You’re in the corner of a dark saloon, shrouded in cigar smoke, staring into the fathomless abyss swirling away at the bottom of a bottle of bourbon. You’re lost… alone… and then… a voice, intimately close, whispering in your ear, lips gently brushing against your lobe, a young woman pouring a taste of her soul into yours, a metaphysical promise of things to come. For the right price, the girl or boy of your choosing will spread their spirit wide open and reveal to you what lies deep inside…
Welcome to the Poetry Brothel, a literary, sensual ecotone where the worlds of artistic expression and sexual liberation rub shoulders… and more. The basic premise of the Poetry Brothel – aesthetically based on the fin-de-siecle bordellos of New Orleans and Paris – is that people go along and, as if they were in actual brothel, pick out ‘poetry whores’ to give them private and intimate poetry readings in secluded corners of the venue.
The Poetry Brothel was founded in New York in 2008 by Stephanie Berger (aka The Madame) and Nicholas Adamski (aka Tennessee Pink), a result of their dissatisfaction with the city’s dusty, staid poetry scene. The Brothel was such a success, the concept found itself moving overseas, with chapters opening up in various European cities. When I talk to Stephanie and Nick, they are in Barcelona, making a special appearance at a show put on by the Spanish city’s chapter, El Prostibulo Poetico. We’ve joined them beneath the gothic arches of the Bar del Convent (an old convent since converted into a bar and cultural center at the edge of Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico) along with Sonia Barba, the Barcelona Poetry Brothel Madame, Madame Taxi, and two of her ‘poetry whores’ – Adela Silvestre (aka Pluma – both the feather or the quill, depending) and Nerea Arrojeria (aka Eco) – to get it all out in the open, chapter and verse.
Stephanie, a baroque beauty with flaming red hair and piercing ice blue eyes, begins with the origins of the brothel. “Nicholas and I were in grad school together, at the New School in New York City. I had this idea to start the Brothel and talked to a mutual friend about it. She was like, “You have to talk to Nicholas!” He was writing his thesis on erotic poetry. I was writing about like art and brothels, and we just like totally connected and started the project together.”
For Nick and Stephanie, there seemed to be two different scenes happening in New York City. “There was like the very like buttoned-up academic poetry readings, where the poetry is great but really boring,” Stephanie says with a shrug. “Just stuffy, you know?”
“You’re not allowed to speak,” interjects Nick – who, by the way, looks like he’s just stepped off an Old West steamboat casino, having just taken Mel Gibson for everything he had at the Black Jack table. “You’re not allowed to get a drink.”
“Yeah,” says Stephanie before continuing. “Then there was the slam scene, which had this fun, vibrant quality to it. But I was not into the poetry there, and I didn’t like the competitive element of it. There was like a need for a poetry reading that focused on the beauty and intimacy.”
I wasn’t sure that it sounded that much fun, unless you’re a client. For the poets themselves it seemed a strange choice to make, putting you on a service rather than artistic level.
“Well,” says Stephanie, nodding, “the other part of it was that we really wanted to get poets paid. Most poets in Europe just sort of say “You can’t make any money unless you reach a point in your career.”
Nick agrees. “Most poets everywhere in the world. All other artists get paid for their work… the art that poets are doing takes as much time and study as painting, or a musical instrument. So we wanted to teach the poets, but also the people in the community, that the work the poets are doing is worth money.”
One of the key elements of the Poetry Brothel is that the poets, the whores, all assume characters, and that those characters are given their voice and their life by the poetry they create. So, I wonder what the relationship is between the Madame and her right-hand man Tennessee. Did he act as a pimp and sort of old-style pander?
“I obviously don’t like the word pimp,” says Nick, very seriously, pinching the ends of his striking handlebar mustache. “Well, not obviously,” he muses, “but I don’t like the word pimp. I’m security. I’m the one that makes sure that none of the girls get messed with. I’m like that dark mysterious figure in the corner, looking mean”
Did he give poetry readings, too, I wondered. “Absolutely. But I’m like… sort of the stage manager. Tennessee Pink is basically a little boy who was brought up in a brothel. Maybe his mother was a whore, but of course he doesn’t know. He’s just always had some Madame telling him what he needs to do. So, he grew up traveling around the southern part of the United States, a kind of houseboy, sweeping up, and then climbed the ladder. By the time we met,” he says, indicating Stephanie, “she needed someone who knew his way around the brothel and could handle himself.”
