I remember the first time I thought a poetry reading could be something more. The road to that discovery began in Gaudí ‘s Casa Mila (aka La Pedrera) up on Gracia in Barcelona, where I offered to take the photo of a Greek tourist who was similarly alone and waiting in line. We talked, roamed the labyrinthine sculptures on the rooftop, and we ended up hanging out for the rest of the day. When she told me she was going to something called a poetry brothel, I was first dumbfounded, then decided. I must know what this is all about.
I remember the first time I attended the poetry brothel, which fittingly took place in a bar called 7 Sins. It was just a like a brothel on the outside, yet instead of having to choose among prostitutes to have sex with, you choose a poet who will read poetry to you. I was drawn to one who was named Claudio, who was blind and read tarot cards. After reading my fortune and giving me a private poetry reading, he let me choose among folded pieces of paper with some writing. My chosen note was a fragment from one of William Blake’s poem: “See the world in a grain of sand and infinity in an hour.” He also asked me to leave a note in the pile for the next guest to rummage from. Later than night, I left in a daze, saying thanks to the brothel’s Madame Eva and wondering whether the past few hours were real.
I remember the first time I became a part of the poetry brothel. Yeray, who played the role of Claudio and who had perfect vision, was now someone I performed with. I became good friends with them, including Carolina, who was Ana Isabella in real life and who it turns out wrote the quote by William Blake in the note I randomly chose. Most of their characters were runaways or misfits from different periods, and the poetry brothel became a pulsating living organism where time obeyed no laws. My character was named Cài Ren, a derivative of my Chinese name, partly due to self-identification and partly due to lack of imagination. Cài Ren was a princess from ancient China who ran away from her kingdom and was adopted by kung fu monks. She spent her days training in martial arts and doing calligraphy and science experiments. Again, a symptom of both self-identification and lack of imagination.
I remember the time when this ritual of adopting another identity and shedding it the next day became normal. It was the most hands-on education in immersive theater I have ever had. I lived poetry, whether writing it in Chinese calligraphy, reading it in English or Spanish, or scribbling it on rose petals to give to strangers. Poetry became a sensual experience, going beyond words and finally into what the words actually represented. To read it out loud went beyond the anxiety of not stumbling over your verses and looking like a fool in front of your audience. It became a moment of anticipation, of instant feedback, of actual conversation. Finally, the audience could ask questions, and I remember intelligent conversations that involved history, psychology, art, and science. That removal of the stage enabled both the audience and the poet to put actual human faces on each other.
I remember the occasional confusion I’ve had when addressing my fellow poets. It’s easy to get identities mixed up, calling each other by our brothel names instead of our real names. I remember when I being part of the poetry brothel slowly opened me up, allowing me to embrace the darker parts of myself. I remember the first time I realized that these poetry whores slowly became my family in Spain. And that now, almost two years later, I look back and think it was one of the most influential phases a writer/artist can have in her life.
Oh yes, I remember it all. And I miss it all.
The poets in the prostibulo during the time I wrote of include Kiely Sweatt (Madame Eva), Sebastian Vidal (Javi Ninguno), Ed Smallfield (Ramon Mercader), Valerie Coulton (Mado), Yeray Nauset (Claudio), Tania Pleitez Vela (Isolda de la Rosa), Alena Widows (Friné), Harriet Sandilands (Lola Page), Jessica Rainey (Miss Quote), Ana Isabella Byrne (Carolina Palacios), Laura Brennan (Violet), Edgar Valero (Alan), Claire Basarich (La Duquesa), and myself (Cài Ren).