Ghost Stories: A Review of Amber Dawn’s ‘How Poetry Saved My LIfe’

Amber Dawn spoke at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC recently. In person, she was self-confident, directing questions back to the audience in a relaxed, conversational way, and flicking her trade mark bottle-red curls behind her shoulder as she talked. Her hair is really Mermaid hair. It felt like an activisty community meeting instead of a book launch. UBC is her alma mater, where she completed a MFA in Creative Writing, so it might have been that she was on home ground, albeit the manicured politeness of home ground she was careful to disrupt. I’ve just read her new book,  How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir.

Amber Dawn’s first novel Sub Rosa won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011. Sub Rosa is about a group of magical sex workers, and Amber is keen to return to speculative fiction in the novel she is working on, a ghost story set in a carnival in her home town. How Poetry Saved My Life already had its own ghosts, despite her sometimes raw and ruthless words, you sense the ethereal presence of others left unsaid.

How Poetry Saved My Life is a memoir, but a deceptively narrow one in that Dawn is really holding her sex work history like a multifaceted stone, and showing us the plays of light across her palm.  The memoir is told in poems and essays. At the end, you have overheard conversations, the sense of having met a redhead queer girl in the middle of a bus trip, but not the sense of having gotten to know her story. In the title poem, Dawn writes, ‘Moreover, poetry reunited me with the girl/ who didn’t mind the endless backwoods tree line/ and was thrilled by the sounds of coyotes screaming at night./ Someday I’ll write about her’ (p.56). You hope that someday she does.

Yet, there is a satisfying messiness about Dawn’s life that is left on the page, instead of being forced into plastic ill-fitting labels. She is a sex worker, she is queer, and femme, and genderqueer, and feminist and a poet all at once. She is unapologetically everything publishers should be afraid of in a country so soaked through with middle-class politeness. She is funny and angry. She is both pensive, and loud: ‘those Powerpuff Girls and Bratz dolls that are doing so well in the marketplace. They wear booty shorts and speak in baby voices but, by god, are they introspective. I mean, their heads are as big as those of the Eight Immortals of Tao.’ (p.73).

In one deliberately challenging essay “Lying is the Work”, Dawn tells us to ‘Forget about hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotypes. Survivor heroism – disregard that altogether’ (p.119). It’s a hard ask when bravery bubbles out of each page: the bald-faced naked and naive bravery of her younger self with little except resilience ‘Drugstore red lipstick/ is all I need – a Lincoln Town Car/ will pick me up in the gas station parking lot/ Watch’ (p.42), the astute political bravery of demanding a return-in-kind of her reader ‘What personal and public rituals do you perform to be seen?” (p.112), and the matured bravery of being a writer that lets her vulnerability show through: ‘Sex work changed the way I fucked. Confessions don’t come any harder than this one’ (p. 141).

As a queer, femme, genderqueer and feminist reader I wanted to underline phrases in pencil, leave sticky notes in the margins, and pass my copy on to my own crew: the queer and lesbian and femme and genderqueer and feminist people that I share words, and wine, and sometimes lovers, with. In one essay Dawn invites us – the queer community – to consider how to bury our dead. In another, she reminds us of how butch – femme love creates our own ways  of being held, and seen, and safe. How Poetry Saved My Life is painful but also nurturing. I suspect it will act as a radical gathering place for all of us  – queer femme folk – who are road-weary, and have lives to grieve and lovers to remember.

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