In a year when summer came early to the city and spring came late thereafter, I did what seemed most reasonable on a May night misting rain and trolling a light fog. The only reasonable thing a suddenly lonesome man, his wife away in Mexico, bikini-clad and strolling the beaches purportedly alone between morning and evening yoga practice, I went to my first brothel.
Housed this Thursday night in Manhattan’s Norwood House, which bills itself “as being an active sponsor of creative talent in the New York area” and is housed in a mid-19th century building near Union Square, this brothel—while of a distinctly belle époque flavor and featuring creative talent whose physical presence and attire would be welcomed in any brothel at least this nascent john could imagine–pandered poetry not flesh, though flesh, subtle and compelling, drew its share of attention as well.
The brain child of a group of young poets, The Poetry Brothel, is a regular event of the Poetry Society of New York, which also stages the New York Poetry Festival. I entered the lobby of the club, where a greeter found my name on the guest list and showed me to the coat check, where one of the whores, a mustachioed and rakish lad complete with jaunty eye patch, one Tennessee Pink, brought me upstairs just as the whores were being introduced during the line-up. Each read a poem and the evening’s festivities were laid out, shall we say. Whores would read more throughout the night and mingle among the crowd. Johns and jills could buy tokens from the madam, who would arrange private readings for us with the whore of our choice. Fortune tellers and singers, a piano player and buskers performed throughout the space. Whores and their johns slipped into nestled corners and small rooms.
I had my first reading with the Madam herself, her lashes sweeping off her face, her décolleté embellished with rococo flourishes and her poems a sensual wash of the surreal and magically real. I was leaning into an open window and she was leaning in so that I might hear her above the din. She held a martini glass in one hand, the other at her neck. I held the evening’s signature drink, a sexton replete with cucumber wedge, from which I nibbled after. Her hand on my shoulder let me know we were done and I wandered back to the main room to hear a chanteuse crone, a floppy-haired ivory tickler play a little rag, and a whore known as the Professor, who read from her accomplished work.
The rooms were votive lit. The drinks went down easy as did the poetry, which was the center piece of the night, draped imaginatively in the frame of salon as bordello. I and the other johns and jills milled among the poet-whores, were read to publicly and, for a little more, were read to tucked into a cozy place. Music filled the room between the words. You could have your fortune told, see a magic trick. You could move and listen, check in and check out and feel a part of it all.
As poetry has become more and more ensconced in the academy, its presentation there has come to resemble a lecture more than a performance, the stuff of intellect and station rather than art and play. The people of the Poetry Society of New York have imagined an alternative to academic presentation, and, like Marc Smith and later Russell Simmons did with slam and performance poetry, invented a model already being reproduced around the country and abroad. I’d say they’re on to something, an event both flashback and future.
(All photos in this post are by the author.)