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Book Reviews

Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry

by Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharme (eds.)

Resisting Canada: An Anthology of Poetry

by Nyla Matuk (ed.)


Last summer,
Vancouver-based poet Rita Wong was arrested alongside other environmental activists for blocking access to the Trans Mountain pipeline worksite. She received a 28-day prison sentence this August and was released in early September, having served 18 days. Wong is one of 28 poets featured in Resisting Canada: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Toronto-based poet Nyla Matuk. The poems challenge readers “to judge and resist a statecraft that refuses to acknowledge past and present wrongs.” To that end, the timing of Wong’s egregious imprisonment seems sadly fitting.

The book opens with a rigorously intersectional introduction by Matuk. Before outlining her curatorial approach, she discusses subjects like “the paternalistic politics of recognition/multiculturalism,” the centrality of land to the poetics of resistance, and how the Canadian state’s continuing colonization of Turtle Island encourages by extension “the ethno-nationalist Western settler project in Palestine.” Citing Frantz Fanon and the First Nations political scientist Glen Coulthard, Matuk writes that “recognition conferred to the colonized ‘without struggle or conflict’ is not real freedom.” This is not an anthology of cheeky bon mots about the scoundrels in Parliament, nor is it too interested in relitigating the nationalist project of Canadian literature; rather, Resisting Canada questions the integrity of Canadian statehood.

The contributors include a mix of early career and established poets divided into two sections, with Indigenous poets in the first section and non-Indigenous poets in the second. Both sections are varied in their poetic approaches to resistance, and reading the poems out of order also produces fortuitous harmonies. For instance, a private conversation seems to be taking place between Lee Maracle’s “Talking to the Diaspora” and Karen Solie’s “Bitumen,” two longer poems whose attentions linger on the unquantifiable costs and casualties of the pursuit of growth and so-called progress.

The excerpts from Jordan Abel’s Injun collate found texts into an expansive and often impersonal view of the representation of Indigenous peoples. On the surface, Abel’s arrangements have little in common with a poem like Billy-Ray Belcourt’s “Oxford Journal,” whose second-person descriptions of moving through the world are embodied, vivid, and more firmly rooted in the present. However, at their core, both poems are built around a single subject – a self, or a loaded word like “frontier” – that carries so many stories, places, and people within it that it is at risk of rupturing.

While the anticolonial politics of Resisting Canada might raise eyebrows in mainstream Canadian discourse, they are more or less consistent with the most vocal elements in Canadian poetry, particularly the emergent strain expressed in books like Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. What makes Resisting Canada stand out among other recent Canadian poetry anthologies is not simply its editor’s unapologetic polemicism or the defiant spirit of its poems but the way these strands are inextricably integrated.

An equally political but far more populist addition to the poetic canon is Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry, edited by Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharme. Whereas Resisting Canada foregrounds gestures of resistance present in the contemporary Canadian canon – most of its contributors are critically acclaimed and institutionally fêted – Hustling Verse seeks to shift the focus away from the canon entirely.

Many of the more than 50 poets in Hustling Verse are previously unpublished and, presumably due to the stigma surrounding sex work, pseudonymous. Inclusivity, rather than resistance or a particular view of sex work, seems to be the operating principle. In her foreword, contributor Mercedes Eng points out that “sex work exists on a spectrum.” Though her own experience was with the survival sex trade, she says, “modalities of sex work are many and mutable, as are we sex workers.”

Unlike Resisting Canada, the editors of Hustling Verse do not need to articulate a specific political mandate because the very act of sex workers telling their own stories absent outside mediation is political. Dawn makes a strong case that the inclusion of sex workers in the poetic canon is long overdue: “We’re highly expressive and engaged performers. We embody a dozen personas a night.”

It’s important to bear in mind that Hustling Verse is a poetry anthology by sex workers, meaning not every poem is necessarily about sex work. That said, many of these poems detail sex work in all its excitement and banality, its necessity and contradictions. Highlights include the taut couplets of Arabelle Raphael’s “Gospel” and the breathless prose pieces by Cassandra Blanchard and Natasha Gornik.

Rhanimalz’s poem “Fantasy Breakers” opens with resentment for a mainstream author being applauded for writing “about her intoxicating yet toxic / dalliance” with sex work. The speaker then provides an alternative view of sex work, where “the most titillating part” occurs after the men leave and she calls her best friend to vent: “you know that day when every client is named steve?” While a lot of sex work involves enacting clients’ fantasies, these poems foreground the humanity of the people who attend to others’ desires.