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A brothel is redefining intimacy by selling private poetry readings instead of sex

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A brothel is redefining intimacy by selling private poetry readings instead of sex

WATCH | The Poetry Brothel in New York City is far from your average poetry reading. Within its brothel-inspired setting, a cast of poetry whores offer up their poems instead of their bodies. For a fully immersive experience, guests can purchase tokens for private readings with the whore of their choosing.

Setting the scene

Stepping into the Poetry Brothel at Brooklyn's experimental House of Yes, I find myself transported into a clandestine past world of smooth jazz, corsets and intrigue. Tonight's theme is "dungeon," and the interpretations are anything but subtle. The visual impact of guests' BDSM-inspired outfits is only enhanced by dim lighting from chandeliers overhead.

Having been to a poetry reading before but never a brothel (or anything resembling one), I'm not quite sure of what to expect from the night.


"The Poetry Brothel is a unique and immersive poetry event that takes poetry outside classrooms and lecture halls," reads the event's website.

The brothel got its start in 2007, co-founded by Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski. It's based on the lush 19th century bordellos of New Orleans and Paris, spaces where emerging artists could gather together.

Posing as the "Madame" of the brothel, Berger presents a cast of poetry whores, each with a thorough and distinct persona, to first perform publicly for the audience.

The public readings

As the doors open to the brothel's theater, live accordion music draws the guests into the space. They take their seats at tables marked by candlelight. With velvet curtains still closed, a man with a top hat welcomed us to the event.

This is Mr. Charley, and he'll be serving as our master of ceremonies for the evening. "Do you want to meet the Madame?" he asks the audience, amidst cheers. A ring of his bell, and the curtains open to the cast of characters sitting on stage. 

The cast's crafted personas are immediately clear, as one poetry whore sips on a cocktail and another smiles from the position of a full split. The Madame further provides background information for every whore. Penelope Strangelight "paints her nails with silver fish scales." Adamski plays Tennessee Pink, a notorious addict who consistently stumbles onto the stage, threatening to interrupt the show with his antics.

Each one takes a turn reading to the audience, trying to entice us into private readings with both their talent and their personality.

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The featured guest poet, Michael Broder, on stage at the Poetry Brothel

Michael Broder is the featured guest poet, and he's wearing by far the least of all the whores. He shows off his outfit with a spin before launching into a series of erotic poems surrounding the topic of gay dating apps and bareback sex.

And the private ones

In between acts, the Madame sits on the stage as guests approach her to purchase tokens. One token costs $10, while bulk orders come with a discount. Poets wander the crowd, waiting to be pulled aside. "Excuse me," a couple says to one of the poets, flashing their token. "Are you one of the whores? We'd like to do a reading."

As I make my way around, I see displays of verbal intimacy from the most tucked away corners of the venue. From time to time, I can just barely make out the hushed whispers of a reading.

A cover for the brothel

Brimming with illicit happenings, a brothel needs a good cover, and the Poetry Brothel makes no exceptions to this rule. It masquerades as a full cabaret to draw attention away from the secretive private readings.

A constant stream of live music, aerial acrobatics, and burlesque performers occupies the stage. In cozy spaces not claimed by the whores, I find tarot card readers and sketch artists. With such stunning distractions, the readings just might be able to go unnoticed.

The Poetry Brothel is a global series, with upcoming events in California, Seattle, and Canada.

The brothel is redefining intimacy, providing a different way of achieving that closeness.

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