How to Take of Your Clothes is a book of a poetry by the Hadassah Grace, a former stripper who says she’s not a big fan of poetry.
The US-born Kiwi says she wrote the poems through some tough years and some wonderful ones.
Grace tells Lynn Freeman she often writes from the point of view of being an outsider, which owes partly to her unique childhood.
“I was raised by some minor Christian celebrities. My parents were travelling Christian folk singers in the 1970s who went all over the world.
Christianity was a big part of her life during high school, but she later rebelled.
“Which is fun when you’re someone who embraces things like metaphor and those sorts of literary tricks. Contradictions can be really fun to play with.”
Despite saying she’s not terribly interested in reading poetry, she’s keen to clarify there is some “amazing” poetry out there that she does enjoy.
“I just think it’s one of those genres where there’s also a lot of really awful stuff,” she laughs.
Grace’s mother and grandmother were both writers and have put out books of poetry.
“It kind of runs in the blood, but so does mental illness unfortunately.”
She says writing the book helped keep her sane through some tough times.
“People say catharsis, for me it’s more of the discipline of sitting down to create something. I find it really important because I’m someone who can just kind of float off into space. So, saying I’m going to sit down every day and create something was very good for me in times where I was struggling.
“Poetry actually came about because poems are quite short and it was very easy to craft something start to finish – obviously I go in and add to it later – but in terms of the creation of things it became very easy and I found that I enjoyed it and I was quite good at it and it kind of just went from there.”
She says her poetry is all autobiographical and much of it stems from her experience in the sex industry.
“There’s some stuff about politics, but most of my political views come from the life that I’ve lived, and I think that can be a really nice way to explore those things.
“Poetry in particular, I think when you’re talking about something very difficult, confronting topics, the ability to step back a bit – whether that’s through metaphor, a story, or however else you want to do that – it can, for the reader, make that a little bit more comfortable. As a writer it means you can push a little bit further because you’re not hitting people over the head with your feminism or your politics or these really extreme experiences that you’ve been through. Rather, you’re taking a step back and saying ‘imagine this’.”
However, not all the poems are negative and she says she had some wonderful experiences as a stripper.
“I have some customers that I’m still in touch with just because they were lovely people who I got along with and at the time I was working I appreciated their custom, and now I appreciate them as people.”
One of her poems, ‘Men who pay to touch me’, is made up of one line comments from customers such as “You’re too fat to be a stripper”, “Why can’t I touch you”, “Why won’t you kiss me”, “Oh my God, marry me”. She says all the comments were made in a 48-hour period.
“I worked a really busy Friday and Saturday shift and just wrote down everything everyone said and then picked through and found all the best and worst. I wanted to get across how full on that can be to get all of those different things.
“I was quite old when I came to stripping, I was 27. But I think about girls starting when they’re 18, just out of high school and how confronting that would be. But on the other hand, I think that’s a really powerful example of what it’s like to be a woman in this society. It’s just that we’ve condensed it into Friday and Saturday night in a loud club as opposed to what you get over the course of a lifetime.”
People tend to imagine that being a stripper is all dancing and “intense experiences,” she says. But around 80 percent of the job is just talking, and that’s where most of the money comes from.
“If you’re seeking out clients who are going to spend a lot of money on you, you’re wanting them to book you for very long periods of time. My longest was 12 hours - that’s quite uncommon - but you’re wanting three to five-hour bookings and you’re obviously not going to be dancing for that whole time. I’m sure some women could, I couldn’t, so you’re trying to encourage conversation and often that’s what customers want – someone to talk to.”
Grace says she has a policy where she tries not to talk about the “bad stuff” too much.
“Not because I don’t want to be honest about it, more because I feel like it can often take on a little bit of a voyeuristic aspect where people are salaciously asking ‘what’s the worst thing anyone’s ever done to you’ and you think ‘well, actually you asking is pretty gross.’
“But, I don’t want to sugar coat it, it’s a very difficult industry. It’s emotionally tiring, it’s physically tiring, the hours are awful, and of course there are some awful people out there. Alcohol tends to encourage that and there’s a lot of hatred towards sex workers in our society.”
How to Take Off Your Clothes is the first title from Dead Bird Books Publishing. Hadassah Grace will be doing a series of book launches across the country in early April.
Fisher of men by Hadassah Grace
It's the little things that keep me sane
The way lipstick feels twisting up out of the tube
A slight resistance of the cheap plastic casing
How men stutter when I lean in close
Or cradle their eyes for a second too long
The light on my cell phone that blinks
When I have a new message
When I was a little girl, Jesus told me
He would make a fisher of men
My net is wide
Woven from the smell of sweat
The angles of my wrist
The stretching highway of my thighs
Teach a girl to fish and she'll never go hungry