“Poetry is transformative,” says Hustling Verse co-editor Justin Ducharme in the marketing material for the anthology of poetry by sex workers, “I believe this book can change minds.”
The sixty poets of Hustling Verse are all current or former sex workers, whether strippers, porn actors or other performers, dungeon workers or escorts, occasional or full-time prostitutes working both on or off the street. Many, as it goes, are from otherwise marginalized communities. All of them express something powerful here about their visceral understanding of the ways human beings are.
A lot of Hustling is excellent in form, style and content. Many of the poets are experienced artists, including students of Amber Dawn. The resulting collection combines traditional structured poetry, contemporary free verse styles, and various experiments with cadence, enjambment and white space. The result is a strong and interesting collection of poetics. The few poems that aren’t as technically provocative or precise still offer engaging, crucial narratives.
Ultimately, it’s the content throughout that will get to you. Each poet brings their perspectives, humour, best or worst moments, in narratives that pull you close or lyrics that ensnare. The poets often cover expected topics, like traumas and the social work system, immigration and safety, fear and cops, religion and drugs, with brutal insight and soulful clarity, expanding moments in time to let us in and connect. As jaye simpson writes in “red”: “he is desperation / & i, necessity.”
Other topics, like coworkers and sex toys, community and family, budgeting and drudgery, kinks and role-play and sexual skills, are sometimes presented so engagingly and elegantly, you might forget society wants you to vilify sex workers. Until the poet themself reminds you.
In K. Sedgemore’s “A John’s Funeral,” the etiquette for sex workers to commemorate a long-time client’s death is unclear, but it clearly isn’t supposed to include existing in front of their friends and family. Raven Slander’s “West End Sex Workers Memorial,” shows how the past is ever-present, and the present can end in an instant:
a bronze plaque
Finally this for us
In the end
a red-light tomb
A car slows
my breath sharpens
Those poems about less physical or sexual connections remind the reader even more deeply about their biases. Naomi Sayers’ dad keeps her safe by driving her to her strip club job in “A Memory I Need to Talk About,” and Akira the Hustler, in “Excerpts from A Whore Diary,” helps an elderly client relive one shy, intimate moment with someone long gone: “Old man, were my lips warm like his?”
Unfortunately, counter to Ducharme’s hopes, the readers most likely to find and see inside this anthology are those whose minds least need changing.
So, here’s my idea: Get yourself a copy, then buy a second if you can. Slip it into the book exchange in front of your town’s grocery, a little free library in the suburbs, between the real estate magazines at your hospital’s gerontology office. Leave it at the free clinic, or on your MP’s desk. Give one to your mayor or police chief.
Many may end up in recycling, but a book can only change the minds it reaches. This one needs to reach more.
AJ Dolman is the author of Lost Enough: A collection of short stories and two chapbooks of poetry, and co-editor of Motherhood in Precarious Times, an anthology of non-fiction, essays and poetry. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in journals, magazines and anthologies, including Imaginary Safe House, Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, Canadian Ginger, Hamilton Arts & Letters, Grain and Arc Poetry Magazine. Twitter: @ajdolman
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.