Are you getting what you need at home? Do you have the intimacy you crave? Can one person really meet another’s every little need? Not when it comes to....poetry? Get ready to meet the Poetry Whores at where else? The Poetry Bordello, an event boasting a unique combination of Victorian costume party, performance art, musical performance and poetry readings. The evening includes interactions with “Bordello Regulars” who dress and act as characters from a Victorian-era brothel as well as authentic burlesque. If you’re thinking, big deal, my partner provides all of that on a nightly basis, then you won’t want to miss the evening’s highlight: a chance to purchase a one-on-one poetry reading with one of the Poetry Whores. Our Town spoke with creator/Madame Susan Yount and Poetry Whore Nate Lowe aka Carlo Matos about what to expect from this naughty literary event.
Our Town Describe Poetry Bordello’s genesis.
Susan Yount Our resident historians inform us that it all started at the 2007 Brighton Fringe Festival in the U.K., when Jimmy McGee and Chris Parkinson created the idea to sell poetry directly to the people within the setting of a brothel. Their brothel setting was a bit tongue-in-cheek but ultimately received numerous awards including "Best Literary Event"! The idea traveled to other cities, including Chicago. The first show in Chicago was organized in mid 2010 and included poets from New York and Chicago. Our first all-Chicago show opened on 24 September 2010.
OT Why take the Victorian age as inspiration?
SY It was during this time that Chicago quite literally raised itself from the ashes of the Great Fire, like a great Victorian Phoenix, and as a result its culture, history and architecture are intertwined with the gilded age in a manner that is distinctly Chicago. Also, during the conception of an all Chicago Poetry Bordello, I was inspired by Karen Abbott’s book, Sin in the Second City, a fabulously researched and brilliantly written historical novel about the Everleigh Club. It made sense to choose the same age the most famous and luxurious house of prostitution existed. Finally, there is also a strong & supportive Steampunk community here who set a very high bar with their impeccable wardrobes (and of course, also an impeccable taste in poetry). We love seeing and interacting with them at our shows!
OT Nat, what’s the benefit of having poetry read in a one-on-one situation?
Nat Lowe When I was young, I wanted to be a poet, but I had this notion that poetry was something that people didn’t do anymore. Sure, we could marvel at the great poems of the past, but no one was writing anything new. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I find that many of my students share a similar idea. The Bordello shows them that poetry is alive and well. It also takes a lot of the bologna of poetry performance and brings it down to a very personal level without it having to be confessional. I find that my clients like to suggest topics or genres. For example, I’ve had clients ask for poems that are funny, or poems about zombies, or poems about stuff that really happened to me. When I get a more knowledgeable client, I sometimes get to have interesting discussions about poetry and poetics. It allows for a tailor-made experience, which for many people—like my students, who sometimes come to the events—can’t get anywhere else.
OT How do guests respond to the intimacy?
NL Return customers know that the ultimate bordello experience is in the one-on-ones. It’s a little bit poetry, a little bit illicit affair and a lot of fun. For some of the new guests, I am sure it can be a tad daunting. When I get a guest to myself, I relax and try to give them what they want. They paid good money for me, after all. Mostly, I want to maintain the air of fun and debauchery and not turn it into class time. Poetry at the bordello can still be dangerous.
OT Susan, what type of burlesque can attendees expect?
SY We hire vintage burlesque performers who do dances appropriate for a Victorian audience. Also, belly dancers were first introduced to a wide American audience during the Columbian Exposition and therefore we also have a regular belly dance performer.
OT What goes into assembling the time appropriate props, music, costumes, etc?
SY Hours and hours and a lot of energy and dedication. For example, it took my husband, the Good Doctor/master of ceremonies, and myself several weekends and nights after work to design, gather materials for and assemble the gypsy tents we use for private readings. It takes at least an hour to set up the show and at least another to tear down. That is at least 6 hours just in the venue. When we do weekday shows, we have to take two vacation days from our fulltime jobs. I make all the posters and promotional material and assemble several blue books which contain poems and the fictional biographies of our poetry whores. I use them to mingle with the crowd, trying to find for each visitor the poet whose style best matches their tastes and sensibilities.
OT Overall, what is the Poetry Bordello's goal?
SY During the Victorian period of history, poetry writing and reading were much more of a common, intimate and personal activity than they are today. Now poetry readings are encountered primarily in academic and coffee house settings, and as a result, the personal interplay between poets and their audience is minimal. The Poetry Bordello provides a venue in which visitors, or “patrons,” who may consider themselves neophytes to poetry, have the opportunity to experience poetry in an intimate and romantic environment through one-on-one poetry readings with professional poets.
OT Nate, why were you interested in becoming part of the troupe of poetry whores?
NL When I go to a poetry reading as an audience member, I often remember the stories around the poems, not the poems themselves. The Bordello is quite different. The fun and at times wild atmosphere undermines much of the funereal atmosphere of some readings. Even when I’ve been to readings in bars, say, it is hard to escape the quiet that descends on the place, the terrible quiet of shifting papers or turned pages between poems. This does not happen at Bordello. Many of the guests, especially as the night goes on, forget all about the fact the we are poets, forget about whatever preconceived notions they have about what a poetry reading is, and let loose and allow poetry to be a living, whimsical, intimate thing.
Drop in and visit the Poetry Bordello, this Tuesday between 8 p.m. and midnight. I'm going to be there, possibly wearing a top hat.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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