A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

MULTISENSORY: The Poetry Brothel on Mardi Gras

There was Penelope Strangelight, whom the menu described as “moonmilk, silver, copper, chemistry”; there was Cal the Alchemist, “magnificent, rock, young, coffee.” But the whore I chose was Von Hohenheim (“tremble, ink, eternal, ore”). We’d met earlier by the bar, and he’d let me stroke his alpaca boa.

 

I was at the Poetry Brothel, a monthly cabaret-style poetry reading where poets, cast in character as “poetry whores,” give private readings (for a fee) in a hidden back room of a Lower East Side speakeasy. In the main space, furnished with couches, red-shaded lamps, and nude portraits, burlesque dancing, live jazz, body painting, fortune-telling, and public poetry readings unfurl.


Tonight’s theme was Mardi Gras; masked and sequined guests sipped teacups of absinthe. The cocktail’s bittersweet sting gradually melted the edges of the room; inhibitions loosened behind masks. One of the hosts circulated, draping guests in strings of beads. 


Strewn on tables were lists of the whores available for hire. I met Yngvildr (“faering, golden, spearhead, detonate”), who wafted her hand at her throat as she asked, “Would you like to smell me?” (She described her scent as “Po√™me, Chanel, and a touch of musk oil.”) Tennessee Pink (“shipwreck, folk song, nightmare, scoundrel”) swaggered through the room in an eye patch, carrying a censer of incense, whose smoke mingled with the stale and woody bar smells. 


In one corner, a gypsy gave tarot card readings. I opted instead for body painting, offering my arm to the cool, moist strokes of the artist’s brush as she flicked gilded feathers onto my skin.


An accordion began to play, followed by a jazz band fronted by a nasal-voiced singer. A caricaturist lurked in the corner, sketching the night in strokes of charcoal.


The burlesque dancing began with a swoop of feathers removed in striptease. Each whore read a few lines of his or her poetry as an enticement for private sessions, and the cashbox of the “john” began to clatter.


I bought a token for a private reading and waited for Von Hohenheim to lead me through a door (hidden in a revolving bookcase) into a room draped in gauzy curtains and strewn with candles and flowers. 


A distant exhaust fan hummed, and the room smelled rather cloyingly of air freshener. But it was possible to overlook those two reminders of the conceit of the evening as I seated myself beside him. 


It was admittedly hard to focus on Van Hohenheim’s poetry as it mingled with the other private readings around us—and someone’s elbow kept nudging me through the curtain. But in a way this seemed fitting for a pre-Lenten brothel: that words and music and bodies and paintbrush strokes and swills of absinthe and sequins and scented candles and teacups jostle and merge with one another for a night—and a few poems later I merged myself back into the night through the speakeasy’s crumbling, graffitied alley, an urban poetry of its own.


For more information on the Poetry Brothel, as well as upcoming events, visit http://www.thepoetrybrothel.com/.