Burlesque Poetry Hour

I was thrilled to see Reb Livingston's reading series featured in Poetry Daily News. What's impressive is how the series is run and the poetry readings sound like fun...imagine!

Great article. See below--

Burlesque Poetry Hour
Taking It Off for Your Art
by: Sandra Beasley

It was January 2006, and a new year always brings the thirst for something different. I was trying a new cocktail: the Down ‘N Dirty Martini (olives and a dash of Tabasco). A new scene: a banquet in the cozy, cherry-paneled Dark Room at the Bar Rouge on 16th Street. A new series: Burlesque Poetry Hour, which promised fresh, edgy poets in a swank setting. The inaugural reading featured Deborah Landau, of New York, and West Coast poet Kim Addonizio. I was ready for anything.

Well, almost anything.

After Kim Addonizio’s scorching set of poems on love, betrayal and the praises of gin, our hostess Gilda coaxed the audience into chanting:

“Take…it…off. Take it off!”

Our voices gained confidence: “Take it OFF! TAKE IT OFF!”

Kim smiled, and reaching under her skirt, slipped off her - What? Really?- something stretchy and purple, and the bidding began:

“Do I hear 15? 15!”

“18? 18!”


I heard myself say “25!”

“36? Do I hear 36?”

“Thank you, to the gentlemen on the left. 40?”

Kim Addonizio is a well-respected writer, mind you, the author of more than a half-dozen books.

“Do I hear 42? 42!”

She’s won a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award -

“Going, going, sold - ”

and I had just won the auction for her thong.

Celebrating its second year in 2007, Burlesque Poetry Hour challenges the conventions of arts nightlife in Washington, DC. “I think people are looking for more fun and sexy things here,” observes cofounder Carly Sachs, who hosts the series under the name Lolita. “DC can be a button-up town at times. What I love best is that people stay afterwards and drink and chat together…I know this is a strange way to build community, but I think it does.”

Reb Livingston, the cofounder otherwise known as Gilda, recognizes another benefit to the auction element: “The money goes directly to the poet. It’s his or her payment for reading and encouragement not to suck.”

This incentive for dynamic performance is a welcome relief to regular attendees of poetry readings. As someone who goes to at least one or two readings every week, I can attest to the standard formula: introductions read off the back of the book, 25 minute sets, the popping open of a bottle of white wine afterwards. Poetry readings are intelligent, friendly…and too often, boring. Words that thrive on the page can seem stillborn when read aloud.

In contrast, there’s nothing stodgy or academic about Burlesque Poetry Hour, even though many of its featured readers teach by day. The first year’s prestigious roster of poets included David McAleavey, who directs the creative writing program at George Washington University. When McAleavey read at burlesque in February, he teased the audience by wearing a dashing Stetson throughout his set. Would he be willing to part with it, we wondered? His poems - swaggering, funny and at times scandalous - were drawn largely from his recent book of “Huge Haiku.” When it came to auction time, he pulled a last-minute switch and offered up a baseball cap, emblazoned with the logo for the GW Colonials.

Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for an impulse buy, and McAleavey’s cap only cost me $15. Who could resist? Plus, he signed the brim for posterity. (Addonizio actually did scribble her name on the Ziploc bag that encased the thong, but I doubt I’ll be showing it off anytime soon.)

It was not long after I posed for my second “winner’s photo” that Sachs told me that a slot in the July schedule had opened up. Did I want to read?

Of course I wanted to read. The bigger question: Was I ready to take it off?

At the next reading I watched as Jaime Gaughran-Perez followed a presentation of his visual poetry by reaching into his pants and whipping out…a rolled up ball of socks. Socks with puppy dogs stitched onto them. The audience laughed hysterically, and I wondered how a girl could compete.

As summer went on and the big night grew closer, I began to worry in earnest. What would I auction? Talking to other guest readers, I realized this was what we all worried about. Not the poems - the poems were easy. The striptease was hard.

I was walking down Connecticut Avenue, toward Dupont Circle, when I saw the answer to my prayers: one-size-fits-all, lacy and, in the tradition of Kim Addonizio, purple.

Sometimes the crowd is big and local; other times, only a dozen connoisseurs. Relying on word-of-mouth for publicity, the series is intimate by design. It doesn’t take much for things to get steamy in the Dark Room, which only seats about thirty people. Burlesque Poetry Hour sweltered last August, when Ravi Shankar, a poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State University, stripped off his white tie with great fanfare. As Gilda modeled its many potential uses: boa, whip, kerchief, exercise band - what the audience members needed most was something to wipe the sweat from their brows.

When asked about the most popular auction wares, Sachs reports “Scarves and ties, but they’re not allowed in 2007.” Other items are more exotic - a glittery spider crown, a skull necklace, shiny red pants.

The hostesses take turns as auctioneers, and once Livingston ended up with the task of convincing the audience to bid on an item that could not be seen with the naked eye. “My favorite was Baltimore poet Lauren Bender’s ‘invisible cloak of poetic potential,’” Livingston says. “She showed up with a portfolio. She was prepared.” A spontaneous coalition of “investors” in the audience bought stock in Bender’s poetic potential for $30.

As Gilda and Lolita, Livingston and Sachs enjoy tweaking the pretensions of poetry. But their investments extend well beyond the Dark Room. Each is an accomplished writer whose work has appeared in the annual “Best American Poetry” series.

Livingston edits and publishes the online magazine “No Tell Motel” and the micro-press No Tell Books. Her first full-length collection, “Your Ten Favorite Words,” will be published this fall by Coconut Books.

Sachs is editing an anthology of poems about sexual assault, to be published by Deep Cleveland Press later this year. She won the Washington Writer’s Publishing House Prize for her first book, “The Steam Sequence.”

Sachs approached Livingston with the idea for a poetry series shortly after she began working as a bartender at the Rouge in August 2005. “I was looking for a co-host, someone as irreverent as myself,” she says, “and since Reb and I are from industrial towns in the Midwest (Pittsburgh and Cleveland) and our poems had appeared in several places together, I thought we’d make a good match.”

“Together, we batted around ideas until we came up with burlesque,” says Livingston, who also runs an online blog documenting the poetry series. “This year we’re putting the focus on interesting and fun readers - poets who give good readings and can embrace the Burlesque spirit.”

“I wanted poets to start having rock star status on some level,” Sachs adds. “I don’t think we’ve made our poets rock stars just yet, but you do get to spice up your wardrobe.”

So I did what any poet would do: I took it off.

And confidentially, to the person who now owns my garter belt: I hope it spices up your wardrobe as much as it did mine. The highest bid, in the end, was four times what I paid for it. Not a bad return on one’s poetic potential.

Burlesque Poetry Hour
Last Monday of every month, 8 p.m.
The Dark Room at Bar Rouge
1315 16th St., NW



  1. So glad you liked the article! As I said on my blog, I can't imagine a better assignment in terms of...er...field research. = ) I have to say, I've been completely caught off guard with the wide response. What fun.

    Cheers, Sandra


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