“Our back stories change,” says Stephanie. “It’s not a narrative piece.”
I ask them how popular the brothel is in the States, if it’s big, with a loyal following.
“One of the things about the Poetry Brothel in New York that’s kinda funny,” says Stephanie, “is that over the years we’ve realized that it’s poetry reading for non-poets. Not all the poets come to it anymore… we do have a loyal following, but it’s just people.”
Perhaps they think that the Poetry Brothel has a mission? Is there a mission to it?
“Absolutely,” says Nick.
“We want to teach the public that poetry is valuable,” says Stephanie, “and vibrant; that poetry’s intimate; it’s inherently intimate. There’s no need to shock. Poetry’s for everyone. A lot of people feel like it’s not.”
I know the feeling, I tell them. It’s difficult for me to read poetry. I’ve been to performances, and it’s a very different thing, but reading poetry, I have this problem with the rhythm I got from school, and it gets in the way. A lot of people probably don’t go for poetry because they think it’s inaccessible or pretentious or too private, like having someone masturbate in your face. So, how do they get around that?
“The thing with the brothel,” Stephanie begins thoughtfully, “it’s a seduction. Even people that don’t like poetry come into the Poetry Brothel and have a lot of fun. Certainly there are people who have moral problems with the concept, but people always have a good time. Good poetry is just wonderful,” she laughs.
Nick is in accord. “It’s a celebration. We’re really trying to like re-brand poetry, to give the public that new perception, the way that we see it. So we make a really beautiful scene, we have a really lovely space, and then we tease them and entice them. The first time you meet the poets is like a line up.” He points to Stephanie. “She’s the first; she’s the Madame. I’m somewhere in the back, pretending to be drunk or something. She brings them out, the “wares” for the evening. There’s soft music playing and everyone’s hidden in these corners and people are looking around like ‘what’s happening?’ We read the poetry that we love and we curate the show, so we know the poetry of an average person is there. When they [the clients] sit down, it’s like, ‘What kind of day are you having? Were you late for work? Do you want me to read something that’s exalting? Should we go in that direction?’”
Does the client get a choice? Does he get to ask for what he wants or what she wants, I wonder.
“One thing I always say to the poet,” says Stephanie, “is that you have to remain a character. You’re your character out in the main room. You do not answer to your real name if your best friend comes in. Don’t even recognize them. What happens in the private readings should be totally up to the special interactions that happen between you and your client. If you feel like you want to tell them a story from your real life, or something like that, you’re allowed to; you’re allowed to get more personal in there, because you’re dealing with your poems at that point.”
Was there a correlation between the way the brothel works in New York and the way the brothel works in Spain? Did they all communicate with each other and say ‘Okay, we’re doing it this way in New York, so you need to do it this way in Barcelona?’
“No.” Stephanie is emphatic. “We don’t do that. We discovered that every city works differently; the audiences are expecting something different in every place.”
Internationally there are somewhere between 15 and 20 Poetry Brothels. Sometimes one-off brothels. The one in Barcelona, However, was started by a grad school colleague of Nick and Stephanie’s, Kiely Sweatt, before Sonia took over as Madame.
In the publicity for the show coming up, there was a line that more or less translated as: ‘The American dream comes to the maligned old country.’ What was that all about, I asked them.
Sonia, the tall, porcelain-skinned Spanish Madame – who, in a beautifully coincidental yet apt expression of physical poetry, is blessed with the same fiery-colored hair as her US counterpart – finds this funny. She was the one who wrote it after all. “It’s like the poor old, half-dead Europe,” she chuckles. “The show is going to be amazing,” she says when she stops laughing. “I know it. I was watching them rehearse. Their energy, that American energy, to me it’s marvelous. The US is a young country; it’s fresh and daring. They’ll do anything; they aren’t weighed down by the past like we are in Europe.”
