Friday, December 19, 2008
[Thanks to ellwort for this link]
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.
Page four boasts The Professor, swearing to have heard "the wail of your striving heart drifting over the spires of skyscrapers."
Harriett Van Os on page 10 promises to "tell you secrets she doesn't know she knows." Cecille Ballroom tempts punters on page 13 claiming she can "coax your drum."
Gigolo poets are available, not least Poetry Brothel co-founder Nicholas Adamski, who goes by the name Tennessee Pink and tops tempestuous, dark looks with an eye patch.
"Poetry is what I love more than anything," cooed The Madame, the sultry spirit behind the whole idea.
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 custom is to read poetry alone, but we know that from Homer onward, people read it aloud and in groups."
By midnight the Zipper Factory was packed and getting fuller -- and rowdier.
The fortune teller, bedecked in red scarf and blue plumes, mumbled to someone about "choppy waters." The flamenco duo strummed. The Madame, yet another glass of port in hand, introduced poet "whores" in a voice suggesting she appreciated more than their literary charms.
When Patricia Smith, a well-established poet, took the mike to declaim a long and rhythmical poem about love and making love, there were rock concert cheers from the crowd.
"I always shudder when I pray," Smith intoned in a mesmerizing voice, "so your name must be a prayer."
Even for these bohemians there's no escaping the economic crisis sweeping the country.
One of the poets, 22-year-old Nina Cheng, was about to start a job at Bear Stearns this year when the bank collapsed. Now she is writing a play about the experience and applying for a playwright's course at Yale.
"I'd thought I'd do banking and get into the arts when I retired -- not this early," said Cheng, known at the Brothel as The Opium Eater.
Another poetry prostitute, 27-year-old Rachel Herman-Gross, aka Simone, worried that crashing stock markets will pull the rug from under the arts scene. "It's going to be a lot harder. A lot of artists are sustained by grants from people with money."
But one enthusiastic "client" said the ingenuity of the Poetry Brothel proves there are ways to survive.
"Money's always been scarce for artists and they're very resourceful people," said Edmund Voyer, 54, a hefty man described as an "evangelist" on his business card and who came to the Zipper Factory wearing a kilt.
His drinking companion, Jennifer Hoa, 27, agreed money and art would always find ways to meet.
"I've been a sell-out for years as a corporate lawyer, but I come here," she said. "I can't suppress my artistic side."
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.'"
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