I came to know Dorianne Laux’s poetry through a recommendation from another poet. Upon reading “The Lovers” (read it online here), I felt excited to find a writer who treated sex as more than a physical act, and in her writing as more than a cliche or a shock to get her audience’s attention. She manages to connect all parts of sexuality within a few lines–the bodies, the emotions, and the physical space. If you don’t believe me, read what Matthew Dickman had to say about her in his interview about sexuality in writing. But don’t take my word or anyone else’s. Read it for yourself. Then come back and read Dorianne’s insight into writing about a part of our lives than many are afraid to touch on.
Is it scary to write about sex and sexuality?
Some of my first poems about sexuality were about abuse and incest, so yes, that was scary. And some were about sexuality during the sixties, a time of cultural sexual awakening. There was a sexual freedom during that time—freedom from judgment, freedom for females to choose partners vs. waiting to be chosen, freedom from pregnancy and marriage, from A.I.D.S. Books like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, The Joy of Sex, Masters and Johnson, The Sensuous Woman. Not to say this was a halcyon time, but it was more open that the time that preceded it and I felt the change and became part of it, so it seemed natural to write about sex. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have some hesitations, but they weren’t strong enough to keep me from writing as deeply and joyously about that aspect of life as any other.
Have you ever found you were censoring your sex writing because you were afraid of what your audience would think? Your husband? Your daughter?
I have had to censor myself when reading poems on the radio or for young audiences. My husband likes my sex poems. Especially the ones I’ve written for him! He does sometimes get a bit embarrassed, as I do when he reads poems about me, but again, not enough to censor ourselves.
What is the best response you’ve received from your audience?
Well, concerning sex poems specifically, I once read to a college crowd, and when I left the reading, two young people were kissing in an alcove and he was telling her how listening to my sex poems made him want to take her straight home and she said, “Yeah, me too, let’s go!”
What does sex do for a poem?
It merely includes an aspect of human life. All species have sex, in every conceivable way. To exclude it would seem strange to me, though many poets do.
Do you think men get away with more when writing about sex than women?
I’m not sure. I haven’t read that many poems about sex by men. I do love Cavafy.
How does writing about sex in poetry differ from writing about sex in other genres?
Again, I’m not sure. I think for anyone writing about sex in any genre, it would hold true that it’s very difficult to get it right, to get to the heart of it, to describe it in a way that goes beyond the physical act.
What is the best poem about sex/sexuality you’ve ever read?
I’m not sure about “ever” but I love “Reunion” and “Kalaloch” by Carolyn Forche. I love so many of Sharon Olds’ sex poems it’s difficult to choose from among them. Sharon is more direct than Forche, and yet the poems use more comparison as a way to get at it, simile on simile, and humor, whereas Forche uses more elision, employs the landscape, mood, tone, texture, the environment, as a way in.
What’s the best advice you have for young women interested in writing about sex?
To know from the outset that it’s difficult to write well about sex. It’s easy to be flowery or crass, overly romantic or pornographic, harder to avoid the clichés and write deeply and honestly in a language that actually embodies the true mystery that sexuality is. It’s difficult to find that language. I read a lot of women writers, women poets, those who had come before me, and learned from them. Sappho is a good place to start. Anne Sexton. Jane Hirshfield has translated a number of women poets who wrote about sex with abandon: The Ink Dark Moon by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems. I read Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forche, who both write about sexuality beautifully and openly.