poetry brothels

January 10, 2012

original promo photograph

Back in 2007, me and Jimmy set up the world’s first ever Poetry Brothel.  It actually probably started in October 2006 after a mid-afternoon drunken conversation outside The Windmill in Brighton, and somehow (unlike hundreds of other similar ideas) we actually registered the event in the Brighton Fringe and did it. We spent a couple of days turning Jimmy’s house into a den of iniquity (not the most difficult thing in the world), got a few poets to come round, bought a load of gin, made some cucumber sandwiches, wrote some outraged letters to the local paper under assumed names, and waited for the punters to come flocking in.

To our astonishment, it was a massive hit. We reached the dizzy heights of being regularly featured in The Argus (which is about as famous as you can get in Brighton), got on the BBC, read a lot of poems to a lot of punters, and ended up winning two awards (an Argus Angel Award, from Brighton’s aforementioned organ of repute), and a Latest Festival Award for Best Literature (which was given to me by Jimmy Carr, who I offended by complimenting him on his stop smoking book). It turns out we were also nominated for Best Venue in the same awards ceremony, and it’s probably good we didn’t win that too because we weren’t even in the room when it was announced, having found the free bar. We made about £130 from the brown envelopes we left in the rooms, and I’m proud to say we blew pretty much all of it on gin.

The concept was simple – punters arrived at the Poetry Brothel, and were led down to the waiting room where they could eat cucumber sandwiches (I think it was Amy‘s idea – I’d never really associated cucumber sandwiches with brothels before, but I shall always do so now), drink gin and tonic, and then choose their poet from the menu. The poet then led them into an upstairs room for an intimate one-on-one poetry reading. Afterwards, we left them in the room to reflect on their experience, fill out a comments slip (if they liked) and leave some money in a brown envelope (if they liked).

Afterwards, we thought about doing it again the following year, but it never really happened. I felt like we’d already done it, and it was time to move on to new and exciting things. Maybe that wasn’t the right decision – we tried various other techniques to bring poetry to people in new and exciting ways, including a big red velvet booth on legs (which I hated because it weighed so much it took about four people to carry it about and about an hour and a half to put together in the mornings. Like a really bad sedan chair) and an incredible event called Glue Gun ’91 which was like a poetry night but with dinosaurs and strobe lights.

Maybe one day we’ll put on another poetry brothel in Brighton one day. I’m not sure. But in the meantime, poetry brothels were popping up all across the world. Leicester, Barcelona, New York, Chicago…   it seemed that me and Jimmy had started an international movement (albeit a small and niche one) that tipsy afternoon outside the Windmill. They all seemed to operate in fairly different ways (and were often a bit more sexy) than our poetry brothel, but people were taking the idea and seeing where it would go, setting up poetry brothels in their own towns.

I thought it was incredible – like we’d started something entirely new. And good luck to them – poetry’s never the easiest thing to bring into people’s lives (writes a struggling poet), and anything like that can make it exciting and fresh.

However, it seems (and I’m going to be careful here, as I don’t have what could be called ‘hard evidence’) that one branch of the poetry brothel seems to be putting pressure on another branch to stop using the phrase “poetry brothel”, due to intellectual property and all that. I’m not going to name names at this point, but if this is the case, then I find this a) disappointing, and b) outrageous. If anyone has any claim to the phrase or concept of a “poetry brothel”, it’s me and Jimmy, and we’re not about to start wrestling it back from anyone who’s been using it. I understand that I don’t necessarily know the true facts of the case, and I’d invite anyone involved in the dispute to get in touch with me, especially if I’ve got anything wrong here.

In any case, (and I’m fairly sure it’s not the gin speaking), I’d just like to say that I give the official endorsement for anyone to set up a poetry brothel anywhere they like. You may have to check with Jimmy first, but as far as I’m concerned, bring on the poetry brothels! Let there be solicited one-on-one poetry on every street corner! Yes! Bravo!


