If you attend one of the Chicago Poetry Brothel’s monthly events, you will be greeted at the door of the House of Blues’ Foundation Room by a mysterious man in a mustache and top hat known only as the Good Doctor. He will take your $10 cover if you are not in period garb, or your five bucks if you are clad as a proper Victorian. (NB: Convincing Victoriana is all about the headwear: hats, flowers, feathers, and the like.)
This man will hand you a bound menu of the evening’s performers, comely men and women with names like Calliope Belle, Jens Jensen III, and the Woodland Doll, and elaborate backstories to match. Durham Pure, for example, was “manifested from cigarette smoke and a gypsy’s lamp oil that caught a southern current and settled in Chicago,” and Nicola von Huntelaar was “raised by the captain of the sea ship No Hope, who found her raft skirting the Alaskan coast.”
You will enter a dim room appointed with fireplaces, silk tapestries, velvet banquettes, and damask wall hangings flecked with tiny mirrors and sequins. Every available surface will be either carved hardwood or plated with gold leaf. Because no self-respecting bordello would be caught without a piano player, there will be one, alternating his sets with DJs spinning the greatest hits of the 1890s and early 1900s.
You might order yourself a whiskey drink or some absinthe from the bar, and while you’re standing there, getting your bearings, you will almost certainly be approached by one of the Regulars, perhaps the Card Sharp, who “as a youth growing up in Bombay, India, learned how to use chicanery and card tricks to separate pigeons from their money,” or the Consumptive, who “rather than recuperate in warm and arid climes, has opted to dissipate here in the cold and muggy Middle West, living out his remaining days neither wisely nor well.” These gentlemen will gently persuade you to pay a further $5 per token for poker chips. These chips will facilitate secluded exchanges with the Poetry Whore of your choosing, the idea being that ladies of the night had best not handle cash.
Shortly, the Brothel’s madam, Black-Eyed Susan, a commanding force in a corset and bloomers, will lead the room in a toast, followed by an introduction—including a five-line sample of poetry per poet—of the night’s performers. From that point forward, throughout the evening, strumpets will take the stage to deliver poetry teases in a structured rotation, not unlike dancers at a strip club, giving you a hint of what might be in store should you opt for an individual performance. These readings will be punctuated by actual strippers—burlesque dancers, including Lula Hoop-Garou, whose routines combine hoop dance with circus tricks—as well as by vaudeville acts and musical guests with theremin and accordion skills.
Perhaps you will choose to spend time one-on-one with Pearl du Mal, who “was born a bastard to the barmaid Fleur and grew up in the taverns of Whitechapel,” or with Vivian Nightwood, who “may or may not be the supplanted heir to a textile fortune that was misappropriated by her lecherous half-brother, against whom she may or may not spend her idle hours in alehouses plotting revenge.”
In the interest of full disclosure, this last stage name is mine, and if you decide to be my john, I’ll lead you up a spiral staircase to the Divinity Room. I will shut the heavy door behind us and sit across from you, so close our knees almost touch. I will ask if you have any particular poetic predilections to which you’d like me to cater. You might reply that you adore formal verse, or that you want a poem with an animal in it, or you might ask to be surprised.
You might be a lonely barista looking for some offbeat nightlife, or you might be a couple who’s driven up from South Bend for a city outing. You might be a professor of Latin American studies at Northwestern who didn’t realize there’d be a Brothel at the House of Blues this evening, or a veteran recently returned from Afghanistan who got bored with the band playing downstairs and wandered in for a drink, but stayed for the poetry. You might be a musician who will want to talk about the lyrics of songs versus the lyric “I” after I’ve finished. You might have thought you hated poetry, or not have heard a poem since you graduated from high school. “Have you got anything from the 18th century?” you might ask, and I’ll say, “No, but I do have something from this year.” You might have a hard time believing that poets are people who still exist—and are writing—today. After you hand me your chip, and perhaps a generous tip on top of that, you might ask how I got into this line of work in the first place.
The truth is, when I was invited to join, I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a Poetry Whore, although I was surely intrigued by the mission of the Brothel. Founded in New York in 2008, with outposts in Barcelona and L.A. as well as Chicago, their stated goal is to “expand both poets’ and non-poets’ personal, intellectual, and fiscal interest in poetry.” Their guiding principles of “intimacy, service, community, exaltation, and transformation of environment and self” are hard to disagree with. But, looking past the mystique, I wondered: was there maybe something a little too vulgar, a little too crass, a little too sad about the concept? Tarting up poets and tying a price tag to a priceless art form?
After a few days of thinking—and quite likely overthinking—I concluded: Well, no. For starters, Allen Ginsberg said, “The poet always stands naked before the world,” so for the Poetry Whores to stand in costume before the House of Blues falls under the auspices of creative risk-taking—of putting oneself “out there.” Stage names and fictional biographies aside, there is something affectingly honest about how Poetry Whores work so guilelessly to connect with their audience: “too cool for school” does not work at the Poetry Brothel. The poet cannot hide behind shyness, nor can she strike the pose of not caring how her material goes over, because she is visibly trying so hard to make contact. Sporting an outfit and asking for money, she is declaring herself to be an enthusiastic dork; she wants you to want her poems. While you may not have known at the beginning of the night that you would even be attending a poetry event, you will end up wanting them, and they may well be the best feature of your weekend.
