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Feature Mon Aug 15 2011

Modern Poetry Goes Victorian: the Chicago Poetry Brothel

If you like poetry, entertainment, and top hats, then the Chicago Poetry Brothel is for you. Tucked away in Thalia Hall, in private rooms in Ristorante al Teatro (1227 W 18th St), the basement bar has been turned into a Victorian brothel by the brothel's madam--Madam Black-eyed Susan--her "poetry whores," and the good doctor (there to supply laudanum for the poets with a case of the nerves). After paying the entrance fee ($5 if you're dressed in Victorian period clothing, $10 if your Victorian period wardrobe is at the cleaners), grab some wine or whiskey at the bar, and wait for the show to start.

The Poetry Brothel typically follows a standard format: After patrons get the chance to settle, Madam Black-eyed Susan introduces her poets with a few descriptive sentences about each, and each poet gets a chance to read a bit of their work to entice the crowd. Once everyone has gotten just a taste of the evening's finest lines, the poets mix and mingle with the crowd, peddling their poems, every so often taking the floor again to tease the patrons with more of their work. Because for a mere $5, you can purchase a token that gets you, not only the poetry whore of your choice, but an intimate reading with that poet, inside a velvet tent, complete with chairs, a table, and gold tassels. In this private space, the poet will recite anything the patron wants--be it the poet's own work or a poem the patron has in mind--on any topic. Being face-to-face and knee-to-knee with the poet is a very personal experience--ask the poet anything you want about the piece, ask for it to be read it again, ask pretty please for more than one poem. You might think that you'll get the same kind of work from each poet, which is definitely not the case. The poetry whores each have their own style that ranges from sultry jazz (Serafine LaCroix) to dark and haunting (August Rose). Plan ahead--check them all out so you can come to the next brothel prepared. And if you're interested in more than one, feel free to purchase more than one private reading!

But poetry isn't the only entertainment--the brothel also invites guests and musicians to showcase their talent. At the August 6 Poetry Brothel, Pearl Pistol performed her alluring vaudeville burlesque show, and the White City Rippers kept everyone moving with what they call their "old-timey mad-scientist steampunk music." (The October brothel will feature Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City, and The Loneliest Monk, master of the electric cello.)

Intrigued? You should be. By the end of the night (the Poetry Brothel parlors are open from 8pm to midnight), you may leave with the poetry whores' books (on sale throughout the evening), and you may leave a little tipsy (the bar is open all four hours), but you certainly won't leave uninspired and unimpressed. And to tantalize you just a little bit more--see what Madam Black-eyed Susan herself has to say about the brothel, her poetry whores, and much more after the jump.

Q&A with Madam Black-eyed Susan

GB: So my first question should probably be something intellectual and literary...but what I really want to know is...where do you get the Victorian outfits? Yours and the Good Doctor's were especially perfect.

Madam: Thank you! We think that the outfits are an important part of the Chicago Poetry Brothel. Everything that happens at the show, the sights, sounds and partaking in libations, suggests to visitors that they are experiencing something unique in the poetry world, something romantic yet approachable - something intimate. We chose to place our brothel in the Victorian Age, since Chicago has a particularly strong connection to this period. It was during this time that the city quite literally raised itself from the ashes of the Great Fire, like a great Victorian Phoenix, and as a result its culture, history and architecture are intertwined with the gilded age in a manner that is distinctly Chicago.

There is also a strong Steampunk community here (, who set a very high bar with their impeccable wardrobes. Most of my outfits (and the Good Doctor's) have been pieced together over time from online vendors like:,, as well as and

When I first heard about the Chicago Poetry Brothel, it seemed that New York's branch was one of the only other poetry brothels in the country. Now, poetry brothels are popping up all over the United States. And there's even one in Barcelona! Do you feel like this unique approach to showcasing poetry has increased an interest in the genre as a whole?