5 Responses to “poetry brothels”

  1. Hi Chris –

    You have it completely right. Let me introduce myself, I have the role of the “Good Doctor” at the Chicago Poetry Brothel; I introduce the musical and burlesque acts and explain to visitors what a poetry brothel “is” at the beginning of our shows in Chicago. (One day I’d love to tell you what we’ve been doing here with your concept – but that will have to wait for another thread, as we are now in a fight for our very existence.)

    The short version of the story: The two leaders of the Poetry Brothel in New York have indeed trademarked the words “Poetry Brothel” and we at the Chicago Poetry Brothel have received a cease and desist letter demanding that we no longer use those two words together. The letter was also sent to a theater in Chicago where our next event in February is scheduled, and to Facebook. And as a result our Facebook group “Chicago Poetry Brothel” has been suspended. I am sure that similar letters have been sent elsewhere; we shall see the extent of the damage they can do to us and our ability to advertise only one month before our next show.

    We are in the midst of consultations with our lawyers, and right now I don’t know what I am free to say without fear of being sued by those two New Yorkers. However, I will immediately send you the cease and desist letter privately, so at least, you will know what they claim they own; which we had always thought rightfully belonged to you and Jimmy. By the end of this week, I will know whether our lawyers allow us to go public with all the details (including the outrageous claims for money to use the words poetry brothel, as well as restrictions on how our poets may publish works, where we can perform, and more) so everyone involved in a Poetry Brothel knows what is going on. (I say this because we are aware of several instances of slander against our Madam, and in a small community of poets, we believe that we shouldn’t let falsehoods go unanswered.)

    To be honest, there’s a part of me that wondered whether its worth fighting over usage of the words Poetry Brothel. Almost a year ago, we discussed about changing our name so as to disassociate ourselves with the New York group entirely. (We had grown very tired of the outrageous claims and threatening letters.) However, Tim Grayson was so supportive of our efforts, and passionately argued for us to remain part of what he describes as the Brothellian Movement, and espoused values (which we wholly agreed with), that we wanted to remain part of the international group. But perhaps most importantly he assured us that you and Jimmy McGee also shared those values. And for those reasons, we really wanted to remain associated with this global phenomenon that the two of you started. We held a meeting at that time and our Poetry Whores unanimously voted to continue on with the name Chicago Poetry Brothel and fight, if the need arose.

    It looks like that time has come.

    We will really need Jimmy and your support to beat those who would want to profit from the poetry of others. As you pointed out so aptly, promotion of poetry is already a difficult task, but I have seen first hand that the Poetry Brothel is able to introduce an entirely new audience to poetry, an audience that would not normally be found at a poetry reading and that is a wonderful thing!

  2. kiely sweatt said

    It’s too bad they didnt trademark or copywrite anything before because now they really won’t get credit for anything.

    • kiely sweatt said

      And also. I started up the brothel in Barcelona, mexico, madrid, and working on south america, italy, portugal and a few others. I work through the ny group although I have met Tim. I dont agree to posting these messages on my facebook. Im sorry you have these probs. I dont know why you would. But then again its an amazing concept And there is a lot of press, ive been asked to do the London Olympics for example and was recently in the guardian.

      But please advise me before you put this on my facebook wall. I dont agree with this sort of online dispute.

      Sorry for typos, working off phone.

      Thank you

      • I haven’t never posted anything on your facebook page of course, so I don’t know to what you refer. But, if your FB page is public, there will be some in the public who are offended by what your friends are doing to poetry. And I for one, agree with them.

        As things stand, you can not use the words poetry brothel unless you pay Nick & Stephanie money. Can you actually defend that? Even knowing that they were at the first show, asked Jimmy for permission to take the idea back to NYC? From this review: http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/1418949.poetry_brothel_on_muesli_mountain/, its clear that their NY show is nearly identical in operation to the show they copied – how dare they act and claim to own this phenomenon?

        For all their dishonesty about the origins of the show, no one cared. But NOW they are using legal maneuvers to stop poetry from being performed/experienced in this environment in Chicago! The thing you say is such an “amazing concept”, that has been such a blessing to you apparently, is being stolen by your friends. We in Chicago can’t have a poetry brothel now; bravo! Your friends are heroes.

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