How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir
by Amber Dawn

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-551-52500-6.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 08/17/2013

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender

How Poetry Saved My Life is a gorgeous example of an emotional journey told in prose and various forms of poetry. Amber Dawn's memoir is an invitation to visit places that "have been made silent, small or wounded." For this Vancouver, British Columbia author, it is "the terrain of sex work, queer identity, and survivor pride."

Dawn invites readers to create a final section of How Poetry Saved My Life, exploring their own stories of survival and finding community. She has, in fact, scattered such challenges throughout the book.

It's not characteristic to see an author's photo on the cover of her book nor is it typical to read the memoir of a sex worker, even though Dawn estimates there are over 10,000, mainly women, in Vancouver, B.C. alone.

How Poetry Saved My Life opens with a quote by Jeanette Winterson from her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal:

A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. 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.

Dawn is indebted to "queers and feminists, sex workers and radical culture makers, nonconformists and trailblazers, artists and healers, missing woman and justice fighters for her writing." She says that her writing is comprised of the "struggles and accomplishments of many."

How Poetry Saved My Life is divided into three sections—Outside, Inside and Inward. Outside is a testament to "outdoor or survival street work." As Dawn says, "Crisis and creativity can be a potent combination." Inside is about her "safer" indoor work during which time she developed her voice and craft as a writer and paid for her university education in creative writing. Inward offers reflections on what it means to Amber Dawn to "gain personal reconciliation and closure."

The poem, "Oral Tradition," that opens the Outside section is a glosa. In a glosa, a poet builds on another poet's idea by beginning with four lines, as an epigraph, from the poet's poem. In this case, Dawn has been inspired by Irving Layton's "The Fertile Muck." Each of the four stanzas ends with one of the lines of Layton's poem.

"Oral Tradition" is a beautifully crafted poem with "two sensibilities mingling," as the late poet P. K. Page said of the glosa. In the poem, the narrator has come to know an emptiness as "fertile / soil that waits for fireweed and milk thistles."

"What Do Dreams About Flying Mean" is a pantoum with a particular pattern of line repetition. The first line becomes the last line—or in this case, the title is also the last line. "The poem circles back to its beginning, but with a deeper understanding," says Kate Braid, who mentored Dawn "into" the Creative Writing Department of the University of British Columbia. Dawn credits Braid as one of the several great poets "who did indeed save my life."

"How Poetry Saved My Life" is a poem in which Dawn expresses gratitude including for poetry, "The written word can be a further witness/if you've willing to show yourself." Amber Dawn sees putting memories on paper as "an investment in one's self." It took her a while to release her stories and poems into the world, and yet she felt a duty to speak up. We can all be grateful and encouraged that she has. As she writes at the end of "Lying is the Work," one of her personal essays: "When this paragraph ends, this story is all yours."

Amber Dawn, writer, filmmaker and performance artist, has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She currently teaches Speculative Fiction Writing at Douglas College, the first accredited speculative fiction writing course in Canada. She also teaches creative writing to queer and at-risk youth. Visit her website.

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