Paris. Friday, November 13, 2015
They had just finished a rehearsal for an event called The Poetry Brothel, an offshoot of a New York event in which poets dress as prostitutes, and push their words like they’re selling sex. It was pleasant, depraved, French — everything that ISIS wants to kill.
The night air was mild. Unseasonal. November in Paris had never felt like this, never so gentle, never so safe. In the distance, light crackled, and made people think of nothing more dangerous than fireworks.
The poets stood on the pavement, kissing each other goodbye, a peck on each cheek like the French have done since before Fitzgerald or Picasso ever made a home on the Left Bank. And yet none of the kissers were French. Poets seldom live in the countries of their birth.
Then, out of the night ran two men, screaming.
“Get back into the bar! Get off the streets!”
The poets were bewildered. They did not move.
“There are men with AK47s!” the strangers shouted. “They’re killing people!”
And suddenly, the poets felt their terror, and it was clear that the crackling in the background, growing stronger all the time, was not fireworks. It was gunfire. No one present had experienced this sort of reality, but none had any trouble believing it as real. They poured back inside the bar.
The bar, known as Le Fabuleux Cabinet de Curiosités (Le Facab, for short) and a few blocks from the Bataclan theater, where hundreds were being held hostage, might as well have been built to shelter poets in violent times. Its main space is a vaulted, labyrinthine basement with a design aesthetic somewhere between medieval dungeon and Belle Époque brothel. The dungeon was downstairs from the entrance, and felt as safe as anywhere could feel that night, but the poets stayed at the top of the stairs, where they could get reception on their phones.
“We all kind of went into ourselves,” says Alberto Rigettini, the Poetry Brothel’s main organizer, or ‘Pimp,’ as they call him. “Everyone was checking their phones, getting the news, sending texts. We were pressed in tight together but no one was really there, you know.”
Rigettini is that rare thing in the modern world, a true poet. A tall, broad shouldered Italian with nice looking, slightly simian features, he has lived all over the world and done almost every job imaginable in the name of following his muse. For him, literature means “breaking the rules, lifting the dimension of time and space, irrationally pursuing a suicidal goal without thinking about the practical consequences.” This has meant, he says, getting in trouble at school, and being broke ever since; it is a way of living that has never been a choice.
Locked in Le Facab, Rigettini had only a sliver of battery left on his phone. Not enough to look at the news, but sufficient for a couple of phone calls: one to his ex- and mother of his twin sons (a woman who years before he had married in Las Vegas), and another to his own mother back in his home village near Milan. The calls were enough to explain how he’d heard Paris was being attacked, but that he was safe, for now; then his phone went dead.
“After that, I think I just kind of switched off too,” Rigettini says. “I knew there was nothing more that I could do about anything, and the people who had come in from the street were saying we absolutely should not leave. The bar owner and I started talking about going down into the basement, back into the brothel.”
Meanwhile, others were beginning to break out of their social media silence; news was being exchanged about the horror happening in the city. From the cracked mosaic of smartphone news, rumors began to fly: there were terrorists shooting from the back of motorcycles tearing around the city; they had snipers on rooftops. A cold grip of panic threatened to take hold.
Then came the thumping on the door.
“We’d closed the door, of course,” Rigettini explains. “And locked it. And it wasn’t one of those glass doors that bars sometimes have, it was made all of wood, so we couldn’t see through it. Except it didn’t reach all the way down to the ground, so we could see some of the pavement outside, and we could see these black, military-style boots.”
The poets drew closer together; there was a collective tightening of breath. The thumping on the door intensified. For a few moments it really seemed as though the violence of that Paris night was trying to break in. Then the shouting started.
“Ouvrez la porte! Ouvrez la porte!”
Inside were dry mouths, quickened heartbeats, stomachs falling away. This kind of violence is something news reports and films have taught us to visualize and to expect, but we can’t believe when it’s really happening.
“Michel! C’est Mo! Ouvrez la porte!”
Suddenly, the bar owner was moving through the crowds. In a fluid motion he pulled back the big dead bolt locking the door. A very big man, wearing a long black coat, and large military style boots stepped inside. He was a bouncer from another bar along the street. He looked terrified. The poets did not remain in the entrance way for very long after that.
“Downstairs, the bar owner — he said that all booze was free,” Rigettini grins as he recalls that evening. “The first good news all night.”
For a long time, though, silence reigned. People were still trying to make sense of what might be going on in the outside world. There were occasional deep exhalations, sometimes followed by expletives, but not much more.
Less than an hour had passed since they had last been down here. Back then their world had been filled with light sexual flirtation, and poetry was a sort of game they were playing with one another, impersonating the ghosts of the Lost Generation. An hour earlier, they were taking full advantage of their freedom of expression, not for one moment stopping to question how fragile it might be.
“It’s always seemed strange to me this idea of people still coming to Paris to be poets,” Rigettini says. “In La Vie de Bohème, Murger says that for a city to suit artists it needs cheap drink, cheap food, and not just cheap accommodation, but places that are easy to find. The artists need space to follow their muse. But Paris doesn’t have any of that any more. And now, as well, with these attacks….
“Still, I think Paris is two places. There is first this idea of the city. And I’m talking about how the artists see it, not the tourists. But still it is an idea of, you know, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and crazy living, and then there is the reality of Paris as it is in 2015. And somehow these two places sit on top of each other.”
