 miles, hitting Baltimore; Norfolk, Virginia; New York City; Toronto; and Elkhart, Indiana. "The best one, as far as sheer vibe, had to be New York. In front of the Village Voice," Zebulun says. "Yeah," says Nagelberg. Zebulun explains: "A lot of it had to do with what we brought to it--the kind of terror of 'We're really going to try something outside in Manhattan. Today.' We blew out this enormous piece, and I'd never have suspected people would stop, ask questions, even recognize what was happening. There was the Village Voice right there. They chose not to recognize it, but hey, we chose to recognize them and we chose to recognize New York."
Not all places were so receptive, says Nagelberg. "In Baltimore we'd have people walk by and be like, 'What are you guys doing, don't you have anything better to do?' It was a little bit discouraging at first. With that being said, it was more impetus to keep going. If it was pissing people off, that was making me high."
Did they sell a lot of books on the tour?
"I think we sold one each," says Zebulun. "On the last night."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.