Some time ago, the New York Press received a small wooden box in the mail—a board game with a few poker chips in gold and silver, a pair of dice, small cards seemingly pulled at random out of a deck, some tarot cards, and a CD compilation of turn of the century boudoir music with "Play Me First!" written across the top. A handful of photographs showed a number of portraits painted in bright colors and thick strokes, young men and women painting, and a series of images of people in full burlesque, standing coquettishly in corners in front of heavy curtains and lace.
There was also a letter printed on shiny paper, made to look as if it were written by a feather in ink and burned at the edges. "Dearest," it began, "You have been too long out in the cold, have you not! Longed to be, beside the fire of Eros, of the act, or the thought of it, the one that brought you out of that pristine darkness, the heat that shaped you, that picked you from the pocket of nothingness and made you flesh."
Curious to find out more, I called the Madame, the organizer aof The Poetry Brothel, the group that had send the, uh, gift. A woman with a thick, dripping Eastern European accent picked up the phone, and said, "Hello, my little darling, how can I help you?" I couldn’t help but imagine a dark smoky room and thigh-high fishnets, stilettos, men in ass-less chaps fanning her with peacock feathers. It was early afternoon.
"The letter? It’s to you, darling," she explained simply, "A love letter to everyone who is in love with poetry."
The Madame, as she calls herself, is not hard to find in the photographs. She looks up at the camera which hovers over her head with a look both challenging and disinterested, long bright red hair streaming down either side of her. She wears long black gloves, gold bangles and a black dress. She’s smoking a cigarette through a long holder worthy of Audrey Hepburn.
Every month, The Madame presents a cast of poets of all genres who come to be her "whores." Bedecked in burlesque attire from all ages of brothel culture, they offer their services on stage and in private, giving over their intimacy in the form of their words. The guests of the party are the "customers."
"The customers choose their poets when they enter," said The Madame, recalling catalogues in high-end escort services, "They are each going to have a private poetry reading, and they can do what they will…with the poetry."
The poker chips, I found out, were worth a free drink and a free personal poetry reading in a private bedroom with one of the burlesque performers. The whole affair is a celebration of the surreal and magical and is riddled with literary debauchery.
The poets rotate and every evening The Madame presents "The New Girl," a new poet who must give a very special performance to titillate the crowd.
"I have been doing this since January in New York, but it feels like forever. We have a gypsy mentality. We began at the Living Theater on Clinton Street, then we moved to the East Village Mug Lounge, then, for three months we performed at the Jonathan Shore Gallery in Soho. Then I thought, why beat around the bush. It’s all happening in Brooklyn now. So we moved to Brooklyn," gushed The Madame. However, she may not be around for long. "Next summer we’re going to England for the festivals. Perhaps we’ll go to fucking Philadelphia."
We talked for a while, and she told me all about her "whores," the poets who offer themselves to her service. The last Poetry Brothel featured poet and novelist Tao Lin, whom The Madame was very enthusiastic about. "He is a very special young friend. I was quite surprised he wanted to be a whore in my house. I said, but you are so shy my darling, can you handle it? He has a new book out, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Interesting little book. He writes from the perspective of a hamster or an ugly fish."
As we continued to banter and I felt a strange draw, I quickly became strange comfortable as another of her surely endless supply of "little darlings." I finally asked about the box.
"I found the box in the street. I thought I would send you a combination of gifts. I told my little darlings, you throw whatever you want in this box. Music for the atmosphere, the little dice, the cards…You offer these people at the paper what you have to offer. They will do with it what they will."