It is the 24th of October, and I am at the Poetry Brothel at Bogart House in Brooklyn, where everything is bathed in a soft, pink glow, where desire ebbs and flows like a shimmering backdrop. Outfits range from waistcoats, hats, and jackets to silken, glistening corsets.
The evening unfolds itself in a seductive dance, then wraps itself in a velvet shawl of decadence, excess and libation. The Madame takes her rightful place on stage and introduces us to our poets for the evening. The first one is Mona, who has the “uncanny ability to communicate with dead writers” and “is often found drinking tea (gin/whiskey) with Virginia Woolf.” Mona recites,
I am the fire’s daughter, and you are the son of the flood.
The Madame then introduces us to all the other poets, who include: Bambi, who “tastes like whiskey and sounds like the woods after a hard rain and writes her poem in rattlesnake venom, red lipstick and sweet loneliness,” Mandatory Jane, who is “an unplanned child, like any hatched plot speeding towards necessity…she resides where plot meets twist,” and Velvet Envy, who “sleeps inside grandfather clocks…and adorns her form in conflict,” amongst many others.
Sofia Sacred, the “manic pixie wet dream” recites,
I want to claw myself underneath your skin, bring you closer to the edge than you’ve ever been, I want to be your sin, I want to make you beg, I want to be the last burning thought in your head before you go to bed, I want to make you suffer, I want to swallow you whole, bringing you to prayer, calling out to a god you don’t believe in
Poetry feels like the ultimate form of seduction. These words ooze not only desire but also simmer with hunger and power. The poetry performances are peppered with burlesque dances where beautiful, enchanted bodies undress and spin around poles effortlessly. Intermittently, the performers take breaks and the band plays. The crowd teems to the bar for further indulgence. I purchase tokens which function as the official currency of the poetry brothel.
Towards the back of the room, Rebecca, the tarot reader of the Poetry Brothel, doles out prophecies while the Manhattan skyline dazzles in the background. I offer her my tokens; she draws me in, and I nod as she professes the desires and intentions of the cosmos that hold me, that hold us all. Other guests use their tokens to purchase private time with the poets, who feed them poetry like juicy grapes. There is also a resident elevator poet on site, who offers poetry as a journey in a red-lit elevator.
Feathers Wise sings a magical song, and Cassandra Estelle dances and spins in the background. I speak to Feathers Wise after the performance and we talk about how liberating, empowering and safe The Poetry Brothel feels as a space.
The event is celebrating the release of the poetry collection, A Whore’s Manifesto: An Anthology of Writing and Artwork by Sex Workers edited by Kay Kassirer. Lux Aeterna, one of the contributors to the collection, dances a mesmerizing dance and then recites a moving poem, entitled “Television Heaven:”
What’s your real name? That is my real name, she says, and she would prove her license except she wouldn’t dare. What’s your real name, he asks, like a lawyer at an interrogation after she insists again that it is real, so she gives up, says Annie or Maria or Nicole, anything to shut him up.
Your television heaven plays, pauses, repeats, but every one of our screens is a clip in black and white of us just doing our jobs, just going through the motions in time with music…before the seven day forecast predicts more rain, an official news voice says something that translates to asking for it…discussing a cadaver in a trunk without any hint of surprise and he says, her real name, flat as an allegation.
I am reminded the perilous aspects of sex work and the amount of problematic societal judgement that it invites. I speak to another sex worker who is published in the Manifesto, and I ask her what social and political changes she would like to see for consensual sex workers.
“I would love for sex workers to be valued and respected as important members of society who do magic all the time. All these ideas about what is empowering or disempowering are just based in controlling feminine bodies.”
“SESTA/FOSTA was a disaster…it made life horrible for consensual sex workers, and it also pushed trafficking further underground. I would love to see that named and acted on.”
SESTA/FOSTA is a controversial bill which was passed last year which made websites like Craigslist culpable for what users do and say on them.
The sex worker that I speak to asks to be quoted anonymously, saying, “It feels a little scary to be published because I am just understanding what coming out in this way means as far as how my family and my life goes. My family doesn’t know yet, it is a secret that I have been carrying. It feels complicated and loaded. I did almost lose a friend over it, but she did actually come around fully, which was really healing.”
I am moved by how candidly she speaks to me and the weight of the secret that she is carrying. I leave keenly aware of the challenges that sex workers face. Labor is labor, regardless of whether it is performed in an office cubicle or in a dark room. Sex work comes with social judgement which often leads to the enforcement of problematic initiatives which are not carried out in adequate consultation with the sex work community.
The Poetry Brothel is a space that is very much necessary in a dangerous, harsh and judgmental world, especially for sex workers. It is a beautiful cocoon, a heavenly safe haven. On the walk home, the cocoon bursts, and I am back in the real world, with all of its judgement and abrasiveness. I button up my coat and wrap my scarf around me, contemplating the warmth of the poetic dream that I witnessed that I still carry within me, hoping that we will one day inhabit a world that is just as warm and welcoming for everyone.