DIY Poetry Brothel

or, How I Became a Poetry Pimp (and You Can Too!)

The Toronto Fringe Festival is the city’s great theatrical equalizer, meting out stage space by lottery to established performers and companies as well as to those new and break-seeking. This year’s festival, held in early July, saw the expansion of the Visual Fringe, an outdoor gallery space originally launched to host visual artists, providing tents in which to hawk their wares.

A few weeks before the festival, I fell in with a bad crowd: WORKhouse Theatre, a company who’d lost the stage lottery but devised a plan to pack a Visual Fringe tent to its PVC rafters with performers, visual artists, and writers. The tent, dubbed Fort Awesome, would be a site of collaboration across the arts and of playful interaction between artists and visitors. It would be your childhood clubhouse among so many market stalls. And the WORKhouse producers were open to event suggestions.

I stumbled on the Poetry Society of New York’s Poetry Brothel the way you might stumble over a small end table as it waits on the sidewalk for garbage collection and—you being six pints deep and the night demanding minor larceny—drag it home only for the morning to complain that you’ve nowhere to put it. Well screw you, morning, I found somewhere to put it. Giving full credit for the idea to the PSNY, I suggested hosting our own poetry brothel, I offered to issue a call and edit submissions, and (although I forget exactly when this happened, I like to think it did almost immediately) I earned the name Madame Andy.

Four Steps to a Brothel You

I initially conceived this post as a reflection on our brothel, an opportunity not only to record the event (and so resist its transience as performance) but also to theorize the correlations among sex work, performance, and poetry that it might foreground. While I will offer some reflection, I believe there’s more value in simply relating a process that worked for us and encouraging other small art collectives or collaborators to adapt it for their own purposes.

. . .

1. Solicit submissions

Obvious, I know, but there are a few decisions to make at this point: how broadly you’ll issue your call, how racy you want your themes to be, and how you intend to compensate your submitters.

Because the Fort Awesome watchword was ‘collaboration,’ we extended our call not only to those already involved with the Fort but also to those in our social & social media circles. Our prompts for submission kept with the Fort’s general playfulness and celebration: first loves, city living, childhood wonder, and secret plans. We kept things relatively clean at this stage, which was an appropriate move given the public, age-unrestricted venue and the fact that our performers oozed sex anyway.

We originally intended to anthologize the performed poems in a small chapbook (which our poetry johns could purchase after, or in lieu of, a performance), and a copy of the chapbook would be sent to each selected poet in thanks. The chapbook plans fell through, but we did send out the final PDF proofs, giving everyone a chance to see their work in our brothel’s context.

2. Edit and group submissions

Again, obvious. Again, there are a few considerations: how much your audience will appreciate aural comprehensibility, how coherent you want each performer’s repertoire to be, and how long you want each performance to last.

This step was pretty much my call. I generally selected poems for visual and/or grammatical clarity, testing a few by (very, very privately) recording and playing back my own performances of them, listening for textual work that wasn’t surviving the transplantation to the oral. I grouped poems together to create coherent ‘themes,’ each about a page long. As the brothel played out, most performers drifted toward delivering a single, half-page poem—about 30 seconds of delivery—with which they were most comfortable.

3. Develop personae

At this point, the weight of work shifts from editors to performers—depending, of course, on how much choice performers will have in what they perform. We had several great poems but only a handful of available performers. As a result, performers could read over the accepted poems and select their preferred ‘theme.’

Each performer then built off of his or her selected ‘theme’ to develop a suitable stage name and persona, for which they wrote short bios (50 to 100 words). These bios were prominently displayed in the Fort as a sort of menu for prospective johns. Another key contribution of performers is costume. By giddy coincidence, or sheer theatrical intuition, everyone in our brothel showed up in a red-and-black outfit.

4. Work the corner

A poetry brothel’s venue quickly becomes the core factor in most decisions. Where and how exactly a performance will take place, how or if the poet-whores will physically interact with the johns, and how payment will be made (by donation, prix-fixe; to the whore, to a money-collecting mama-pimp)—all of these choices should influence the brothel’s planning from the beginning.

Our brothel took place in a broad alleyway filled with Festival tents, which made it easy for poet-whores to solicit either by lounging in one location (in front of the Fort, by which most visitors walked) or by roaming the alley asking unsuspecting people if they were lonely and wanted some poetry. Delivery of the goods sometimes occurred on the spot (giving onlookers a free show) but often involved leading johns into the even smaller alleyways between tents. Tents and alleys: the definition of classy.

Intimacy in such a crowded place was easily achieved, which came as a surprise to me. The most common tactic was simply standing in a john’s personal space while performing. In all seriousness, someone could whisper the weather into your ear and, if they did it right, it wouldn’t be a cold front making your nipples hard. This is one of the more valuable lessons I’ll take away from our brothel. (Thanks to the WORKhouse actors for that one.)

Not Really a Brothel

Now that I’ve tricked you into reading this entire post, I should confess that the Poetry Society of New York already offers a way to get involved in the official Poetry Brothel. But as my title and description above suggest, our brothel was a significant departure from the PSNY’s. In fact, as we hammered out the logistics I quickly realized that “brothel” wasn’t even the right term for the event we held: we were straight up Poetry Hookers.

And here’s my reflection lite: the distinction between a Poetry Brothel and Poetry Hooking may be one of class, of white collar and blue collar.

The main purpose of the PSNY’s Brothel, by “[taking] poetry outside classrooms and lecture halls” and into “the lush interiors of a bordello,” is to elevate poets to the stature of “high courtesans,” ultimately “respond[ing] to the tendency of poets to undervalue themselves inside the creative marketplace by… confirming for writers and audience alike the literal monetary value of such work” (from “About the Poetry Brothel”). The Brothel is an ego project. And that’s fine. I can confirm that most poets have hospital-sized egos to begin with, but each of those egos has a large wing called The Inferiority Complex. Good on the PSNY for affirming poetic work as worth/worthy/worthwhile.

But the focus on monetary worth is what gets me. Maybe I’ve been locked in my own Inferiority Ward for too long, but there’s something freeing about how much of a hobby or craft poetry is, how little its greatest requires the corroboration of capital. Certainly not corroboration at the level of Romantic excess. If poetry is in some part a celebration of language, it is also in some part a celebration of literacy. And the trajectory of increasing mass literacy—or at the least the ideal of universal literacy—is one of distributed labour and wealth, not one of the production of excess.

As a poet, I’m not interested in wearing a white collar, frilly or otherwise. Which is good because, as a collaborative project, Fort Awesome’s Poetry Brothel Hooking functioned less to idolize the poet as an artistic genius and (I hope) more to create a community of enjoyment around poetry and performance. And because we only charged a dollar or two per performance (simply to recoup Fort Awesome expenses), it functioned less as a monetary exchange and (I hope) more as an exchange of meaningful, if temporary, intimacy. And in that sense, I also hope our Poetry Hooking responded, just a little, to the tendency of the general public to undervalue sex work as an intimacy industry, confirming for all involved the value of ‘red collar’ work. (Doesn’t that phrasing sound familiar?)

One Last Thought

I’ve been considering Sir Alexander Issigonis’s perennially misquoted zoological insight: “A camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee” (Vogue, July 1958). A camel is, in a visual sense, a caricature of a horse—and a lewd one at that, a horse’s lips and lumps exaggerated. Similarly, collaborative art like Poetry Hooking can be a lewd, street-level caricature of its supposed original: “Art.” But if you’ve ever sat for a street artist and carried home that caricature, you know it’s engaging and fun. I simply don’t know if the same can be said about sitting for a portrait painted on velvet.

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