Somewhere in New York, over a decade ago, John Farrell and a group of friends decided that what struggling artists really needed was a bordello. Last Friday, it visited Dublin’s The Liquor Rooms, with local artists and performers taking part.
Welcome to the Poetry Brothel, an immersive event in which patrons are invited to a makeshift bordello – which even includes a madame – and poets and other artists perform, one-to-one, for a price. The fifty or so people here tonight will have the opportunity to avail of their services.
This evening is something of a mix, a bricolage of performers and artists at your disposal. Fancy a tarot card reading? Or how about your very own poem, written for you on the spot by writer Stephen Clare? Body-painting? Music? The Poetry Brothel has it all.
Farrell says that his night is explicitly apolitical and, first-and-foremost, “about fun” – a response to what he says is a “competitive” and “identity-driven” slam poetry scene, which some people find alienating.
“It was really good at first, thirty years ago, but then it got quite stale, I feel,” he explains, sitting in a room behind the stage. “When I was growing up all the poetry circles were filled with people who all wanted to read like they were Allen Ginsberg. And, they all hated each other. Poetry did not affect anyone’s lives at all. It was an irrelevancy, and it might still be.”
That isn’t to say that anyone here necessarily believes poetry is frivolous; rather, they prefer to place emphasis on the escapism offered by art and performance, instead of attempting to achieve any political objective or change anybody’s mind.
Farrell says that poetry needn’t always be about grievance or competition: “The public needs to be reminded that it can be sexy, intoxicating, and crazy.”
Now a global brand with branches in Berlin, Barcelona and other major European cities, The Poetry Brothel established itself in Dublin two years ago as the official after-party for Bloomsday, a sold-out event. They did the same again last year, followed by a Bram Stoker-themed party last Halloween.
This latest iteration comes as part of Dublin’s recent David Bowie Festival, which saw gigs around the city marking two years since his passing. Specifically, the evening celebrated “inspiring sexualities, politics and aesthetics” brought into focus by the English singer-songwriter.
Farrell fondly remembers the three occasions he met “Mr Bowie”, noting his extremely personable, unpretentious and down-to-earth nature – something that was in line with the ethos of the evening.
“He went by the name David Jones, and didn’t go by the name David Bowie most of the time. I find that really appealing about him. He had great grace, Mr Bowie,” he says.
Of all of his qualities, Farrell most admires how cerebral Bowie was, that he was an intellectual: “This is a man who read books, and made a list of his 100 favourites – and it was a pretty genius collection.”
Farrell doesn’t quite remember why he started calling David Bowie by a formal title, but he’s been doing so for decades. “In New York, David Bowie was ‘Mr Bowie’, Lou Reed was ‘Uncle Lou’, and John Lennon was ‘John and Yoko’. They just were!”
As the evening unfolds, each artist celebrates Bowie in their own way: Helena Mulkerns tells a story about meeting and interviewing the Thin White Duke while working for Hot Press; The Poet Geoff sounds off in a specially written tribute; singer Mic Farrelly gives an acapella rendition of “Life on Mars”; burlesque performers dance to a medley of songs from Low to Reality.
Life as an Artrepreneur
For most artists, the idea of being paid for their work is a pipe dream, something they can only imagine, and spoken-word artists are no exception. Despite their popularity in Dublin, performance poets often fall into the gap that lies between grants and commercial viability; there’s no money to be made, really.
In a sense, the one-to-one aspect of the performances at The Poetry Brothel is a microcosm of the reality of life as an artist under capitalism: in the absence of adequate funding for the arts, artists must commodify and tailor their practice to elicit donations from the public in order to sustain themselves – the evening is like a real-time, live-action version of Kickstarter or Patreon.
“Really, one of the big motivations behind setting up the Poetry Brothel, and this particular model, for the original New York founders, was just them saying, ‘Let’s try to get some poets paid,'” Dublin organiser and artist Andrej Kapor explains, shirtless and wearing makeup in the style of Aladdin Sane.
There’s immediacy and intimacy to performing for someone individually, and Kapor hopes it will help people who aren’t necessarily swayed by slam-style events to appreciate poetry.
“It’s something a bit different with poetry. It’s time to kind of shake it up a little bit, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to not let you just sit there and take it in, but we want to kind of shake you by the shoulders and go, ‘Poems!'”
Although poems are certainly centre-stage, he partially attributes the popularity night to a cabaret, multi-disciplinary feel.
“You’ll get a lot of people who are attracted by the weirdness of it. They might see something like burlesque listed next to something like poetry and think, ‘How does that work?'” he says.
Making It Happen
Also performing tonight is Lewis Kenny (above), who says that when he started performing poetry five years ago, he could never have imagined ever making much money from it.
“There are almost no grants for spoken-word performers,” he tells me, shirtless and covered in paint and glitter for the occasion. “Funding-wise the only thing available to me would be a writer’s residency, but even those are heavily skewed towards people who write on paper.”
But things are slowly changing. Now, at 24 years old, he says that things are beginning to look a bit more promising for performance poets.
“People say the money isn’t there. You have to make the money there. Put on events; network. I’m not gonna wait around trying to get funding because I know that it’s probably not going to happen,” he says.
Kenny is behind OutStraight, a spoken-word and graffiti collective, which just last Saturday held an all-day poetry and music event in The Bernard Shaw, in Portobello.
In the absence of more state funding, while spoken-word performers are still figuring out how to get paid, perhaps nights like The Poetry Brothel are a creative, fun way for artists to get some cash into their hands.
In the spirit of the event, I decide to hire some of the performers, sitting with Stephen Clare and requesting a poem. At a typewriter, wearing a massive fur cape, he’s been writing for people all night. He asks that I choose a theme for him to write about.
I ask him to write about trying to get paid as an artist.
It’s sitting across From people who spill nonsense As truth, Mortgage holders with grief in their eyes about absent children And refusing to be you, Because this isn’t about you, Not really, This is about squishy experience And soft thoughts held at night Between earring and pillowcase, Between me and her, Between us, in this moment
This is what art is for, Connection when a smoke won’t do, Understanding where otherwise there’d be cigarettes and shuffling And side glances to friends Whose thoughts we already know
– Stephen Clare