The Underground Poet Revisited



Neighborhood: Subway

Before the interwebs, it required more ingenuity to get noticed. That’s why I conjured up my “underground poet” scheme in the early 90s. 

I was already a published poet by then, and at a huge art show at the Javits Center two of my framed one-liners were purchased by a French art dealer. When he compared me to Marcel Duchamp, I swooned… and I started planning.

After purchasing a batch of small stickers, I marked them up with my poems, one-liners, and other provocative writings. 

I’d ride the subways, slapping my stickers up here and there — but then it hit me: I could skip a step. Instead of waiting for someone to randomly notice my work and alert the media, I could kinda-sorta alert the media myself. With that in mind, I stopped risking arrest (or a summons, at the very least) and focused on my new plan. Let’s face it, there’s no need to actually illegally put up your poetry when you can just convince the media to report that it’s true.

My girlfriend at the time, Michele, was more than happy to help. So, I wrote an article about the magnificence of the “Underground Poet” and made sure to note that someone named “Mickey Z.” was responsible. I put Michele’s name as the byline and mailed it (yes, snail mail) to a handful of major local outlets. Lo and behold, New York Newsday replied almost immediately. (Side note: Newsday was once a staple in the five boroughs. Now, it’s primarily centered on Long Island.)

Mickey Z at the Bowery Poetry Club

The editor of the op-ed page at the time, Ken Emerson, called Michele to say he was very interested in publishing the piece. He just needed to talk with her in person first. It seems his journalist instincts had him feeling a little skeptical. I went with Michele to Newsday’s offices on Park Avenue South but, of course, waited outside. Their chat was brief. “How do I know that you’re not Mickey Z.?” Emerson asked. “I don’t wanna be part of a scam.” Michele calmly replied: “You’re just gonna have to trust me.”

With a deep sigh, Emerson agreed. The piece ran about a week later, Michele got paid $150 as the author, and the myth of the Underground Poet was launched. I used the article to reach out (as myself) elsewhere, and more press soon followed. Among other outlets, Street News picked up the story, but — best of all — the New York Daily News sent a reporter out with me onto the trains and interviewed me as I hung my work. 

For years afterward, these clips came in handy as I pitched articles, got book deals, and secured writing grants and fellowships. A line in my official bio still reads: “In the 90s, Mickey Z. was known as the ‘Underground Poet’ for hanging his words in NYC’s subterranean tunnels of transportation.” Still, I’ve always believed I didn’t push it far enough. In fact, after recently watching documentaries on Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, I can see that I didn’t reap all the rewards and possibilities that were available back then. I think, in this convoluted age of hashtags, algorithms, and fake news, it’s time for a comeback.


Mickey Z. is the host of Post-Woke, a weekly podcast and the founder of Helping Homeless Women – NYC, offering direct relief to women on New York City streets.

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