Let’s Read About Sex


The New York Times asked novelists, memoirists, and poets for their thoughts on writing and reading about sex. Brenda Shaughnessy and D.A. Powell served as the representative poets.

When asked, “What makes a good sex scene?” Shaughnessy, in part, replied:

Where Duras (even in translation) feels languid and wanton, hot and bothered, Woolf seems so Victorian, fanning herself and huffing, “Oh my, oh my!” These examples seem just another virgin/whore arrangement, an imperative that women write about sex as if we are all either libertines or prudes, either spread out all over the bed (page) like Duras, or scolding ourselves like Woolf (“Oh I mustn’t!”) while swooning, scribbling, “She was wearing pink gauze — was that possible?”

The best sex writing must use more of us than that. Like magic, I happened upon a new poem by Natalie Diaz. It’s called “These Hands, if Not Gods,” and it’s a game changer. When I read it I felt liberated, empowered: those feminist adjectives that don’t quite scan onto “The Lover” or “Mrs. Dalloway.”

I don’t think poets get recognized enough for how we write about sex, so I love that Shaughnessy highlighted “These Hands, if Not Gods” by Natalie Diaz, which I agree is hot. It begins:

Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?

And wasn’t that good?
Them at your hips—

isn’t this what God felt when he pressed together
the first Beloved: Everything.
Fever. Vapor. Atman. Pulsus. Finally,
a sin worth hurting for. Finally, a sweet, a
You are mine.

D.A. Powell cited novelists, Erica Jong and Colleen McCullough, for enlightening  him when asked, “What was your first illicit reading experience?”. Read all of the responses here.


Jonterri Gadson is the author of the chapbooks, Interruptions(MIEL, 2014) and Pepper Girl (YesYes Books, 2012). She is the recipient of scholarships/fellowships from Bread Loaf, Cave Canem, University of Dayton and the University of Virginia's Creative Writing MFA program. Her poetry is forthcoming or published in Los Angeles Review, Callaloo, The Collagist, Anti-, PANK and other journals. She is an Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. More from this author →