So, she thinks we’re decadent?
“Europe? Totally. But that’s also something I love about it. Poor old Europe. She’ll be like an old lady with a young man to play with. Something like that anyway.”
That’s a lovely way of putting it.
Sonia has been the Madame of the Barcelona chapter of the Brothel for around five years. I wanted to know how she attained the position, and whether she had to work her way up from poetry whoring to get to the top. “I was performing at a spoken word event and I had invited Kiely along to see it. So she invited me along to one of her events. So I went along, watched it, and then later we met in Gracia to talk about it. I told her I loved the idea, that the whole thing was fabulous. What really captivated me was the concept of the private readings. So I wanted to be a part of it, but I wanted to do a sort of laboratory as well, where we could practice and learn, and Kiely was all for it. Eventually Kiely was ready to move back to NY.
“In those days I was just called Taxi, so when Kiely left, we had a leaving party, where Kiely symbolically passed over the keys to the Brothel to me and said, okay, now you’re the Madame.”
When she first started out, it seemed to Sonia that a great majority of the poets were men. Since then, she has garnered a reputation for being pretty hard and what I like to call ‘the unfair sex’ (just look at the history books). For her, brothels “are all about the women.”
“In the world of literature,” she goes on, “the editors are men, the prizes mostly go to men… so I wanted the Brothel to be about the women, so that when men enter into that place they experience that sensation of the majority being feminine, not masculine.”
I wonder how the whores look at Madame Taxi. “She’s very elegant,” says Nerea. “I see her as the Lady of the House and, at the same time, like a mother. She’s strict too. She has her cane and she’ll use it if we misbehave!”
“Yes,” nods Sonia, with a dark look in her eye. “I do have a cane.” She relaxes. “What I want from my putas is that they trust me implicitly, without the need for explanations. When I suggest something to them or show them something, I want them to trust in these directions without questioning them. We don’t really have the time for that.” It’s not surprising she has so little time. At the moment, the Barcelona chapter has 27 poetry whores languishing in its corridors.
Since two of the ‘whores’ are there, I ask them how they create a good character, if the process is organic or if they simply arrive at the Brothel with their stories all worked out.
“I guess everyone approaches it differently,” says Nerea. “In my case, I had all these poems and I had to ask myself, what kind of person wrote them. So I did something I’d never done before, which was to analyze the work, verse by verse, to see what came out. My character is still developing.”
“For me,” Adela tells us, “it was all about sharing with people a part of me that normally I can’t share. That was amazing. Obviously, the more you perform, the more you discover. I called myself Pluma because a feather is something delicate, but at the same time it can hurt you. Depending on you use it, it can injure or make you feel joy. And, of course, it’s something you can use to write with.”
Considering the nature of the performance, it struck me that perhaps the poems that the whores read over the course of an evening had to be somehow erotic. “That depends,” says Sonia, “on what each individual considers erotic. For me the word has been overused and misused, but ‘erotic’ has something to do with a certain level of tension. In the Brothel, eroticism is based on the word. We’re working with ideas. So a verse that talks about going outside to the street and setting fire to, I don’t know, a Starbucks is just as erotic as talking about how a pair of legs opens.
Take that image to bed with you tonight!
With so many Poetry Brothels cropping up and so many poetry whores inhabiting them, with all their different styles, stories and characters, have Stephanie and Nick ever thought of getting all of the brothels together and doing like one big thing?
“We’ve actually talked about a brothel summit,” says Nick. “Anyone who was in a Poetry Brothel can go be in a Poetry Brothel anywhere else. So it’s this community where you’re always welcome. Like you’re a member of the tribe. It’d be great to meet some really, really rich person who thought that it’d be a great idea to bring us all together for a really big party.”
I tell them I’ll make sure to mention it, which pleases them all no end, before I get serious about poetry again. On one side you’ve got the very typical image of a poet, which is reclusive, everything in a dark shadow… And then you have this very, very different form, where a poet is basically sitting on your lap. That’s going to be pretty crazy… to the poet, to the person. I’d think people are going to react very differently. How do the poets get their heads around that? How do you get rid of the shyness?
