Muzzle Magazine has been publishing writing and poetry ‘of revolution and revelation’ for over a decade. Resisting the idea that a literary magazine should have a fixed aesthetic, theme or style. The Sex Issue published in 2013 is no exception, bringing together poems “that use sex as a lens through which to understand ourselves and our relationships, poems that want to communicate the human as a wanting creature.” We asked our writers to explore the whole issue and let us know what they thought.
Content warning: there is (not unexpectedly) some sexual themes and references below.
When something is titled in such a fashion, meaning it tells you point blank what you're going to get from it, there's always a little concern that the contents is going to be as unimaginative as its title. But this wasn't a problem for Muzzle, The Sex Issue was exactly what I was expecting and more.
It is full of poetry about, you guessed it, sex! Each one is an individual dedication to the complexities, heartbreak and passion that sex can inhabit. The story two bodies can make when they meet is laid out in such beautiful and varying ways, that I am glad to have the opportunity to experience it.
‘The First Time You Fuck Your Best Friend's Mother’ is a personal favourite of mine. Telling the story of a younger man who's sexual development has been tainted (for better or perhaps for worse) by the mother of his best friend. The author Melissa Newman-Evans perfectly captures the confusion and hurt the narrator is going through as he battles with his own guilt for his acts. His inability to stop because of a need this older woman fulfills in him, and how he in turn is fulfilling a need in her.
In contrast to this, we find works like Scott Beals ‘Yes Yes Yes’, which is a whirlwind of what I feel is a reignited passion between lovers of many years. It takes domesticity like clothes in the dryer and hat stands, even utensils in a drawer and makes it all seem sensual. To me, it paints a picture of a couple who married young, who have white picket fences and 2.5 children and no real time to themselves but are trying to rediscover the exciting fizz of a new romance, even while there are chores to be done.
The Sex Issue is filled with poets who are challenging a topic most would view as taboo and it shows. Sex isn't a dirty word here, and even when it is, all other words are made dirty too. There is a note from the editor attached in which she says; "Because sex is so very common and weighted by norms, it tends to come with a pre-approved vocabulary and set of moral standards". I think what I love about this edition of Muzzle is that they have chosen works that deliberately reject this vocabulary and these standards.
How many of us would consider comparing bodies to data code, or love to a bucking ocean, as approved ways to discuss sex? How many would hear of topics like infidelity, women using strap-ons, or people masturbating in their synagogue toilets while filled with religious guilt, and consider them a moral standard they aspire to? Likely not many, which is why I think The Sex Issue is such a joy to consume. Because breaking the mold and defying a system that tells us what can, and what can't, be said about something is both fun and necessary.
I love to read about sex to be honest with you. It’s a universal experience that many of us have taken part in, but which is also incredibly unique to the individual partners. That’s what makes reading about it so fascinating, learning how others perceive and experience these moments and interactions.
The thing with poetry, for me, is that it all depends on the title. If the title piques my interest, it will usually be worth a read. I know that goes against everything we were taught, not to judge a book by its cover (or a poem by its title), but titling a poem with ‘Strapping It On’ is obviously going to make me want to read it. It actually turned out to be a really beautiful piece on the intimacies of female sex, discussing the topic in a way that completely detached from the usual stigma that accompanies it (which tends to be less intimate and tender and more rough and hypersexualised in a negative way). It was a nice way of thinking about an often taboo topic that isn’t typically portrayed in a romantic light.
Reading on, I never knew there were so many ways you can talk about semen, and in such beautiful manners. “I just wanna empty you like a jug of homemade juice” is a very relatable sentence that I feel really encapsulates the beauty of sexual desire, how these aren’t just forbidden subjects that cannot be celebrated. “He handed me everything…his air, his heir, his liquid legacy” is genuinely a really great and poetic way of referring to semen. I love it.