Counterintuitively, having to pay for said poems will not be a drawback; rather, this transaction is what makes the poems so good. The poem you get for five dollars at the Poetry Brothel is literally more dear than the dozens you get for zero dollars at a regular reading because most people do not actually believe the best things in life are free. Witness the Craigslist Paradox: if you try to give away your old sofa, your ad will sit for weeks unanswered, but if you list it for 50 bucks, someone will take it off your hands the same day. What I mean is: commerce is not intrinsically negative for poetry, because the cost causes people to consider the value of the object being shared with them. The Poetry Brothel pushes the poem closer to the status of a work of visual art acquired by an individual collector, and further from a pamphlet pushed on pedestrians by a crazy person. The process of exchanging cash for art creates the opportunity for everyone involved to be more invested. Obviously, the poetry itself is of critical importance, but virtually everything gets better if you put your heart into it, and if you pay money for something, you’re probably also going to pay more attention, like how it can be easier to enjoy shows with a cover charge than without, or how, if you’ve sunk hours and hours into reading, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, you have a vested interest in thinking it’s brilliant.
Not only does the $5-per-poem fee cause the listener to be more devoted, so too does it affect the performer. Admittedly, I always try to do my best at any given reading, but when I’m at the Brothel, knowing that I’m about to get five bucks to do something, I’m going to try extra hard to do five bucks’ worth of that something and then some.
While money is a key component of the Brothel’s frisson, so too is the setup, which allows poets to feel more fully embodied than they usually do to the average person. Alive and real, the poet is not some distant name printed before a set of birth and death dates on the Bible-thin page of a musty Norton anthology; she is looking deep into your eyes and speaking in a soft voice so you have to lean in to hear.
The intensity of the private reading restores the person-to-person, one-to-one experience of encountering a poem in a book, which a live poetry event lacks because it’s a group situation. At the same time, the Brothel is unlike reading a collection because the author is right there with you—and only you—and instead of being limited by what’s on the page, you can ask questions immediately after she reads you a poem. You don’t have to worry whether other people might think your interpretation is dumb. You can even interrupt. You can pause the poet and have her play a line back, explicating the poem together in the heat of the moment.
Many regular—which is to say, non-Brothel—readings can feel familial and community-centric to the poets who are participating, and reading poems to a room almost entirely full of other poets does have its charm. But to the stray non-poet who finds himself in attendance at such an event, the experience can feel claustrophobic and insiderish, or at the very least confusing and exclusive. At a regular reading, people who do not generally have large amounts of poetry in their lives can feel unsure how to act—what they’re supposed to do, what they’re supposed to be “getting.” The Brothel format removes uncertainty: you pay money for a token, give that token to a whore, and let her take you to a cranny and read a poem on you; and afterward, you’ve got the poet there as a guide to the poem. Without being condescending, but with a sense of humor and showmanship, the Brothel gives audience members a script for how to appreciate poetry. To be clear, the Brothel does not suggest that this format is the only means of liking or understanding a poem, but it does provide an unintimidating point of entry, transforming the poem into a commodity and the listener into a consumer in a beneficial fashion. It manifests the poem as a product, a crafted unit for consumption, which it is. To charge a small fee for the performance of an individual poem does not turn said poem into a can of Pepsi. Something might arguably be damaged if you were to make 800,000 T-shirts with a poem printed on them and try to sell those shirts to make a monster profit, but that’s not what’s happening here. If anything, the poems in this marketplace are imbued with more of a Benjaminian aura, not less. If something is “lost” or damaged when you pay $5 per poem, then I’d like to know what that something is.
Moreover, in the Brothel model the john has just one poem to contemplate, which eradicates the deadening effect of too many poems or readers. The single poem intimately shared stands out as a precious artifact. So too does a poem shared in this context stand out as more attractive, which is to say sexy. The eroticized aspects of written communication are made explicit in the Poetry Brothel.
More than half the times I’ve given a private reading, the recipient will confess afterward that he or she secretly is—or used to be—profoundly poem-curious; he used to write poetry when he was a teenager, but he stopped, or she still writes it now, but she doesn’t tell anyone. The intimacy of the Brothel draws these admissions out.
But the erotic aspect of poetry highlighted by the Brothel is not planted in the poems artificially to pander to the format. The sexiness of the poetry is not being introduced with the aim of selling more literature, but rather exists inherently in the work; the erotic element is always already present in the poems, and maybe in all forms of interpersonal communication. (Institutional communications contain no erotic element.) All the Brothel does is, wittily, make the romance apparent.
And people seem to fall in love with the romance. We Poetry Whores do have to hustle a bit and convince the johns they want to buy, which might be sad if we had illusions about the major role poetry plays in daily life—that people walk around craving poems because they just can’t get enough. Without these illusions, the Brothel’s a pretty happy place.
After minimal convincing, sometimes after spending just a few minutes in the gilt and candlelit atmosphere, you might find yourself sidling up to the moonlighting Pinkerton you see selling tokens, taking him up on the five-chips-for-$20 special. Tokens in pocket, you might tap me on the shoulder and say, really getting into it, “Seductress, can I trouble you for a poem?” And I might say, “Trouble me all you want. Right this way.” And you might not think it consciously, but what you will be experiencing is proof that the Brothel is one more avenue by which poetry has a chance to reflect and inform the lives of everybody, not just people in the academy or on the poetry “scene.” And that’s hot.