A Quick Trip to the Brothel

Isaac Dwyer experiences a new type of poetry reading, filled with coy cowboys and time-warp aristocrats.

Images courtesy of Debbie Easley of Naked New Orleans Photography.

March 21st was a warm Thursday night in New Orleans – parties, sinners, natural disasters, and freaky wack-jobs. Sitting bored at home, I began scouring the various local newspapers for something to do, but found nothing except the typical poorly put-together Jazz combos on Bourbon street, and the pretentiously swanky art receptions on Royal. Of course, that’s not to mention the gauchely over-the-top cover fees. It seemed that the city had failed me when the light of salvation peeked through on an obscure Facebook event – “The New Orleans Poetry Brothel – TONIGHT at the Allways Lounge. Doors open at 9, show starts at 10.” Investigating further, I found that little else was to be given away on the poorly designed event page, except that the cover fee was ten dollars and that there would be poetry and burlesque. The enticing title being enticing as it was, however, I decided it would be worth the trip down to the cute, fastly-gentrifying Marigny, and hopped on the streetcar.

Upon arriving at the venue a half hour late (for, being New Orleans, I knew that the performers would probably still be busy getting drunk beforehand), I was greeted by an aging fairy-princess-acting-as-bouncer with a Christmas-light-crown-of-thorns tattooed on her forehead. After lightening my wallet and ignoring my insufficient age, she welcomed me into the bustling lounge. I observed that the room was filled with, alongside the pseudo-literati also in attendance of the event, a wide array of freaks in garb varying from Victorian prostitute to Steampunk to erotic cowboy, all wearing red crocheted roses pinned onto their chests. I watched as some of them disappeared with other attendees onto the couches and into the dark corners of the lounge – was this actually a whorehouse? After a few inquisitions with inebriated strangers, I discovered the event’s modus operandi: I was to purchase tokens (poker chips) from a small woman with a credit card swiper attachment on her iPhone for five dollars each, and then use the tokens to purchase private readings from anyone wearing a crocheted red rose. The poets themselves inhabited characters designed specifically for the event, and all of the poems read would be specifically tailored for the characters they inhabited. All of it was to be original work. And yes, in many ways, it was a whorehouse. The show was part poetry, part theatre, part environmental experience, and entirely kinky and weird.  I thought the concept delightful, and purchased a handful of tokens, for five dollars apiece.

It must be noted that as a student of poetry, I am sensitive to the kinds of cliché and esoteric nonsense that many a so-called “professional” poet utilizes while constructing their works. Classic tropes (swans, death, snakes and sibilance, rosy fingertips of dawn), if utilized, must be done with new flair, and no ambiguities or references used cheaply to inspire awe in the audience go unnoticed. Thus, when I solicited my first private reading of the evening from the sexually ambiguous expatriated Parisian, going by the name of Tabitha “Totty” Quym, and she drew me into a secluded outdoor courtyard of the lounge, put a cigarette between her lips, whipped out her leather-bound notebook and began with a piece called “Mon tigre, mon tigre,” I was immediately suspicious. It was a clear, and rather generic, reference to William Blake’s “Tiger, Tiger.” In other words, nothing that I hadn’t heard or seen before. But, to Totty’s credit, her presentation of character throughout the private reading was unflappable to any distractions – the Allways is, after all, a bar, filled with rambunctious trouble-makers and inebriated proletariat. Another poem of hers, however, proved to be much more fulfilling. Titled “The Goddess’ Lens,” her blasé vocal affectation and the continuous flicking of cigarette ash onto the patio complimented the words, wrapping up with the mysterious phrases: “It’s your soul she will command;/ those places hidden deep/ she finds and twists and molds them,/ at your request, you see./ For why else would you have sought her out,/ if not to be shot by she?”

Although still a touch on the amateur side, Totty was able to overcome any lacking originality in language with a powerful presence. Her affectations were classical, which to anyone such as myself, who’s used to dealing with insufferable, purposefully esoteric and convoluted contemporary poetry (a large portion of poetry written over the past sixty years. Modernism at its worst) – the classical style can be rather refreshing.

The second poet I solicited provided an entirely different experience – going by the name of [Bi]nary, her biography is a work of digitized insanity within itself: “Kidnapped out of time by the Russians during a spat of top-secret experiments in the late 50s, [Bi]nary has been on mission back to the future ever since. With the help of a few double-agents, she managed to escape to America and disappear into the pop culture matrix. In her attempts to understand our present, she has appeared here and there in the mainstream – David Bowie, Valerie Solanas, Judy Jetson, Vanilla Ice – but finally found sanctuary in the poetry brothel.” When introducing herself, however, she generally stuck to just her name and nature ([Bi]nary, sexbot).

Her poems are quirky, sexy, reference Instagram, and are very much the student of contemporary poetry practice. Sharp phrases of violence juxtaposed with household appliances were reminiscent of Cathy Wagner’s work in My New Job, and a pervasive, confused, and robotic anxiety called Zach Savich’s Full Catastrophe Living to mind. [Bi]Nary is also a master of maniacal listing: “extra : upward : on top : advanced : engagement photos : elected : free choice : free speech : free gift : free fall : felony : fellow man,” Lounging on a velvet couch, [Bi]Nary’s voice puts you into a trance just like playing Tetris does – you could do it for hours. Were it not being read aloud by the poet, however, I doubt I could enjoy the work – for the words of her poems themselves wouldn’t be enough to get across any understandable progression.

Additionally, the event had a few main stage performances as well – a painfully acted radio play about the “Kitten Prince” unfortunately prefaced an absolutely stellar homoerotic poem of brotherly love by the cowboy Alejandro Amoretti. What stole the show, however, was the successive acrobatic act, consisting of perfectly executed flips and lifts, and a drunken, stumbling burlesque performance by Lana Turnover, who finished the final note of her number by swallowing the last drop of her third 25 fluid-ounce bottle of Jack Daniels (I watched her throw herself on strangers from the moment I arrived) and busting out of a silken corset.

The New Orleans Poetry Brothel is a relatively new organization, filled with relatively inexperienced, but colorful individuals. Although the event was very much worth the price of admission, if only for the experience, the content itself was amateur and difficult for the audience members to truly lose themselves in. This loss of self, however, seems to be the desired effect, hence the creation of poet as performer as character. The idea itself has a colossal potential for indulging the nerdy, artsy, and high sex-drive clientele who would be attracted to it, but at the moment, the spectacles embraced within the performance are too rough for anyone not under the influence of alcohol to be held in shock and awe. The night is fun, amusing, and pricey, rather than a train ticket to the sublime.

To its credit, the whole thing was completely unlike any other event I’ve ever been to. With the amount of potential and creative energy that is held within the New Orleans Poetry Brothel, I look forward to perhaps going to another one of their events in, say, a few years. I imagine then, that they’ll have perfected the art of seducing strangers into dark corners to make them rile in the pleasure of their speech.

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Isaac Dwyer has a background in theatrical performance, and finds himself rather enamored by dead things and mind control.