Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski, graduates of the MFA program at The New School, founded The Poetry Society of New York in 2007 around the time they completed their MFAs. Among their initiatives is The Poetry Brothel, an event series that presents poets as high courtesans who perform their poetry in private readings while in character. They also run The New York City Poetry Festival, which occurs every summer on Governor’s Island, a free event bringing together around 250 poets to read their work to a diverse audience.
Christina Shideler, a current MFA student in Poetry at The New School, recently caught up with Stephanie and Nicholas. She also produced three “Live Poetry Videos” with faculty member John Reed, catching the poet/performers at the The Poetry Brothel of November 23, 2014.
CS: Many of your projects (The Poetry Brothel, The New York City Poetry Festival, The Typewriter Project) seem to be about bringing poetry out of its insular landscape and into the larger world. Do you agree? Why is this important to you?
Nicholas: Yes! Poetry is a beautiful and vital part of culture whether the wider culture knows it or not. Our projects seek to help the public develop a new understanding of, and relationship to, this form of expression that we love so much. We’ve found that many of the people who attend our events have had their perception of poetry colored in either dull or obliquely negative tones, whether by an unenthusiastic or unskilled teacher early in life or simply by the commonly held perception that poetry is boring or outdated. The first tenet we build into our mission statement was “to never be boring,” but as we’ve grown so has our mission. We quickly realized it wasn’t enough to simply prevent our audience from feeling bored or trapped, we want to engage them, inspire them, and ultimately reinvent their experience, perception, and desire for poetry in their life. What we are engaged in now is a complete rebranding and reeducation campaign for poetry in the culture at large.
CS: The death of poetry’s audience is much discussed. Did you ever believe in the concept of a narrow audience for poetry? Has your view of poetry’s audience and accessibility changed?
Nicholas: Poetry’s audience isn’t dead, they are just sleeping or, more likely, more engaged by other media or even by other forms of poetry not commonly recognized by the established poetry community. Song writing is a form of poetry and the music industry, despite being itself in a transitional period, remains wildly popular and lucrative. But that may be a different argument all together. What we have found is that the people who come to our shows, many of whom have never been to poetry event in their lives are always engaged, often moved, and sometimes even inspired to pursue poetry on their own. We know this because they tell us. I would say it’s not poetry’s audience that has narrowed but rather its delivery system. The poet’s role in society, the place of poetry on the page, and the cultural space given to the public poetry reading, event, or presentation may be as diminished as it has been in centuries, we would ask is that the fault of the audience or the artist? More poetry is being written today than ever in the history of the art form, more people are engaged, and our experience has shown us that more people are hungry for the unique connection and intimacy offered by poetry than we could have ever imagined. The Poetry Brothel is specifically designed to allow us to reach out to previously unengaged portions of the population and to give them an experience of poetry, and art in general, beyond anything they have ever considered possible. We are doing everything in our power to increase poetry’s cultural capital, one paying costumer at a time.
CS: You are both graduates of The New School. Did these ideas form while you were students? If so, how did The New School community inform or help these come into being?
Stephanie: These ideas did form while we at the New School, and they have developed through the work we have done over the years. I think the New School provides an incredibly supportive environment when it comes to experimentation and thinking “outside the box.” All of the professors provide very different perspectives, and there isn’t one overarching aesthetic guiding the program. There is a lot of freedom, a lot of collaboration between students, a lot of getting drunk with your professors, and a general atmosphere of camaraderie and congeniality, rather than the competitive spirit that plagues many graduate programs in the arts. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s class on Philosophy and Poetry was particularly influential to us. She forced us to take a historical perspective on poetry — what it is, what it does, what it means — and its place in our culture. But I think living in New York and experiencing the poetry community that existed at that time was the main catalyst that gave rise The Poetry Brothel. I really wanted to create a new kind of poetry performance, a more intimate and vulnerable way of delivering poetry to people that was also empowering and literally enriching for the poets. And the original cast was largely made up of our fellow New School classmates. The New School poetry community’s enthusiasm for the project was really crucial in getting it off the ground.
CS: At what point did it go from being a concept to a reality? In other words, what was the moment or event where you thought “wow this is really happening” with respect to either the brothel or the festival?