Definitely. A poetry brothel provides a unique poetry experience. While fundamentally, it's a poetry reading series, it's unlike other reading series in that it targets people who may not otherwise frequent canonical poetry readings, but still consider themselves patrons of the arts. At the Brothel this is achieved by maintaining two separate spaces: a parlor-like environment, where patrons enjoy burlesque acts, live musical performances and are able to chat with the poets or their friends and a separate space that one might regard as the poets' boudoir, where visitors experience private poetry readings with their chosen "poetry whore." During a private reading, patrons are free to stop the poet, ask questions about the meaning of a poem or to have parts re-read; something that would be impossible at a typical poetry reading! The atmosphere is both intimate and not intimidating or stuffy. As a result, most of our visitors tend not to be regular attendees of other poetry readings, although they do tend to be involved in, or patrons of the arts.

Is that your intention with the brothel--to increase poetry awareness by showing people that poetry readings don't have to be stuffy? Or is this more for local poets to have a bit of fun with their work?

Its purpose is to introduce contemporary poets and their work to a wider audience than would otherwise be reached. While in the parlor area of the Brothel, visitors will hear poetry recited throughout the evening, but in smaller doses that we call "poetry teases." These provide a preview from which one can choose to get a private reading from one's favorite poetry whore. For most people, it's very difficult to follow the spoken word. We try to make the experience easier by not pummeling the audience with one poem after another after another until their eyes glaze over. The Chicago Poetry Brothel is a place to be turned on to poems, an atmosphere to experience some of Chicago's best poetry intimately.

There's no question that it's a lot of fun for the poets to dress up, and play an alter ego they've designed. (As you know, our poetry whores all develop their own fictional character and biography explaining how they found themselves as part of the Brothel - these are available for patrons to peruse at the show in our Blue Book, or at online.) But there is also a part of being a poetry whore that is much more challenging than a normal reading: It's the intimacy. Sitting within a foot of two of a paying customer, a poet cannot remain aloof from the audience, the feedback from the audience is literally in the poet's face, and so the poet has a lot more at stake when the patron is disappointed or unsatisfied by a poem.

How do you choose your "poetry whores"? Anyone is welcome? Or do you audition poets and have a roundtable to decide?

When I first became madam about a year ago, I started asking poets whom I had published in Arsenic Lobster. For example, the Lobster had nominated both Susan Slaviero and Sara Tracey for The Pushcart award. We had also reviewed one of Kathleen Rooney's books, Oneiromance (an epithalamion) and I had been in poetry classes with Kenyatta Rogers at Kent State and Columbia College. Jamie Kazay and Jennifer Steele, who are part of the original cast of Chicago poetry whores were in the MFA program with me at CCC!

Apart from Kenyatta Rogers, the group was entirely female and we wanted to make sure to dispel any sexism associated with being a poetry whore, so we actively sought to add some men to the group. We interviewed a few and finally invited Dave Landsberger and Carlo Matos (whose first show was just August 6th)! Both are writing and reading poetry unlike anyone else in the group and so they brought something new to the Brothel.

We do periodically invite "guest whores" to the show and I'd like to expand this in the future. Anyone interested can contact me through our website's contact form. This fall we have also invited our first "prose whore", New York Times best seller Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose has agreed to join our Brothel for our October 21, 2011 show.

The brothel brings in additional talent to entertain your patrons. How do you determine who to invite?

Karen Abbott's book, Sin in the Second City, and her description of the famous Everleigh Club has had a major influence on the artistic vision for the Chicago Poetry Brothel of course! (The book is nearly required reading for the poetry whores.) Jeff Levin is our pianist, playing music appropriate for the Everleigh Club of the early 1900's. As a nod to the parlor ladies of the past, we always have one or two burlesque dancers. Our regular dancer, Lula Houp-Garou dances with a hula hoop and is very popular! Our entertainment is restricted to acts that fit our Victorian theme, although we allow some artistic interpretation here. For example, the White City Rippers, a local Steampunk band that sports dueling Theremins, an accordion, and a music box, play oldies from the period but with a distinctly Steampunk style. We also have had vaudeville acts like Pinch and Squeal from Cleveland and naughty cabaret singer/songwriter, Sabrina Chap!

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