At the darkest moment in Le Facab that night, the romantic image of the city had shattered. Paris then was only one place: violent, cold, and real. But gradually, the mood in the bar began to lift. Through social media networks and news sources people were at last beginning to get some kind of hold on what was going on in the world outside; and though it was terrible, knowing the extent of matters brought some reassurance. The poets began talking to one another again.
“We talked about Charlie Hebdo and guns and France and Syria and love and death and peace and war,” says another poet, Joshua Chang. “We started to call our underground stone cellars a ‘bunker’; we sang songs to raise our spirits.”
“Ah, it was terrible!” Rigettini grins. “They started to sing songs, but because we are from so many countries the only ones most people knew were from musical theatre. And I thought these people were supposed to be artists! But there was one song that everyone knew all the words too: ‘L’Internationale.'”
When they ran out of songs, they turned to the material they had on hand: poetry. There was no big staged reading. Rather, one poet would take another by the hand, and read to them personally, intimately in one of the anti-rooms of their bunker home. The poetry was about love, mainly, and of course sex. It was meant for the Brothel, not for moments like these. But then, what better than poems about love and sex to combat violence and fear?
In the small hours, the debates started. Alcohol fueled, the owner of Le Facab began to suggest that attacks like the one still occurring outside the walls of his bar would become just something city dwellers would have to come to accept, akin to forest fires in an urban environment. The poets, motivated in part by fear, in part by faith in humanity, disagreed.
Once his passion had subsided, however, the owner seemed to sink into himself; a shadow fell across his face. Rigettini asked him what was wrong.
“Of course I’m sad about what’s going on in Paris right now,” he said, “but also I’m worried for my bar. Even after Charlie Hebdo we didn’t work for weeks. Now I don’t know how many events we’ll have to cancel, whether we’ll survive.”
Rigettini did his best to sympathize, but in the back of his mind he was, of course, wondering if the Poetry Brothel would still run.
Eventually, at about five in the morning, with nearly everyone blackout drunk, the owner showed those who wanted to sleep to another of the anti-rooms. There, a double mattress served as a bed for five of them. They slept on it past dawn.
“When I woke up, it was completely dark,” Rigettini says. “And I realized it was just the five of us on the mattress left in the bar. And it was then that I started kind of mildly freaking out, because I’m thinking ‘What time is it?’ And ‘How do we get out of here?’ Because the place is a real labyrinth and we were in one of the last rooms, and it was completely dark. It was only because I saw Josh’s phone light up, his mother was calling him, that I could find anything at all.”
Rigettini used the phone call as an excuse to rouse the other poets, and he made an executive decision: It was time to leave the bar. Gradually, with the use of candles, they gathered their belongings and headed back through the maze of their bunker, back towards Paris and the outside world.
“We pushed at the bar’s door and it was open. And we walked outside, and we found it was day. And the sky was super-blue and sunny. And it was just us on the street. It was like that kind of post-atomic experience: The world’s so beautiful, but totally empty. For a moment. Then we saw someone on roller blades. And we realized that, though it was very quiet, it was still a normal morning. Then we saw a café that was open, and we went for a coffee.”
At last the time came for the poets to say goodbye to each other. Cheek kissing seemed inappropriate. Instead, in the cool blue silence of the November morning, they hugged.
“See you at the next rehearsal,” one said almost automatically.
The words made Rigettini pause: Was the Poetry Brothel still going to go ahead?
* * *
Monday, November 16, 2015
Only a few candles light the bar’s basement room, but in their glow you can tell it is tight with people. This is Spoken Word Paris, the capital’s main meet-up for Anglophone poets, established by Englishman David Barnes. It seems that after a weekend locked in apartments, trying to find solace in social media and the 24-hour news cycle, people have chosen to brave the city’s streets to give the therapeutic properties of art a go.
At the center of the room, a single electric light is switched on. A man in a battered top hat steps into its brightness to address the crowd. It is Alberto Rigettini. He looks tired, but is unbent; there is even the hint of a resistant smile about his eyes. Slowly, he tells the gathered crowds the story of his Friday night, and that of the poets who were with him.
“And after that,” he ends the speech, “there was a serious discussion among the whores — sorry, poets — whether we were still going to do the Brothel next weekend… Whether it would be appropriate, whether people would come… And what we decided was that now, more than ever, is a time when we need poetry, that the show should go on.”
And then, he reads. His voice is slow, accented but clear, hypnotic. He has a foreign speaker’s tendency to emphasize unexpected words. It forces the audience to stay alert to every phrase:
They say they attacked precisely chosen targets in the center of the capital of France.
Hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice. It’ s us.
We do things that religious people hate or blame or secretly dream.
Drinking wine, sitting at a table in front of a beautiful girl and maybe laugh and maybe kiss her.
Or two men, or two women; whoa! even better, some forbidden homosexuality in Paris.
We had to think about choosing to say je suis Charlie. Today there’s no need. They were us.
Same age, same shoes, same bars.
I am Mathieu Giroud, 38 years old with a son who’s three years old,
or I could be Valeria, it’s been six years that we left Italy for Paris,
or Kheireddine Sahbian, Algerian student, we shared the same playlist on Youtube.
And we, in this neighborhood, like to mingle. They were us.
I look at all these candles on the pavement in front of the restaurant.
Not one flame is like another.
A somber, resonant applause ripples about the room. Rigettini’s smile widens slightly, then without another word he leaves the stage. Other poets follow in his wake, men and women from all countries, reading aloud their emotions.
Here it is, then; the Paris of the artist’s imagination has not been defeated. And sure enough, it is engaging with the real city, in an act of collective grieving, defiance, and hope.