The Poetry Brothel…Satire Or What?

There is a new kind of poetry happening in NYC called The Poetry Brothel. The basic idea is that the poets are prostitutes and the patrons are johns who pay to have poetry read to them in private. There is also a featured performed, who is promoted in a tone recalling the promotion of burlesque, and the whole presentation in general, I think, is meant to recall the speakeasy’s of the prohibition era. Here is a review of the event. Some excerpts (I have eliminated some of the line breaks from the original):

The prostitute whispers, wets her lips and prepares to bare… her heart with a poem. Welcome to New York’s Poetry Brothel, where punters delve between the lines, not the sheets. At a weekend session in a Manhattan night club called the Zipper Factory the look was bona fide bordello. Literary ladies of the night flitted between intimate, candle-lit nooks, red lights and paintings of nudes. Some of the poetesses for sale sported retro-style garter belts and frilly knickers. One swanned about in a top hat and feather boa. But transactions at the Poetry Brothel are of the mind, not the body, and a moment with the catalogue, replete with pictures and whimsical descriptions, reveals what’s on offer.

The Madame — real name Stephanie Berger — came dressed for the part in low-cut dress, elbow-length black gloves and a peacock headdress. “I’d rather be in the bedroom hearing poetry than listening to some old man sitting on a chair on a stage,” she explained by the light of a guttering candle. One-on-one encounters, for which “clients” pay three to five dollars in addition to a 15 dollar entry fee and one free reading, took place upstairs. The “whores” read from their own material, much of which is free verse, making for intense, sometimes baffling performances.

But for those needing a break, the Poetry Brothel laid on flamenco guitarists, a fortune-teller, a blackjack table and a bar specializing in port and whisky[.] The young hedonists, most of them students, appear to have struck a surprisingly successful formula. “There just aren’t that many poetry readings where poets show a lot of cleavage,” said The Professor, otherwise known as Jennifer Michael Hecht, aged 43 and a real life professor at Manhattan’s New School. She teaches writing to many of the Brothel’s regulars and is proud of the result.

“It’s kind of like the Weimar Republic without the Nazis. At two in the morning you have 20- or 30-year-olds lying all over the place reading poetry,” she said.

The Madame promised that the Poetry Brothel welcomed all. “Many are young men with perhaps a secret interest in poems,” she murmured. “Just look at the menu. Get a recommendation. Or say you don’t care. Say: ‘I need poetry. I’m hungry.'”

On the Poetics Listserv to which I subscribe, there has been a mildly heated discussion of this. Here are some snippets (I have retained all original punctuation, etc.):

Ruth Lepson wrote: cooptation of poetry by capitalist objectification of women. not funny. to use a brothel as a metaphor is disgusting. I remember when Denise Levertov criticized a poet for using napalm as a metaphor for personal pain, saying you don’t know what it feels like & it’s much worse than the way you are characterizing it.

Adam Tobin wrote: Why is the capitalist exploitation of women at a brothel worse than, say, the capitalist exploitation of women at a Zipper Factory? It’s just a different kind of labor, no? Given that some artists are seemingly comfortable with capitalism, why should they not acknowledge it in the name of their ventures?

I understand, of course, that brothels have a particular history with a
particular kind of violence attached to it, but so do factories. Do you
direct the same righteous anger at Andy Warhol?

John Cunningham wrote: Political correctness be dammed, I like the idea of “Poetry Brothel”. Firstly, isn’t feminine or feminist poetry (whichever you prefer) spoken from the body. Secondly, here is a legally sanctioned place of ‘intercourse’ (the poetic kind, a.k.a. communication) where the practitioner are protected. For those of you who are speaking out against the body being used in commerce, why are you not speaking out against football or hockey where male bodies are being used in commerce? When you consider the damage that is done to the male body during that contact sport and the lingering effects of it in terms of permanent injury and disability such as arthritis and other diseases, isn’t this just as bad? Or is it that one affects women whereas the other affects men? If we’re going to get on a train, lets get on the right one – the one that carries both male and female on equal terms.

Gwyn Mcvay wrote: Omigod, you’re so right. I hurt in my anterior cruciate ligaments for all of those men FORCED or DECEIVED into collegiate and professional sports every year; BEATEN if they try to leave; often denied any other employment options in the case of being transgendered; not allowed to keep a PENNY of their earnings… oh wait.

First, I have to be honest and admit that I have not actually gone to The Poetry Brothel, so I cannot report firsthand on what it is like, and so what I am talking about here–as were most of the people on the Listserv–is the idea of it, and I confess to being of two minds about this. On the one hand, The Poetry Brothel strikes me as brilliant satire; on the other hand, I think it goes too far for precisely the reasons that Ruth Lepson articulated in her response. But maybe that’s what good satire is supposed to do; and yet, talking about it as satire implicitly ignores the fact that it is an ongoing event, where real people spend real money, which someone somewhere is collecting and using (for whatever purpose).

Any thoughts?

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

This entry posted in Class, poverty, labor, & related issues, Feminism, sexism, etc, Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc., Gender and the Body, literature, Sex work, porn, etc. Bookmark the permalink. 

6 Responses to The Poetry Brothel…Satire Or What?

  1. Pingback: The Poetry Brothel…Satire, Or What? « It’s All Connected…

  2. 2
    MH says:

    Do you think Gwyn Mcvay would be alright with prostitution if the deception and beatings involved stopped?

    I also object to Ruth Lepson’s comment on two fronts:
    1. Describing objectification as “capitalist” is useless and distracting; it being capitalist doesn’t make it any better or worse than it would be otherwise.
    2. What gives her exclusive claim to poetry, that this place is “coopting”? If she wants to go around deciding what poetry can and can’t be used for, well…fuck that.

  3. 3
    Doug S. says:

    I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s short story “The Whore Of Mensa“…

  4. Doug S.,

    I had not thought of that before, but you’re right! Still, there is the difference between writing it and actually living it.

  5. Pingback: I See Invisible People » Is this called prostituting your talent?

  6. 5
    Angiportus says:

    Just think, in addition to flamenco music they could have had a Strumpet Voluntary.
    Oh, and in response to Cunningham, isn’t all poetry that is spoken, spoken from the body? Even if you use amplification?
    It is possible to find a similarity between 2 disparate situations; however, not all of us know how to keep from equating their magnitude if we haven’t experienced both. To compare male and female experience of exploitation, poor men working as miners and ship-breakers in 3rd world countries might be a better example than sports stars. One big name departed from our region with a quarter of a billion a few years back–that could have fixed a lot of infrastructure.
    As someone who was injured by factory work and then fucked over by L & I, I wonder if I couldn’t have done better if I’d found a job reciting poetry.