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The Poetry Brothel: Postcard From New York City


Online Only, posted 8.01.08

On a sultry Friday night, amid the thumping bass notes from cruising cars and the occasional thunder of the elevated J train, a wonderfully distinctive literary event took place in the dim white rooms of a studio space in northeast Brooklyn. Unique to New York City—in the United States, at least; a doppelganger did exist for a time during a U.K. festival—the Poetry Brothel has been gaining the attention of a growing crowd of poetry fans looking for a little nightlife. On July 25, the brothel held its sixth evening of literary seduction against a backdrop of coiling music, flickering candlelight, and drapes of jacquard and brocade. Poets in character completed the scene, their off-hours identities half-concealed behind garlands of peacock plumes and wigs, brass-buttoned coats, and dandy boots so pointy they could scale fish. But the hefty carat behind all the trash-velvet display was poetry.

“We want your bodies beside us, your ears’ love, and those tiniest hairs on the back of your necks,” the organizers wrote in a perfumed press release tucked inside a cigar box. “We will reach for them with our voices.” The reading series-cum-literary theater is the brainchild of Stephanie Berger (AKA the Madame) and fellow New School MFA graduate Nicholas Adamski (stage name Tennessee Pink), who dreamed up the brothel during a late-night conversation about a year ago. “Sometimes poetry is better one on one,” Adamski says. “We thought, ‘There are probably people who want to have poems read to them like this,’ so we decided to make that possible.” Since January, the two, along with a collection of friends and volunteers, have brought the monthly event to various venues in Manhattan, and now Brooklyn.

Upon entering the space, I was directed by a mistress wearing a burgundy sheath (and a wry smile, of course) to four curtained rooms in which resident ladies and gentlemen of the evening would entreat me, upon request, to private readings of their own poems. At the center of the studio was a main gallery where, throughout the event, several poets would give short readings to the hundred or so attendees. Beckoned by the gorgeously weird stylings of an electric cello and guitar duo, I entered the common room just in time to see Tao Lin, the author of several books, including the poetry collection cognitive-behavioral therapy (Melville House Publishing, 2008), being summoned to the mike. Lin’s reading had barely begun before I was whisked away to a private room by Brooklyn-based poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, who promised a more personal reading. Proving the oracular poet she purported to be, Hecht offered two pieces: “Hat Trick,” from her collection Funny (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), and “History,” which she recited from memory. She requested a few of mine, but I hadn’t thought to bring any along. I paid her instead with a gold reading coin, which were given to entrants at the door.

After wandering the space, peeking into rooms bedecked boudoir-style in pearls, pinups in sepia, mirrors, and candles, I was greeted by Tennessee Pink, masquerading in an eye patch, and carrying a notebook of artfully handwritten poems. Having just emerged from a reading to two young ladies, flush with having made an intimate literary connection, he was eager to deliver again, this time to a painter friend. The two settled onto a mat on the floor, generously engaging one another during the seven-minute reading. (In fact, I’m not certain Tennessee took many breaks from reading all evening—I even caught him, in flagrante poetico, performing to a crowd outside the venue.)

With all of the delightfully odd acting and reading going on around me, I missed the public reading by Matthew Yeager, whose work has appeared recently in New York Quarterly, Ocho, and Bat City Review, and was featured in The Best American Poetry 2005, but all of the evening’s readers were available for one-on-one sessions as well. Other private readers included Berger, Paige Taggart, Joey Cannizzaro, Caroline Depalma, Binh Nguyen, Christine Hamm, and Julia Sorrentino.

As I departed after midnight, the studio was still swinging as poet-lovers slipped into rooms with happy listeners, one of whom, despite a twinge of sleepiness in her eyes, remarked that she wanted everyone to read to her before she left. Maybe poetry really can make great bedfellows of us all.

“Upon entering the space, I was directed by a mistress wearing a burgundy sheath (and a wry smile, of course) to four curtained rooms in which resident ladies and gentlemen of the evening would entreat me, upon request, to private readings of their own poems.”

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