I can’t say that I was gripped by every poem in the collection. Some of the titles didn’t thrill me, and some of the content didn’t resonate with me, but with a collection of poems this big that was inevitable. Not all of the pieces can be beautiful explorations of the human form – there are a few that evoke a certain type of melancholy, almost a yearning, that can be present in intimate relationships. It’s interesting to compare and contrast between the writers as to how they explore these themes. In some pieces it is an achingly obvious presence, in others it is a slow-burn, almost dormant until brought to the surface in the final lines of the poem.
The Sex Issue really delves into the multiple aspects of sexual relationships, with others and ourselves, and provides glorious insights into these moments. As I said earlier, not every single poem ‘tickled my fancy’ but it is art and art is subjective, right? The ones that shone out to me provided really interesting metaphors for acts and situations that tend to come with the stigma of being crude. If you happen to be like me, and think reading about sex in any capacity is great, then take a look. Alternatively, even if you don’t, still give it a read and maybe you will open yourself up to new pleasures.
When I was told I was going to be doing a review of sex poems that weren’t purely about the erotic, I was intrigued. Muzzle Magazine’s The Sex Issue aims to defy preconceived notions of sex being purely about lust, desire, and horniness. It, instead, looks to explore, as guest editor Emily Rose Kahn-Sheahan writes, the more nuanced aspects of “family, relationships, trauma and the reasons we seek pleasure”. The poems here show that there’s more to sex than the big-o: there’s intimacy, vulnerability, shared privacy, and even sometimes it’s a big ol’ mess that leaves you feeling the ick.
The poems here are, at times, gorgeous depictions of longing and confession and at other points wincingly grotesque. They delve into a range of sexual experiences from female desire to homoerotic fantasies, sex with a strap-on, masturbation, and casual sex. And what I loved most was that none of the poems relayed the same topic; each one was a unique experience of the poet. Each poem showed a want for something, be that care, power, a release from a repressed self, or purely pleasure. This need is often instinctual, a compulsion.
In ‘rites of seepage’ by Taylor Mardis Katz, sex is seen as a poetic impulse. The object of desire is compared to a gratin, “skinful baked in cheeses and the clippings”. However, her aroma is “more than whiskers bent or basting meat”; it’s a wholly tantalising sensation that makes the poet almost vampire-like when declaring this “meal” (sex) is a “birthright / like the bleeding of the thumb when lover / sucks the cut”. Sex is seen for its carnal glory here through a stream-of-consciousness lucidity.
Sex is also stripped of its eroticism in the poem ‘The Snail Scene’ by Scott Beal. By comparing human embrace to snail fornication, Beal elicits the utter bareness of sex. Pressed together, the snails are “more naked than naked, glistening pink organs” and the optical tentacles, like an erect penis, “curls and probes”. This image shows the utter exposure of ourselves in intimacy, the outside on show to the other, removed from our shell. The second Scott Beal poem ‘Yes Yes Yes’ is another take on the vulnerability of sex, shown as an awakening: “bodies freed from glaciers / touched again and again.”
There’s also a performative aspect of sex that poems like ‘Strapping It On’ by Sasha Warner-Berry explore. Here, a lesbian couple play rock-paper-scissors to determine who will wear the strap-on. The subject aims to subvert the legacy of the cock as a symbol of power, to make sex more co-operative, like a “thrust dance”. Even the poem ‘demon blues’ by Sean Patrick Mulroy is performative in that the subject details how he wants his sex scene with a man who’s just been released from prison to play out. The man he likes is a sexy Tom Waits type with torn jeans and rose tattoos. And when he hears him sleeping with an ex-girlfriend, he can’t help but imagine that the sex noises he’s making are how he thought they’d sound, with him.
Overall, I thought this issue explored the more complicated elements of sex in an engaging way without being overly explicit. I liked the focus on how sex is an equal exchange; that it’s as much a way of understanding yourself as it is understanding someone else. An insight into our kinks, their kinks, our ways we want to be touched, theirs, our fantasies, and their fantasies too.