Nicholas: Everything Stephanie and I have ever done together started with a few drinks we had one night at Cafe Loup. She had dreamt up The Poetry Brothel and was starting to put out feelers for collaborators. She approached Maggie Wells and Maggie suggested she talk to me. Within minutes I knew that The Poetry Brothel was really going to happen, and I had a feeling it was going to happen in a big way. That night I wrote Stephanie an email telling her how terrified I was of the idea of giving private, one-on-one readings to strangers, and to ask them for money on top of it, I was horrified, however, I went on, I was significantly more fearful of how I would feel five years in the future when The Poetry Brothel was an international movement changing the way people experienced, perceived, and valued poetry.
A few days before our first event at the Living Theater, the Village Voice ran a full page article previewing the event. That felt very real. When the Living Theater canceled our event because the write up suggested we might be drinking whiskey I knew that we were going to be around for a long time and that this project was going to get a lot of attention. The night of our first brothel we started out protesting the Living Theater in a beautiful New York snowstorm and ended with a little refuge show in the back of The Mudd Lounge, an old techno club in the East Village. I couldn't have dreamt up a more perfect launch for such a renegade idea. To date Stephanie and I have done over a 130 shows in five countries, we have chapters in eleven countries, with more opening every few months, it’s almost mystifying how much it has already grown and how many people are excited to be a part of breathing life into the concept. After we had the Poetry Brothel up and running everything we've ever dreamt up felt more inevitable than anything. With the Festival it was just a matter of finding the location, we always knew once we had that we would have a festival. We've dreamt up a host of other ventures and while they haven't all been as successful as the Brothel and the Festival they've all come into being, when you work with a person like Stephanie Berger things just get finished, she more driven than any person I've ever met.
CS: By blending sexuality, poetry, and money, The Poetry Brothel is a political undertaking. Was this intended? If so, what message did you want to convey?
Stephanie: This was definitely intended. However, rather than conveying a particular message, our goal with it is more to create questions and provoke a discussion. In fact, the private poetry readings are literally vehicles for intimate conversation about poetry. The Poetry Brothel has in some ways essentially been a giant experiment designed to find out what a poem is worth and what poets are worth as human beings with bodies in our culture today.
CS: With The Poetry Brothel, do you see yourselves as providing a blueprint/example for new ways for working poets to help make a living through performance?
Stephanie: Absolutely. The Poetry Brothel explores and responds to the tendency of poets to systematically undervalue themselves inside the creative marketplace. Our events try to provide a fun and intimate means of confirming for writers and audience alike the literal monetary value of such work. One of our hopes for The Poetry Brothel is that through each event, we will teach our audience slowly but surely to place a higher and higher value upon poetry. Poetry is inherently intimate. And intimacy is incredibly valuable! People pay for it. Many of our “poetry whores” have gone on to create other projects that sell poetry not in similar ways exactly, but through the human desire for intimacy and connecting with others.
CS: Does constantly performing your poetry mean you’re constantly compelled to revise?
Nicholas: The private readings we give at the Brothel offer a unique experience and opportunity for revision. When I read to a stranger one-on-one, his or her attention is palpable. I try to maintain eye contact as much as possible though some people simply can’t look at a person who is giving them a private poetry reading but even if we’re not gazing into each other’s eyes I can still feel it when a line falls flat, or when I lose someone, with language trying to be too clever or evasive, with images that just don’t quite connect. The audience of one is an honest one, often whether or not that is the intention. Another beautiful thing about these interactions is that our customers are often people who don’t write poetry or go to poetry readings all that often, they are mostly people who just thought the event sounded fun. They are always genuine and kind and open to the experience and always deeply appreciative of our efforts even if they don’t really “get it,” after spending so much time in workshops and bouncing things off of other writers it is beyond refreshing to get such visceral feedback. That is not to say that I am constantly changing lines in my poems to keep poetry brothel patrons from getting bored or lost in a poem, I still believe in making them work for it, but I certainly drop or add a line and fine tune old and new poems all the time based on the shape some one's eyes take when they hear it or how and when their heads tilt, or why someone I’ve just met slides forward in the seat, leans in, trying to catch every single word.
CS: Especially for the Poetry Festival, I imagine there is a lot of persistence and persuasion necessary to come by sponsors and venues. Did you come from backgrounds where these skills had already been used or did launching these ventures force you to learn them?
