Twenty minutes after last Friday's naked poetry reading was slated to begin, the event's emcee, Aurora Donovan Danai, walked onstage wearing a sweater and striped jeans. "It's going to be a while before we start, because we're like that," she announced. "Everyone is encouraged to be naked. So you can get yourself ready for that. Or think about it. There are too many people here with their coats on."
One of the first to take her advice in the drafty Lakeview loft space was a bald man who slipped into a small room, telling his friends, "Wait till you see my outfit." He came out in pretty much the opposite of what I think of as an "outfit": white as milk, the man had nothing on but leg and arm warmers and a black felt Mohawk held in place with a thin blue scarf.
Others followed, mostly men--including a dead ringer for Jesus who didn't flinch when he lowered his bare bum onto one of the cold metal folding chairs set up in front of the stage.
Half an hour later Danai made another announcement: "When you hear people read tonight, if you're feeling impatient--if their nudity is not enough to offer--you can go into the other room and talk." By now she was topless with red hearts painted on her breasts; on the bottom she wore a white tutu with pink-and-black-striped stockings. "When people finish, feel free to give them a score," she continued. "But make sure you give them a ten."
The Naked Poetry Anti-Slam, as this event was officially called, was Danai's brainchild. "I wanted to organize this as a way to promote audience patience for people who want to share their poetry that might not otherwise be listened to because either they are quiet, too sensitive, or too silly," she says. On the press releases and e-mail invites for the event Danai outlined the few rules: "No cameras / No gropers / No drunken pukers."
Danai is a poet and artist who paints what she calls "psychedelic art nouveau" murals for people's homes (see www.muralivegot.com). The 25-year-old Joliet native first got naked in public six years ago, when she took a job as an artist's model for a drawing class at Burkhart Studios, a coffeehouse and art gallery on Halsted.
"I was really nervous but I was like, well, it's nonsexual. It's not like I'm going to be violated," she says. "So I did it, and I thought it was great. After that I was like, 'OK, let's be naked.'" Last spring Danai, a Critical Mass regular, rode her bicycle topless a few times. "It was fun and weird and scary. A lot of people didn't see me and didn't care and a lot of other people freaked out. Mostly the white people freaked out." In June Danai helped organize the Chicago component of the World Naked Bike Ride.
She and friends occasionally disrobe and dance at parties, and last summer she joined the nudist group Topless Humans Organized for Natural Genetics (THONG), which holds parties and political actions to fight such evils as genetic engineering and bovine growth hormone.
For an exhibitionist, Danai is quaintly unforthcoming about herself. She has a day job, but she doesn't want to talk about it. "I don't want people to come in there looking for me," she says. She wasn't born with the names Aurora and Donovan, but she'd rather not have her given name in print. She changed her name on election day because "it seemed like an appropriate time to be all I could be," she says. "Aurora means the dawn, or light. The aurora borealis is magnetic light in the ionosphere. It's very powerful. And Donovan is my rock god." Danai used to be her middle name, "but it's appropriate," she says. "In Greek mythology, Danae was basically persecuted by her father. He locked her in a tower. Then Zeus showered her with gold and she got pregnant. I've always had to struggle with overbearing male energy in my life."
Last year she published a book of poetry with four titles: Blowing Sunshine up Your Ass, Dick-Shaped Turd, "something about God, and I don't remember the other name," she says. "All of my books have several titles. I make different book covers for all of them, so it's like TV Guide--it's the same on the inside, but it looks like a different book." She printed 100 copies, all of which she sold within two months. Her next book--which she can't afford to publish yet--is called Love Notes to Warlords and Weapons of Mass Creation.
Danai's been attending local poetry slams for a few years, but has never had an interest in reading. "I would go to poetry slams and events like that and people would just talk through the performances," she says. "They didn't even care about or have any respect for the people onstage." But when the readers are naked, she maintains, people tend to pay attention to what they're saying. "If it takes a sexual or some other kind of identification with a person to get you to listen to them, that's OK. I feel very strongly that at my reading, even though they might have come there to look at the cute naked girls, people were listening to people's words. It's profound when people realize that being naked doesn't make you more or less of who you are. We're not more sexual when our clothes are on or off."
