Though modeled after Storyville, the New Orleans Poetry Brothel sells its clients poetry instead of sex. Started in New York, this is the third incarnation of the Poetry Brothel here in New Orleans. I sat down with Jordan Soyka (playing Francis Shadfly, the Maître d’ of the Brothel), Izzy Oneiric (as Pearl du Mal, the Madame), Anne Delatte (Mam’zelle Cherie Louve) and Veronica Barnes (as Ramona, the token sylph), to talk about reappropriating the word “whore,” sharing intimacy with strangers and having a poetic threesome.
“Poetry” and “brothel” are not words you usually hear paired together.
Izzy Oneiric: At a typical poetry reading someone stands up, reads for five minutes, everyone claps politely and then sits down. Not at the brothel. There is always something happening. We keep it dynamic and interactive. We want to explode the definition of what poetry is and can be. This is a poetry reading for people who hate poetry.
Jordan Soyka: We think of it as an interactive gallery. Instead of just waiting for the next poetry performance on stage, you can always get up and go buy a reading from one of the whores. Even within the readings, people will request certain types of poetry or talk to the poet after. We have “pop-up” poetry performances all night and a guest reader. There are also acrobats and burlesque, a live band, buskers and a stilt-walker, fortune-tellers and tarot readings.
It sounds like you are trying to destroy any idea of a stuffy, stodgy poetry reading.
JS: We are creating an alternate universe. We all have our own characters. I write completely different stuff as my character Francis Shadfly than I do as myself, Jordan Soyka. But this is also for the patrons. We encourage everyone to come in costume. Everyone is acting out some kind of fantasy.
Anne Delatte: I had an idea that my character would be like a she-wolf. I was feral in a corset. But it wasn’t until I was there and interacting with clientele that I started forming my readings into this theme and really building my character. The audience had a formative part in my character’s development. I had a basic concept but I didn’t know what to expect, so I brought a wide variety of my poetry. I had a gentleman come and buy a reading from me and then he referred a friend. He asked for a specific poem that his friend had mentioned. I started tailoring my readings to those requests and ended up doing a fairy tale theme throughout the night. Now, like Jordan, I am writing for my character, the she-wolf with fairy tales and dark stories. It is what I will continue writing and reading as long as people continue wanting it.
JS: I did a tag team reading with another poet. Someone bought a reading from both of us. This person kneeled on the ground and we took turns whispering poems into each one of her ears. It started out as us separately reading our own poems one at a time but it turned into a united performance.
Is that sexual?
JS: The brothel idea is about breaking down the lack of intimacy in a normal poetry reading so you have a oneon- one experience. How sexual it is depends on the reader. There is the monetary aspect. As writers we accept we won’t make any money off of our work, so this is actually rewarding the writers, telling them your art is worth something. It isn’t sexual in and of itself.
Veronica Barnes: It is less sexualized and more intimate. It is about the intimacy of a word between two people.
AD: We set up the one-on-one readings in a curtained-off, dimly lit corner. It is muffled but you still have the noises from the bar. So even if the poetry is about robots or books, you still have to lean in to hear. It is a different intimacy with a stranger who you are paying for their talent.
We want to explode the notion of what poetry is and can be
AD: We are trying to re-appropriate the term writers sometimes say, that they are “whoring ourselves out.” We are in control of our talent and character. It is a gift you are paying for when you buy our poetry. It twists it in a positive way. It isn’t cold commerce the way that writing commercially sometimes is.
JS: Sometimes we as writers have internalized this idea that since we don’t usually get paid, it almost feels like we shouldn’t get paid. But we should, we deserve to get paid. My art is worth money.
IO: It took me some getting used to, to call myself a “whore.” It is interesting to call myself that and claim it but also be aware of the outward connotations to the rest of the world. Trying to explain the concept and why we call ourselves whores to people who aren’t familiar with poetry brothels or who have no background in poetry can be challenging. I’ve had to explain to some people that I don’t actually have sex with anyone! People are paying to hear our work. Our poetry is commodity but in an intimate setting that you don’t normally have.
JS: We know we can’t re-appropriate the word just because we say we are doing so. There are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with it.
AD: I had mixed reactions trying to explain it to other people. I have friends who are female writers with strong opinions on gender issues and politics and some were quite taken aback and had negative reactions. Some were really excited about the project and to see what we were doing with this term and concept but some couldn’t get over the connotations.
Why do you need costumes and characters to be whores?
JS: A lot of writers are introverted people, so for myself and other poetry whores it becomes an excuse to be someone you wouldn’t normally be, even at a normal poetry reading. You can be extroverted in a way you wouldn’t normally because it’s not you.
VB: Also, at a normal poetry reading you are at a podium that is removed from the audience. Even if you didn’t have a costume, if you are an introvert, removing that distance helps.
AD: If I was reading the exact same poems with my friends in my living room it would be a little more awkward. But because I am in character I can perform my poems and expose them in a way I wouldn’t normally.
JS: It forces you into it. As the night goes on, you’ve got a drunk crowd, even if you are introverted you have to shout and assert yourself in a way you wouldn’t at a normal reading. It’s a challenge.
IO: It can be really boisterous and loud and then it can be really intimate and one-on-one so you have to be adaptive.
JS: It feels like the whole space is the performance, not just the stage. So if you are whores, then you have customers. Or, I think you called them “patrons” and “clientele.” Are they usually just your friends?
AD: I was expecting my private readings to be from mostly friends and maybe a couple strangers but it turned out to be the opposite. My friends were checking out the other whores and I had complete strangers I had never seen before in my life buy readings from me, even before they heard me read publicly. I was surprised and exhilarated. It’s like having someone come up to you and say they know your work even though you’ve never met them.
JS: You are in charge in a way you usually aren’t as a writer. They are coming to you to seek you out specifically. Also, the brothel is modeled after Storyville. A lot of outcasts and artists coming together and creating something new.
How do people feel about “buying” you?
VB: I was on the floor selling tokens for readings and people were actually shy and nervous about approaching the whores. They were excited but they needed me as the buffer to go get them. I asked them, “What are you looking for?” and “Do you want to approach this person? Because I can help you with that.”
AD: All of my clients were very respectful. They didn’t lead me into corners; I had to take them by the hand and lead them.
JS: In New Orleans, people interact with burlesque and other art forms more than in other cities. I think they respect them more and it doesn’t feel objectifying.
AS: I never got a sense of shamefulness or degradation.
What kinds of whores will be available for this brothel?
JS: We are a little less roped into the Victorian theme of the brothel than other cities. We still go for that aesthetic but our characters go beyond that. Like, we have a cowboy, sci-fi, a cat. My character has a mystical, Rasputin-esque quality to him. It all fits together in New Orleans in a way it wouldn’t in other cities.
IO: My character is a Victorian-era whore who may or may not be a serial killer. There is menace and mystery to her, like the audience is thinking, “Will she read— and then slit your throat?”
VB: We have male performers who are whores, too; there is no separate designation. One of our most popular readers was Private Dick; he is a noir detective poet.
AD: At least a couple are gender experimenters; they blend the lines and transgress. It is a safe space. They do it in a lot of different ways. It isn’t just dressing in drag—they can really play with different genres and genders. We have a really eclectic assortment of whores which is interesting to see how we all perform in a brothel environment, since not everyone is in a corset or talking about sex. But it all works out. I know everyone, whores and the audience, were very pleased.
The New Orleans Poetry Brothel is March 21st at the AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave. You can also find their group (more intimate, of course) on Facebook.