In a graduate school workshop, I remember a conversation breaking out about "shock value" in relationship to one of my poems. I actually don't remember which poem now, but the conversation began by questioning if certain parts of my poem were there only as "shock value." Underneath this conversation was a layer of homophobia. I'm not necessarily saying the people who were raising these concerns were homophobic (I don't think they were), but there's no denying that these kinds of questions were partly raised about my poem because I was writing about gay sex. Had the poem been about straight sex, there's a good chance this conversation would never have happened.
When you write about subjects people find "uncomfortable" or topics outside of that person's "norm," you are often accused of being shocking or writing about such subjects to get that kind of response from people. As if you are responsible for their reaction. You are often immediately put in the position of defending your work, or feeling the need to explain what your work is doing.
I've seen this many times since leaving graduate school. My first book of poems included many poems dealing not only with gay sex, but also violence and sexuality (which makes people even more uncomfortable). Before the book got published, I had some fears that people would label the work "shocking" or "overly sexual" or "pornographic" and would ignore all the literary things happening in the book (the play off other works, the many references, the questioning of the lines between sex and violence, etc.).
In reality, most people didn't do this. They saw the full picture of the book and didn't write it off as "shocking." Though, I did find a few readers were not uncomfortable about the sex, but were uncomfortable with my discussion of race in the book, which I didn't anticipate. This also goes to the idea that some hold that white people shouldn't write about race (as if it is not your place to have any thoughts or comments). Obviously, I don't believe this, and I've continued to write about race. In fact, my new book project I started working on this spring is focused on race, so look forward to that.
What I've learned, however, is that writing the uncomfortable is important to me. I strive to write about those things people often don't want to talk about or think about and because of that some will turn away from my work or might misunderstand it. I've also found that some people aren't very close readers and want to take some of my poems at face value. A lot of work has a playfulness about it that some readers have missed due to perhaps their own hangups about sex or race or whatever the topic.
In my new book, coming out in September, I take on marriage, but not in the way some might expect. I question the idea of marriage. I question if one should want to get married. If fighting for marriage equality was the right step for the gay rights movement. I question what it means to be queer and married. I try to ask the hard questions, not to shock, but to make you think and to make myself think.
As a writer there is only so much control you have over your reader and their response and that can be hard to thing to come to terms with. You have to put the work out there and hope for the best. Most writers, whether they admit it or not, want great reactions from everyone even though that's not really possible. As my career has continued, I've had to find ways to be comfortable with the reactions I get from my work and to trust that good readers will see the work for what it is.