About one out of five people were naked or partially so when the reading finally got under way at nine. Many of the poets read under pseudonyms: Ozkr Devilhorse, Betsey Chainsaw, Ellie Maybe, I Like Action!, Shawnecee Nation. But not Barrie Cole. She brought her two children onstage, pulled off her infant daughter's top, and then unbuttoned her own. She encouraged her daughter to nurse (she wasn't too interested) while reciting a pointed and funny piece about the places she'd suckled her two children (such as the Drake Hotel during high tea and at a Columbia College staff meeting). Her three-year-old son hid behind her throughout, clutching her pants (which were on her legs).
After each performance the audience made jazz hands and yelled "Ten!" Some poets came onstage naked, while others removed articles of clothing between poems; occasionally someone would yell, "Take it off!" and more often than not the reader would comply. Writer Travis Culley, author of 2001's The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, started off in an orange jumpsuit. Between poems he removed it to reveal another, blue jumpsuit, which he took off to reveal that he wasn't wearing underwear.
Danai announced that anyone who painted a poem on his or her body would have it read aloud by her. A thin man with gray hair called Just Joking Jerry came onstage and stripped off his fuck bush T-shirt, jeans, and boxer shorts to reveal a short antiwar poem on his chest. Danai read it, pausing at the final word, which was written on his penis. "Virtue," he whispered in her ear.
Then Danai slid her tutu off and read some of her own poetry, including a piece called "Sexuality Janitors."
"My head is the 800-pound elephant in the room that no one is looking at," it began. "The desire to make commodity reduces my love of the natural world into a woman pudgy from building boredom on a love diet, pointing out the glorious and unique facets of genitalia as purely iconic to an audience of sexuality janitors (regularly plunging their battalions into the toilet, hastily squeegeeing their fluids off of their lover-mirror and leaving her disinfected but stinking of chlorified toxification, thus cursing her so that nowhere would anyone not in a crisis spend time near her, let alone in her). The boys mope-mopping while leaving the conference, I am still standing with a pointer, hoping somewhere people will install whirlpools in public bathrooms, instead of this stasis of stink, a whirlpool resembling what I'd rather be doing, where my detachable penis is now dancing and rolling on the earth's curve in a 24-hour cyclical onastic lullaby."
More than 120 people attended the event. As the night wore on clothes piled up all over the place--in racks, on chairs, and on the floor. A couple of the naked men drinking wine, chatting, and applauding seemed unaware that they were partially aroused. Danai said that everyone behaved themselves and "we didn't have to kick anyone out."
But after midnight, when the chairs had been moved aside and the performance-art band Environmental Encroachment was playing (two members stripped down to their thongs), a naked man who'd been drinking slipped and fell on his face, which started to bleed. A registered nurse put on her shirt and tended to him while people scrambled to find his clothes and call the paramedics.
Then the cops came--first a pair, who left and returned about ten minutes later with five more, including a sergeant. "I don't even think people noticed that they were there," says Danai. "The cops seemed perplexed. A couple of them were smirking, like, 'God, what is this?'"
Danai, who claims she charmed her way out of an arrest last summer by visualizing the officers' chakras, put on her sweater and pants before speaking to the cops.
"I've never seen the cops turn around and leave a place so fast," says Dudley Bayne, a musician who helped Danai book the loft. "They gave us no trouble at all."
By the end of the night nearly everyone was dancing to the music of bhangra DJ Kenny Dread. According to Danai, "there were no clothed people left."
When things broke up around three, one man found that his shoes were missing; they'd inadvertently ended up on the guy who hit his head. "They were the same color but it was clear they were too small for his feet," says Bayne. "So he and I took a walk to the hospital. The staff was really nice and let us make the swap."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.