“What subjugates a population more than being criminalized? Having our stories told by outsiders.”
This is the line Amber Dawn stresses as she takes center stage at Skylight Books in LA with fellow editor Justin Ducharme to present Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry. Like all trailblazing firsts, this book has a history.
In 2013, Amber launched How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. At the time, poetry from sex workers was a niche market with a literary canon that could be counted on one hand. Years later, this was still the case. So she and Justin Ducharme took matters into their own hands. The result is the first poetry anthology by self-described sex workers.
Most eventual contributors were already writers or artists, but some of the first people Amber and Justin worked with had never thought of themselves as poets; one of the biggest challenges was convincing them they could be. The work was out there; sex workers were spouting poetry in staff rooms, on Twitter, in ads. And contrary to popular belief, they did not shy away from messiness and vulnerability in their stories. Still, across the publishing world they were more likely to be subjects than writers, and while online communities were vibrant, they were also under constant attack from a slew of censorship laws. Amber and Justin started by holding low-barrier writing workshops, but soon enough word of mouth was pulling in submissions from sex workers around the world, from first-time poets to established artists. It quickly became evident that although the poems ran the gamut between heartwrenching and hilarious, the stories themselves were a powerful force against the counternarratives spun in academia and pop culture.
“Amber Dawn and I would be in the depths of despair and be like…did you read that poem though?” Justin recounts. Hustling Verse represented a pushback, a way of banging the silverware to say I’m at the table too. And after months of work, the first stop in the book tour is Los Angeles, as part of Lambda Lit Fest, the city’s first LGBT+ literary festival.
Local poet Milcah Halili is the first to start the reading portion of the night.
When I’m a seahorse daddy
and my wife’s baby is inside me
I will remember how whores don’t let public mockery stop their glow. Hustlers
with pride keep hustling. Ang anak ko, I’ll tell my child, you come from generations
of hustlers who hustled so that you could be here today.
Be proud, I’ll whisper to my belly.
You are my whole world, mi amor.
You are beloved.
There are maybe forty of us seated in the audience, but applause also comes from listeners tucked between bookshelves and spilling onto counters. Garuda Love sweeps us up in a cadence of rounded vowels and a Southern-gothic drawl. jaye simpson stops twice to giggle over a memory of a handjob during the 2014 Godzilla movie, muttering a hope that the guy never reads this. Doug Upp embodies JLo, warbling out don’t be spooked by the pox on my cock, I’m still cheap thrill erik from the park. Courtney Trouble puts the gig economy on blast for breaking up a community of sex workers in Vegas. Keva I. Lee has the room cackling as she narrates dominatrix work, cracking eggs on clients and getting performance anxiety during a fart scene.
These are only a fraction of the poets featured in Hustling Verse. Fifty-six self-identified sex workers from across North America, Europe, and Asia are featured. Some are retired, some are still hustling. Some talk about grief, some about anger, some about justice. All of them are a different facet to the story that policymakers and social workers and Hollywood never told quite right.
Queer and indigenous voices are at the forefront. With both editors and a number of featured poets hailing from Canada, it is impossible to miss the positioning of sex work in relation to colonialism in the country. Systems of oppression echo, too, in pieces from Pluma Sumaq, who says “this is a poem about reaching past a locked gate, a secured fence, our own closed hearts, and knowing, we cannot stop the songs of migratory birds.” AK Saini describes her first meeting for sex worker activists as “soccer moms and libertarians. I am the only non-white person… I smash a pretty spinach bauble into my mouth, I am starved, I am not yet making enough money to eat consistent.”
But, to quote editor Amber Dawn, “every time a sex worker writes a poem we rise above subjugation.” And this assertion of self is evident throughout Hustling Verse, in lines that weave together pitted streets and dreams and healing.
Hustling Verse continues on tour across North America; with stops at Toronto’s Lula Lounge on October 16, and Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Centre on November 19.