Sex workers, insist Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharme, need accurate representation. Public discourse leans on narrow ideas. Together, the two have had many conversations on how mainstream media supports toxic portrayals of their cohort.
“Somehow, that particular argument around labour and exploitation and fairness gets heavily laid upon sex workers,” Amber Dawn says. “I just think if people are going to talk about sex work, they need to better learn how to talk about the world, and talk about the systemic barriers that we all face as people trying to survive.”
Certainly, “there are outsiders that have a great critical analysis, but,” the acclaimed author and advocate adds, “they’re still outsiders.”
Over coffee with the Straight in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Amber Dawn and Ducharme are discussing the volume they edited, Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry. Featuring more than 50 contributors from North America, Europe, and Asia, the book offers diverse and nuanced glimpses into the lives of self-identified sex workers, past and present.
The selections span form and content and are the efforts of emerging writers and established names, including Gregory Scofield, Tracy Quan, and Mercedes Eng. One of the aims here, Ducharme remarks, was to show “varied experience with sex work. We also knew that we were taking poems that weren’t even about sex work, just by sex workers—poems about community, poems about trauma, poems about love.”
The venture grew from talks Amber Dawn and Ducharme, a filmmaker and published poet, had after he shot “Positions”, his 2018 short that drew on his time in the trade. (Amber Dawn chronicled her experiences as a sex worker in her 2013 autobiography, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, which won the City of Vancouver Book Award. Writing in multiple genres in her literary career, she was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for her 2015 collection, Where the words end and my body begins.)
By that point, the two, then colleagues at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, were aware of their respective backgrounds and soon devised an outreach strategy for the project. Contacting community-builders and sex-worker-led organizations in Canada and abroad as part of their call for submissions, they were encouraged by the response. “The utmost important thing to the both of us as editors,” Ducharme says, “was the work that we were getting, that we were being trusted with by this community. It was overwhelming how many people were wanting to take up space in this narrative.”
As Amber Dawn writes in her foreword to Hustling Verse, “Just read the ad copy for our business hustle and you’ll find poetry. Just follow #sexwork on Twitter and you’ll find poetry. Just visit the staff room of a club or parlour or porn studio (well, don’t, actually, unless you work there) and the workers will be spitting poetry.”
The “for us, by us” ethos behind the collaboration eschews sensationalism and demonstrates real flair and depth of feeling. Pluma Sumaq’s “You especially” blazes with imagery and lyricism, describing the larger world as it attests to the regard the narrator holds for peers.
Reflecting the link between environment and labour, Raven Slander’s “West End Sex Workers Memorial” addresses public space and personal history. In “beatitudes”, by kiran anthony foster, a letter from child to parents emphasizes that ignorance about gender has resulted in distance.
“Queerness is very prevalent throughout the book,” Amber Dawn says, “and we didn’t know that would happen. But it turned out that so many of our contributors were somewhere queer-spectrum-identified. Nonnormativity was a very high theme in so many of those poems.”
The transactional aspects of the profession are broached in pieces like Akira the Hustler’s “Excerpts From a Whore Diary”. Kay Kassirer’s “Sex Work Client” discloses the conscious and unconscious forces influencing an escort and the eponymous figure.
Though wit and bawdiness dance through Hustling Verse, as in Keva I Lee’s “Triple F Threat”, perhaps the strongest impression of these pages is of care, whether for oneself or another. “C y n i c i s m” , by Lester Mayers, is a smouldering depiction of a provident high-school student juggling violent johns and homework. Naomi Sayers writes hauntingly, in “A Memory I Need to Talk About”, of a now deceased father who drove his daughter to her job at a strip club so as to avoid her hitchhiking to work.
The anthology, Ducharme notes, “is testament to how brilliant and thought-provoking writing by sex workers is, whether they’re writing about sex work or not. It’s just good poetry. We wanted it to exist so badly, for us and for everyone else that was famished for these types of stories coming from this community—narratives that are controlled by the people they’re about.”
There are plenty of reasons, Amber Dawn observes, why sex workers remain invisible. “And out of all the different types of art forms, to call yourself a poet—there are a lot of barriers to that.
“Poetry is, by some, considered very niche, or a very rarefied art form,” she continues. “So it’s like we’ve brought these two underdog or invisibilized things together, and it absolutely works.”
A book launch for Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry takes place on Tuesday (November 19) at the Roundhouse Arts and Recreation Centre. To see details and to register, go to the Vancouver Writers Fest's website.