Vice verse

A risqu reading series is shaking up poetry's shy image.

CALL ME MADAM Stephanie Berger hosts the Poetry Brothel.

CALL ME MADAM Stephanie Berger hosts the Poetry Brothel. Photograph: Imogen Brown

Poets have a reputation as introverted, shrinking-violet types, but Christine Hamm certainly isn’t blending into the background at a contemporary art gallery this night—her skin is dusted with white body makeup and her legs are barely covered by a slinky black dress and fishnets. With nearly a hundred spectators ogling her, she brushes her long blond hair off an exposed bra strap, unfolds a piece of paper and begins to read from her dark prose poem “How to Fuck Me.” “By this time, the dead girl has crawled from under the bed and has propped herself in the corner; she smells like week-old fish,” Hamm recites. “I’ll twist my head until I can make eye contact with her. She smiles and rolls her eyes at me. Now I’m ready to fuck.” To punctuate the finale, Hamm stabs herself with a letter opener. The audience remains unfazed, though, and Hamm slinks back into the crowd. “It’s not quite a parody, but it takes off on the idea of making bad dating choices,” she says of the work. “That’s how it begins, anyway. You think you’re going on a certain kind of journey, but then it turns totally surreal and you’re in this really different place.”

Hamm, 43, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at Drew University, but her staged reading was no doctoral defense—it was one of the more public spectacles at the inaugural Poetry Brothel, an evening of verse that also saw nearly a dozen “poetry whores”—plus drag strumpet Jermaine Harmon and lone gigolo Nick Adamski—enticing “johns” into one-on-one readings. As the literary floozies mingled with prospective clients, portrait painters, tarot-card readers, blackjack players and violinists plied their trades and a tuxedoed, Lurch-like doorman kept would-be troublemakers in line.

The “madam” behind the Poetry Brothel is Stephanie Berger, 23, an M.F.A. student in creative writing at the New School. A petite redhead with piercing eyes, she can usually be found either sashaying through the crowd kissing cheeks and pimping out her harem, or screaming obscenities into a megaphone when patrons fail to quiet down for an open performance.“I never really planned for this to be so sexual,” Berger says of the series. “It was more an interesting framework for private readings. The first night was definitely more sexual than I had intended, but that’s fine. I’m sure it’s going to be something different every time, depending on the crowd.”

Asked if she thought the cathouse concept wasn’t a bit sexist, Berger waves her hand and laughs. “That’s a ridiculous notion—if you’re a poet, you’re always giving your shit away for free,” she says. “You might as well get paid for it!”

Speaking of money, admission to the brothel is $10, but if a client asks a particular whore to satiate his or her poetic lust privately, a gratuity is expected. Behind closed curtains, the poet lists the types of services available (love sonnets, character pieces, erotic poems) and inquires about the john’s preferences (should she read in character or as herself?). Once the particulars are ascertained, the poet picks an appropriate work and hopes the tip is worth her efforts. “One guy ended up putting $20 down my shirt just for feeding him a grape,” recalls writer Caroline Depalma. “I didn’t even read for him.”

The inspiration for the brothel came from Ars Poetica, a similar event staged by performance poet Chris Parkinson at England’s Brighton Fringe Festival in May 2007. Along with the interactive component, Berger says she was attracted bythe sense of intimacy the event engendered. “The poets say they have a good time because they get to hear what [the audience] thinks about the poem.” Of course, she admits, the audience gets a thrill too. “To listen to someone reading—to look into their eyes while they’re looking into yours—is a scary and beautiful thing.”

The Poetry Brothel will be held monthly at Papa B Studios (907 Broadway at Arion Pl, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 917-734-2158, papabstudios.com) in Aug, Sept and Oct. For future dates and venues, visit thepoetrybrothel.com.