Stephanie: We certainly had almost no experience in event production, marketing, PR, or fundraising when we first started hosting events. Nick has a degree in Political Science and Poetry. I have degrees in Philosophy, Film Theory, and Poetry. Neither of us was trained in any halfway practical skill! However, Nicholas did work as an interior decorator, which has helped us tremendously, and we’ve both always been peripherally involved in theatre and attended parties, festivals, and other celebratory events with great interest. But most importantly I think that Nick and I are just entrepreneurial by nature. We’re critical and motivated people who look at the culture, at the marketplace, search out the holes, and find ways to fill them. We’re totally self-taught for the most part. If I don’t know how to do something, I ask a friend who does, or I watch a YouTube video. And being personable helps a lot in approaching venues and sponsors.
CS: How do you see The New York City Poetry Festival as different from other poetry festivals or literary events?
Nicholas: The thing that sets the festival apart is its inclusiveness, its atmosphere, and its ethos. The festival operates on an open call system. Any NYC poetry group, organization, or publication is invited to participate. It’s first-come, first-serve. The whole idea behind the festival is to bring the city’s entire poetry community together for a big two-day party. We love that our three stages are all exactly the same. We love that a tiny poetry collective from Queens can perform on the same stage as poets curated by Poet’s House, followed by some high school students from Staten Island, followed by a slam group from The Nuyorican. We also love that the festival is outside on Governor’s Island. The fact that a festival designed to bring all of the various NYC poetry enclaves together in one place happens on an island in the harbor, that you have to take a boat the get there, that it is removed from any one borough, taken out of the context of a particular university, coffee shop, or bar, that people can bring blankets and sit on the ground, feel the sun on their faces and hear the wind blowing through the wide leaves on the London Plane trees that ring Colonel’s Row is a deliberate and absolutely fundamental component of the vision we had for this gathering.
CS: What has been the most surprising thing about undertaking these events?
Stephanie: I think the most surprising thing about The Poetry Brothel specifically has been the sheer size and scope to which the project has grown. It was initially just an idea. It was a little spark of a vision. Now there are more than fifteen functional poetry brothel branches in cities throughout North America, South America, and Europe. I couldn’t have imagined how big the community that is working on this project has gotten. It feels like I have a family scattered all over the world, which has been a delightful revelation.
CS: If you could give advice to anyone looking to start something in the literary scene—be it a magazine, reading series, or other event—what would you say?
Stephanie: I guess I would ask, “What makes your project necessary? What need is it filling? Which problem is it pointing to?” There are countless magazines, small presses, and reading series that feature a particular poet’s friends and favorites, but that usually isn’t enough to sustain the project. Projects with legs tend to provide answers to cultural questions, solutions to poetry problems, or they cause a lot more trouble. Sometimes the best projects destabilize a problematic framework that we took for granted or ignored. Instead of “What is it?” I’d ask, “What is your project doing?”
Stephanie Berger is the Executive Director of The Poetry Society of New York and co-creator with Nicholas Adamski of The Poetry Brothel, The New York City Poetry Festival, and The Typewriter Project. She is the author of In the Madame's Hat Box (Dancing Girl Press, 2011) and translator of The Grey Bird: Thirteen Emoji Poems in Translation (Coconut Books, 2014). Stephanie’s poetry and translations have appeared in The Volta, Fence, Hyperallergic, THEThe Poetry, Electric Pumas, Elephant Journal, Bat City Review, Poetry Crush, and Styleite, among other publications, and they have been reviewed in Diagram, Dazed Digital, Refinery 29, Bustle Magazine, Bookish, and several other media outlets. Other honors include a 2015 &NOW Writing Award and grants from Fractured Atlas and The Casement Fund. Stephanie earned a BA in Philosophy and Critical Studies (Film) at the University of Southern California, received an MFA in Poetry from the New School, and has taught in the English Department at Pace University and Berkeley College.
Nicholas Adamski was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. After living abroad in Italy and India, Adamski turned his focus to New York City, where he moved in 2005 to pursue an MFA at The New School University where he met his business partner, Stephanie Berger.
Christina Shideler is an MFA student in poetry at The New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Painted Bride Quarterly, The Ink and Code and The Inquisitive Eater. She is currently working on a hybrid genre book analyzing the cultural history of anxiety titled A Taxonomy of Panic.