How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir by Amber Dawn
Available at Polar Peek Books & Treasures in Fernie.- Reviewed by Angie Abdou for The Fernie Fix’s January 2014 Issue
I first heard Amber Dawn speak at the 2013 Vancouver Writers Festival. She blew me away. She inspired me. She moved me to tears. She gave me goose bumps. However you want to put it: she had my full attention. She made me think about stories that matter and writing without fear. I listened to her frank discussion about her life as a sex worker on the streets of Vancouver and her equally insightful reflection about her life working towards a Masters of Fine Arts at UBC. I listened to her explain the way those two lives – which seem so impossibly far apart – continue to intertwine and depend upon each other. I listened, and I thought: this woman is a force. This woman is just warming up. We’re going to hear a whole lot more from Amber Dawn.
Last month Amber Dawn’s second book How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir won the City of Vancouver Book Award. The book is a mix of prose and poetry, broken into three parts: 1.Outside (a stark and moving account of Amber Dawn’s life working the streets); 2.Inside (a record of the transition into the safer and higher paid indoor work which helped fund her education as a writer); and 3.Inward (a reflection on love). Amber Dawn invites readers to imagine or create a fourth section, a space to explore their own stories of survival and to speak out against injustice and imposed silence.
This memoir is Amber Dawn’s own rebellion against silence. With the release of her first novel, she penned a bio that revealed her experience touring with the Sex Workers’ Art Show. She also included the fact that she has won porn awards. Many suggested that she was “too forthcoming” about her private life and that her work would stand on its own without reference to her “controversial” past. Amber Dawn’s response to this not-so-subtle censorship is: “My writing does not stand on its own. My writing is comprised of the death, struggles, and the work, accomplishments, alliances, and love of many. My writing is indebted to queers and feminists, sex workers and radical culture makers, nonconformists and trailblazers, artists and healers, missing women and justice fighters. My writing stands with those who also have been asked – in one way or another – to edit their bios.”
How Poetry Saved My Life is a powerful book by a powerful woman. It articulates the connection between poetry and activism. She quotes Jeanette Winterson: “That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.” Amber Dawn’s poems “say how it is” to live the life of a sex worker.
Amber Dawn is not exaggerating, or speaking metaphorically, when she says poetry saved her life. She thanks the specific poetry teachers who saved her from death in the streets – Susan Musgrave, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Rhea Tregabov, Kate Braid. These are women I admire deeply – as poets and as good human beings. Of course, I love the idea that a poetry teacher can save a life. The romanticism of it! But there is nothing romantic about Amber Dawn’s memoir. Rather it is a call to action. She reminds readers that in big cities like Vancouver there are approximately 10,000 people, mainly women, working as prostitution-based sex workers, “and yet we rarely hear from them.” She complains that “to listen to and include sex workers’ voices in dialogue is a skill that we have not yet developed, just as we have not learned how to include the voices of anyone who does not conform to accepted behaviour or ideas.” The publication of How Poetry Saved My Life is an important part of a first wave of work giving voice to those lives. How Poetry Saved My Life is, indeed, “a finding place.”
At the end of her introduction, Amber Dawn thanks her earlier street-walking self: “I am extremely grateful that the young woman I once was had the tenacity to write shit down.”
I am extremely grateful that the woman Amber Dawn is now had the tenacity to publish this book, to speak with such candour about her life, and to refuse to edit her bio.
My 2014 resolution is to get Amber Dawn to the Fernie library to talk about her work. Not only do I want to hear more from this bold, forceful, creative and intelligent woman, but I want all of you to have the privilege too.