Reading Erotica Anywhere and Everywhere
Almost everything was as usual at the Sbarro in Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan on Saturday night — the rumble of the 1 train could be heard and the aroma of greasy pizza was thick in the air. But something out of the ordinary was taking place at the pizzeria, part of a chain typically disdained by New Yorkers: a night of erotic readings.
“To be clear, this is not at all ironic,” said Matt Starr, one of the event’s organizers. “We wanted to take something that people typically do or read in private and bring it into a public, shared setting.”
Mr. Starr and Zack Roif, both 33, are the creators of a young series called the Perverted Book Club. The concept is simple, if unorthodox: Artists and writers read aloud (or in some cases, perform) selected works that loosely fit under the umbrella of erotica. Pieces read have included Amazon sex toy reviews, Beatles fan fiction and raunchy vintage love letters.
The reading at the Sbarro was Mr. Starr and Mr. Roif’s second. At their first — at Blue Door Video, an old porn shop in the East Village of Manhattan — one audience member passed out because of the steamy nature of one of the readings, according to Mr. Starr.
Mr. Starr said they hoped to host each Perverted Book Club gathering in a “nontraditional reading space.” That means no to bookstores, galleries and trendy bars, but yes to fast-food joints, sex shops and department stores — essentially, anywhere you wouldn’t expect to find New York’s literary scene.
A Sbarro pizzeria beneath Penn Station certainly seems to meet Matt Starr’s standard of a “nontraditional reading space.”Credit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times
In October, Mr. Starr, an artist and poet living in Manhattan, and Mr. Roif, an artist and creative director living in Brooklyn, started their own small press, called Dream Baby. Inspired in part by a YouTube-famous live punk show at a Denny’s and their mutual love of erotic literature, the two decided to create the Perverted Book Club.
Though a D.I.Y. ethos was central to the inception of the series, Mr. Starr and Mr. Roif said they wouldn’t mind some A-list-level attention. “We want to sell out Madison Square Garden,” Mr. Roif said. “We want to have 15 nights like Harry Styles.” According to Mr. Starr, dream readers for future dates include Sarah Jessica Parker, John Waters, Hugh Grant or “anyone from ‘Gossip Girl,’ but only the original.”
To reserve the Sbarro basement for their event, Mr. Roif had to place an order for $1,000 worth of pizza, a cost the two covered themselves. “We just view it as an investment for now,” he said. “We don’t want to charge a cover yet.”
On Saturday, as the crowd settled in — passing around slices, sucking on Ring Pops and sporting Perverted Book Club pins — the risqué readings began. Mr. Starr kicked off the night by announcing to everyone, “You are now officially perverts,” and read “Great Anonymous Sex,” from John Giorno’s book “You Got to Burn to Shine.”
Upstairs, all was normal: Tourists and families were eating pizza and drinking soda. Once in a while, throughout the evening, a stray child would wander downstairs, curious about all the commotion, but would quickly be scooped up by their parent who overheard some snippet of the night’s X-rated offerings, which included descriptions of nibbling, sucking, throbbing and more.
Jayson Buford, 26, a music journalist and writer, cracked the audience up with his reading of “Stapleton Sex,” a song by the rapper Ghostface Killah. “I always thought that rappers are terrible at rapping about sex, to point where it’s like, ‘Do you guys even have sex?’” Mr. Buford said in an interview. “So with my reading, I wanted to bring in something humorous and nasty.”
Mr. Buford said that a few weeks before the event, his mother had found out that he would be participating in it. “She texted me like, ‘I heard you were doing some erotic reading thing at Sbarro, the same one you used to go to as a kid before Knicks games,’” he recalled. While it could have been a peculiar full-circle moment, Mr. Buford said he didn’t fully believe his mother’s story, because “real New Yorkers don’t go to Sbarro.”
Amy Rose Spiegel, 32, read “Exodus,” a poem by Robyn Selman. “I think given that so much public discourse around sex right now is a little bit alarmist — focused on access to things like sex education, or looking at the ways in which sex has been vilified in the public eye — I really wanted to refocus on the idea of sex as screwball fun,” said Ms. Spiegel, the author of “Action: A Book About Sex.”
One reader was interrupted by a cry from someone upstairs, claiming that the bathroom was out of toilet paper. Another had to pause to allow a Sbarro employee to pass through with a bucket of ice.
Mr. Roif read aloud the results of feeding various dirty prompts through an A.I. text generator. What if “Love Actually” ended with a giant orgy? What if Tom Hanks’s character from “You’ve Got Mail” had a monologue about how he wanted to pleasure Meg Ryan’s Kathleen with the same intensity that he drove her small bookstore out of business?
Ena Da, who read at the club’s first meeting, said the event had opened her eyes “about erotica in general.”
“Hearing the other performances, I was like, ‘Oh, this is something that can be more lighthearted,’” she said. “And yes, it is a little uncomfortable at times to be hearing some of these descriptions, but it’s a discomfort that invites you to explore feelings more.”
If the goal of the evening had been to create the literary equivalent of a porno, or to titillate actual, card-carrying perverts, it would have been a colossalfailure. But if the goal was to make the case that sex could be fun and funny, that it could be something pondered about in a group setting, that it could be artful, then mission accomplished.
“I wanted to create something,” Mr. Starr said, “that would be horny, but sweet.”