Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019) showcases the literary talent of almost five dozen self-identified current or former sex workers (an umbrella that includes stripping, phone sex, full-service, etc.). The autobiographical thrust of Hustling Verse renders slut-shaming absurd and delivers a kind of reality check that only sex workers can.
Sedgemore’s poem, “A John’s Funeral,” for example, is a fond tribute to a client who “paid fucking well / and tipped too, also a great fuck” —one hundred and eighty degrees from the “violent john” bogeyman used to infantalize or concern-troll consenting adult sex workers. Hysterika’s “Going to Hell” revels in hedonism and not only eschews judgement but mocks the judgemental for their lack of imagination: “Twerking for Jesus / And his hair is metaphorically tied back in a gorgeous yoga man bun.”
Kiran Anthony Foster’s “beatitudes” reckons as much with societal fears of intersex bodies as it does with the revolution of living and loving in spite of those fears: “bones that x-rays say are ten years older than my body”; surgeons rationalizing, “you’re not normal and we need to fix it.” With “Beloved Boy,” Milcah Halili adds celebration to the revolution with glittering metaphors of fashion, sexuality, and plans for nonbinary fatherhood: a “seahorse daddy / and my wife’s baby is inside me.”
Hustling Verse includes chroniclers, too—witnesses and comrades who leave no stone unturned or unorganized. Lavender’s brilliant found poem “Industry” collects and warps the language of adult want-ads, from earnest quirks to deeply problematic demands: “Not natural Ds, enhanced please. Not 125 / want tiny please. Not 27, new young please.” Stickie Stackedhouse shoots from the hip and takes aim at a lack of empathy in “to my clients who tell me i look tired,” a list poem bursting with built-up responses to tedium, repetition, and the grind of emotional labour.
Irene Wilder offers a demonstration of history, mysticism, and survival that gives Hustling Verse its natural epicentre. “Ode to a hooker, without the usual vocabulary” sculpts a tribute to a time “Long before women were monsters,” when sex workers were revered as “the sickle-edged moon, / mean-mouthed, no easy lay.” The subsequent poem, “Meat,” celebrates the material well-being that follows from that kind of radical autonomy and independence: “Someday I will write a sex work memoir” and “it will be / about how well I have eaten / since I started whoring.” Wilder’s praise for “great / ribbons of sausage links, tides / of bone broth” grafts the material and the reflective into a kind of flourishing, and suggests sex work’s capacity for the same.