“I think the characters,” says Stephanie. “We were telling you about what’s special about our tribe, these people that are into the Poetry Brothel; they have sort of very dynamic sort of fantasy life. Not afraid. I guess every artist has that in a way. But I feel like the poets in the Poetry Brothel really inhabit the characters they create. The characters are a really important vehicle for putting yourself in that position, where you can share work that is incredibly intimate and important to you.”
“I told Stephanie after the very first night we talked about this in a bar in the West Village,” says Nick. “I went home immediately and was absolutely effervescent with excitement about the idea, but wrote her an email that was like ‘I have two really enormous fears inside of me right now, and the first one is actually going and reading a poem to the stranger… like, holy shit… Is my poetry even good enough? I don’t even want to go read at an open mic at a school. So I wrote, ‘I’m terrified of that, but I’m more terrified that this is one of the greatest ideas I’ve ever heard and I’m going to let my fear of being embarrassed in front of a stranger trump my opportunity to be sitting in Barcelona seven years from now, going on this European tour to see all these brothels that are popping up all over the place.’” I assume he’s paraphrasing a little.
“And so I made her a promise,” he continues, “If you let me join you in this mission, you can not ever let me quit because I’m scared. So, we’ve created this place. In the way that the Madame of the house or a pimp is supposed to protect their girls, when we go to poets at poetry readings and say, ‘You’re amazing. Come to the poetry brothel,’ and they’re like, ‘No way, I could definitely not ever do that,’ we tell them, ‘But you can! And you should at least try it.’ It’s giving people the opportunity, on both sides!”
So the audience kind of gets into the game of it as well? It must be much more fun to come across an audience member who’s saying, ‘You! I want to hear what you’ve got to say.’
“Yeah, totally,” Stephanie nods enthusiastically. “We definitely encourage our audience to come in costume, come in character if they want to.”
“For us,” says Nick. “it’s kind of insane. But we absolutely encourage our audience: Come in character. You know, we’re not actors. We have no idea what we’re doing out there. We’re making it up as we go along, but you know, sometimes we’re talking to a reporter or something, and I’ll be like, ‘I feel absolutely transformed.’ Like, ‘Am I in New York City in 2014 in a bar, like drinking beer out of a paper bag, or where am I?’ You know, like, a spaceship?”
Was it the same in Barcelona? I asked Sonia if she encouraged the audience to play along or just let them sit there and be ‘poet-ed’ at.
“I never thought about it that way,” she tells us. “I approach them and they approach me in their own way. There are people that come a lot, like all the time, and there are new people coming.”
Barcelona has one of the oldest prostitution rings going. It’s been going a long time, and there are certain areas where you have really, really old prostitutes. Really old. And their customers are really old. And you know, they’ve had this relationship for years. There’s something intimate and trusting about that relationship, as well. Was that the sort of thing that happened with the poetry brothels, too? That you have your long time clients that you know what they want, they come for the same thing…
“I feel like there are people that come every time, you know, for like a period of a year or two. But the thing about New York is there’s so much other stuff to do, and people are in and out of that city. Personally, I feel like I haven’t seen a whole lot of somebody really connecting with one of the characters and wanting to know that person’s new poems every single time.”
That would be a fascinating thing, I think. What’s cute about it, or what’s potentially cute about it is the idea that you would have a client who has a character who engages with the character of your poet, and like separately they have their distinct lives…
And speaking of separate lives, suddenly everyone has to be elsewhere. There are more people to see, more words to be written; there are costumes to be fitted; there are hearts to be broken and there are hearts to be mended; and more importantly, there is wine to be drunk. There’s just time enough for a few quick farewells before the poetry whores disappear round the corner, having tickled my interest, but leaving me hanging, unfinished and waiting for more…
Like damn good harlots.
Below is a selection of pictures from The Poetry Brothel Barcelona show at the Centre de Arte Mutuo in Barcelona on October 31, 2014, in which the New York Madame and her ever faithful Tennessee Pink made their special guest appearances. Show pictures by Dinorah Hernandez at BaDoink.io.