NYC: The Poetry Brothel
By Matthew Wilson
To understand The Poetry Brothel, a theatrical troupe of professional poets who perform in dimly lit speakeasies like The Back Room, is to understand the woman at the center, the Madame whose steely gaze stands out on their promotional materials.
Out of character, Stephanie Berger is unassuming and tiny, but her voice commands presence, her starling gray eyes scanning the room as she rehearses the performances with her poets as if she’s slotting together a puzzle in her head.
You can read more about their nightly happenings here, but the story behind this international poetry prostitution can be traced back to a conversation between two friends at where else but a bar.
Berger was a graduate student new to New York City, studying poetry in an MFA program at the New School. Poetry had always been a part of Berger’s life. Her mother loves to tell people the story of how when Berger was only 18 months old learning to walk and talk, she would climb out of crib, walk to her mother’s room, and whisper a random string of words and syllables in her ear.
But, the poetry scene in New York, at the time, left a lot to be desired. The poetry scene in New York, at the time, left a lot to be desired. Academic poetry readings felt too stifling and confined like a gilded cage of prose for Berger to let loose. Worst of all, they were boring, and Berger's mind would wander instead to wanting to go outside and smoke a cigarette. Not that she smokes any more, she's quick to remind me.
Slam poetry competitions, where poets from all over competed against each for prizes, felt too aggressive to her. What Berger missed more than anything was the intimacy of sharing poetry with a friend, of discussing art as the gateway to the soul.
"That intimacy that is inherent to poetry is lost on most people,” Berger said. But, what if she could create a place that replicated that feeling? “What if you could go somewhere and pay a poet to read poetry to you and have a conversation with them about it?”
Berger first discussed the idea for what would become The Poetry Brothel with her classmate Nicholas Adamski over drinks. Adamski was excited about the prospect, and the two spent the next couple years developing the idea.
The first shows were modest, attracting a meager but hungry audience. They made barely enough money to keep the dream alive. In the beginning, entry was $5 and that included a free private poetry reading and a shot of whiskey. But overtime, they started to attract more and more people and make more and more money. So much so, they decided to form a proper business, but the State of New York denied their request. They couldn’t call themselves a brothel, they were told in their rejection, because that implies illegal activity. Undeterred, they decided to come up with a front for The Poetry Brothel instead. Thus, the Poetry Society of New York was born.
"Nobody will blink an eye at that,” Berger said with a devilish laugh. “It sounds like it's 200 years old.”
Under the Poetry Society banner, Berger and Adamski started getting taken more seriously by others in the community. Berger received grants and residencies for funding that had been previously rejected. The two also started looking into other avenues of bolstering New York’s poetry community. Partnering with Governor’s Island, they formed the first annual New York City Poetry Festival.
In the decade since Berger started the Poetry Brothel, the organization has grown from a small show into an international organization spanning New York, California, Barcelona and Paris. They’ve performed international tours in Europe, and even had a show in a hand built replicas of a brothel with a secret room hidden behind a book case for Electric Forest, a EDM music festival.
“It’s creating a community for our artists where they're free to experiment and go outside the box,” Berger said. “A place where people feel free to create stuff, they wouldn't want to create as there regular selves.”
Written by Matthew Wilson. Keep up with him on Instagram.
Read Sarah Simon’s review of The Poetry Brothel, here.