The Institute of Contemporary Art presented Exaggerated Claims: Power and Pleasure in Poetry in partnership with its exhibition Decriminalized Futures, exploring the experience of sex workers through visual art. The event featured a pre-recording of the work of six poets, Aisha Mirza, Mercedes Eng, Maya Martinez, Irene Silt, Paige Murphy, and Cassandra Troyan. This was accompanied by a live reading and Q&A from a seventh, moderated by Paige Murphy, one of the evening’s poets and its organizer.
Murphy commenced the evening by introducing the recording. In their speech, Murphy informed the audience of the precariousness of working in the sex industry, citing instances of strip clubs in England and Scotland being shut down by city government which put the strippers who work there out of business. They explained how legal measures taken by the government to prevent sex trafficking are often inefficient and succeed only in further criminalizing sex work and making it even more difficult for sex workers to find safe work. With this in mind, Murphy aimed to use the evening as a platform to safely and openly discuss the experience of sex work. They drew the audience's attention to the fact that each speaker spoke openly of sex and sex work, and appreciated the various different tones that these poets took on to discuss the subject.
The recording started with the work of Aisha Mirza. Mirza’s poem was an explanation of their decision, as someone who is gender-nonconforming, to pierce their nipples. The poem altered quickly between playfully colloquial and serious. Mirza’s poetry expressed someone who is trying to stay light-hearted and humorous in the daunting face of gender normativity, body dysmorphia, and the expectation that people born with uteruses should have children.
Mirza was followed by Mercedes Eng, who started their reading with a land acknowledgment, and a brief history of violent crimes against sex workers in Canada, where they were from. Their work was a musing that focused on the everyday experience of being mixed race, queer, and a sex-worker. Their first poem was a reflection on attending protests about violence against sex workers. They concluded with a poem entitled, ‘My Body,’ an ode to the nuances, complications, and contradictions of their intersectional identity.
Maya Martinez was up next. Phoning in from Florida, Martinez’s raspy drawl drew out the syllables of her poetry. Martinez’s poetry is fragmentary, alternating between different moments with nothing to anchor the listener but her striking voice, speaking boldly and bluntly about the comforts and regrets of sex in turn.
The next speaker, Irene Silt, chose to appear in the recording only in silhouette, her image indicated only by her shadow on the wall. Silt wrote soulfully about the potential dangers of sex work, such as violent clients. She wrote about the guilt that comes with being willing to engage in such intimate behavior with strangers, or clients that one doesn’t trust, solely for the sake of money.
Murphy was the next reader, reading a collection of short works. She employed a frank, open register in her poetry. The short nature of all her poems allowed her to explore a multiplicity of different sensations, experiences, and struggles associated with female sexuality.
The final participant in the recording was Cassandra Troyan, a professor researching sexual violence, sex work, capitalism, and resistance. Troyan’s work dealt mainly with feminism, exploring social relations between men and women, as well as citing areas where feminist theory had failed or excluded sex workers. They gave the example of Andrea Dworkin, who has made derogatory remarks towards prostitutes several times. She finished with a poem about the conflicts and complications within the relationship between a sex worker and her client.
Once the recorded readings had finished, the event shifted to the live portion, a dialogue between Murphy and poet Suzanna Slack. They discussed how Slack’s poetry expressed her radical politics, such as her frustration with the state of the family in modern society. Slack also spoke about her own journey in self-publishing her poetry during the COVID pandemic. They concluded with a reading from Slack, her poem centered around the experience of working with a male executive to develop a film about sex work, and her frustration that the executive refused to listen to listen to her or accurately portray her experiences. However, the poem had a meandering, disillusioned feel. Reminiscent of works by modernists such as T.S. Eliot, the poem seemed to be a reckoning with alienation and the fragmentary experience of day-to-day life, told through the lens of her experience with sex and sex work.
Overall, the event was startling in depth and complexity. With each speaker, one could see that they were completely vulnerable with their emotions and beliefs; nothing was reserved or held back. This led to a contradiction among the tones and thoughts of the speakers, or, equally, contradictions within their own works. And yet, those contradictions seem to give an incredibly open, human face to a subject that’s so often hidden away or turned into a symbol. Poetry seemed like the perfect medium for such discussions, giving the speaker the tools to express the profound depth of emotion that comes with sex and sex work in both the most lyrical, rhetorical expressions, or, equally potent, the simplest turns of phrase.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor