It’s early in the evening at the Poetry Brothel, and the Madame, aka the poet Stephanie Berger, is introducing the line-up of poetry whores: writers dressed in corsets and fishnets, or waistcoats that could have belonged to a riverboat gambler. They have alter-egos for the evening, the way strippers do. Tennessee Pink, or Obsidienne.
Tonight, the brothel has popped up in a speakeasy down a set of dirty cellar stairs near Delancey. My friend and I have stumbled into a hidden world of velvet wallpaper and naked lady paintings. Two burlesque dancers wait on a small divan to perform a floorshow. Through a small door in the back of the lounge, there are beds curtained off in velvet where for a fee, a poetry whore will softly read a poem to you. We palm flowered teacups of absinthe and consider our options.
A young poet draped in rhinestones reads a couple of stanzas as a sample of her wares. Berger, red hair in a swirl supporting several peacock feathers, approaches the mic. “This poem,” Berger says in a flat, girlish voice, “is very expensive.”
It’s a statement that upends the common observation that poetry doesn’t pay, or that the general public out for some light entertainment will not pay for it. There seems to be something subversive at work here, something pushing back against how poetry is currently positioned somewhere just on the edge of the national stage. To investigate, I spoke with Berger and her co-founder Nicholas Adamski from the road on their recent West Coast tour. They have the rapport of longtime friends, voices overlapping down the scratchy phone line, occasionally interrupting to finish each other’s sentences. Berger told me: “Poets just give their work away for the most part.” Adamski added: “The Poetry Brothel’s mission was and continues to be training poets that the work that they do is worth money. And convincing the public that poetry is also worth money.”
This notion would not have been as unconventional as recently as the 1950s, when Dylan Thomas was able to replenish his anemic finances by touring America to sold-out shows, which was arranged by an agent–and by all accounts, he gave a great show. Like W.H. Auden or Edna St. Vincent Millay before him, he was as close as you can get to a poet being a popular performer. On either side of the Atlantic, poetry was entertainment then.
But recreating a lost space and time is a lot of what the Poetry Brothel has been up to from the beginning, when Berger gathered a round table of friends in a conference room at The New School to figure out what exactly a poetry brothel was. “She had like a fever dream, sweat lodge vision,” Adamski remembered. Fellow MFA students at the School of Writing, Adamski was working on a thesis on erotic poetry, and Berger was researching New Orleans sex workers. They were not interested in the standard podium and folding chairs of literary readings. The format they came up with–the lineup, the floor shows, the private sessions–was based on the fin-de-siecle brothels Berger was researching, many of which had doubled as gathering places for artists, writers and musicians operating well outside of polite society. The result is a very different way to hear poetry. “I wanted to see a reading that was as beautiful and intimate as poetry is,” Berger said. “If you’re not dating or related to a poet, the chances of hearing a poem one on one are almost zero,” Adamski went on. “The chances of having someone whisper a poem to you in a bed are definitely zero. We both agreed that that was the poetry brothel experience.”
Eight years later, the poetry brothel experience has proven to be attractive. “From the get go,” Berger said, “We had this idea that it wouldn’t be a thing that was just appealing in New York City.” It now has branches all over the world–from Barcelona to Bogota, Paris to New Orleans–started by like-minded friends and admirers of the format who produce the show independently, with Berger and Adamski sporadically dropping in to perform and share ideas. “We realized the Poetry Brothel works anywhere that artists live,” Adamski said. “We really wanted to bring the Poetry Brothel to every city in the world.”
Usually these far-flung poetry madams and pimps are poets themselves, but the audiences are not. “It took us a while to figure out that our audience is largely people who’ve never had an experience with poetry,” Adamski said. “or had an experience with poetry when they were young but let it go.” What’s more, these audiences are almost randomly diverse. There’s a core group you might expect of younger creative professionals, but they get all kinds. “We’ll have like a 21 year old kid who cannot even believe this exists, and then literally like a couple who are in their 60s who come together on a date who can’t believe this exists,” Adamski elaborated. “It’s super exciting. We can’t believe it exists either, but it does.” Part of what’s turned out to be great about positioning poetry as popular entertainment is that it has been popular, able to span high and low culture to speak to just about everyone.
The momentum is at a point now that Berger and Adamski have been able to take the Poetry Brothel on tour themselves–like a turn-of-the-century roadshow, visiting establishments in distant outposts with their girls (and guys). “We realized we could actually just fly to LA or Portland and produce our shows all on our own,” Adamski said. They currently are putting on up to six shows a month, largely along the West Coast or in New York, but they are also looking to the Eastern seaboard and the South. Berger added. “It’s what we’ve always wanted to do. Like our whole focus is just on bringing the Poetry Brothel to as many particularly American cities right now as possible.”
There’s plenty to catch coming up, whether you’re in New York or elsewhere in the country. This month, Berger and Adamski will head to Philadelphia on the 25th before returning to New York for The Poetry Brothel: Pride Edition on June 12th.
And they’ll be making a special appearance at Michigan electronic music fest Electric Forest, for which they will build a poetry brothel in the woods for four days, June 23rd-26th. Last year, the entry to the space resembled an out-of-order photo booth. “We’d open a prop door behind it and be like you need to come with us right now,” Adamski reminisced. “And we pulled them into this world and it’s just like made of velvet, and there’s these huge beds.” After a brief orientation in the parlor, the guest would choose a poetry whore for a private reading. “It’s pretty eye-opening fun,” Adamski said.
July will see a very special incarnation of what Berger and Adamski do, the NYC Poetry Festival, which they have thrown every summer on Governor’s Island for the past six years. A big theme of the fest, unsurprisingly, is inclusiveness, with three stages, a children’s festival, and over 350 readers. “We’re not positive but we think it’s probably the biggest poetry festival in the world, just in terms of sheer volume of poetry,” Berger said. “The poetry community here, it’s huge. A big part of the festival is to bring everyone together.” This year will kick off the weekend of July 30th and 31st in conjunction with the Queens Book Festival, making it the first ever NYC literary week.
Then beginning in August, the Poetry Brothel will hit the road again along the West Coast, with multiple stops in LA, SF and Portland. For more information on these and other upcoming events, check out thepoetrybrothel.com.