BOOK REVIEW: Amber Dawn’s "How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir"

Compared to the dearth of little girls who say they want to grow up to be prostitutes, the hundreds of thousands of sex workers in North America suggest there are forces propelling women into the sex trades beyond their free choice, external to their personal “agency.” And powerful enough to challenge any Gender Studies “sex-positive” stand, is the argument against the purported joys and self-empowerment of sex work inherent in How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. The new book, to be released by Arsenal Pulp Press May 1, makes this argument eloquently and forcefully while revealing the gifts of author Amber Dawn, those of poet and memoirist.

Dawn, from Vancouver, Canada, made cross-border literary waves with her debut novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press 2010), an allegorical fantasy pitting magical sex workers against evil johns, and a fictionalized spin of the author’s own story. In the book’s release, Dawn outed herself well beyond her Canadian audience as a former sex worker, a lesbian, and a literary activist. The book won a 2011 Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction, and the author was on her way to greater recognition and acceptance—but only to a degree.

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  • BOOK REVIEW: Amber Dawn’s "How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir"

Dawn found resistance to her story, her openness about her past, yet she had been poking at that taboo for years, writing poetry, struggling to take ownership of her stories, to avoid the destruction implicit in her trade, and society’s response to it, by speaking of it. And poetry did ultimately save Dawn’s life—the poetry she wrote, the poets who encouraged and taught her through college, the poetry of her MFA program. Now, the poetry and prose in her memoir exquisitely articulate her resigned entry into the world of paid sex work, her passage from the street to safer indoor work, and her eventual reconciliation with herself.

Dawns writes of learning the hard way how to avoid abuse by her johns; of offering an array of sex acts in the language of a fast food menu to skirt anti-solicitation laws; of contemplated suicide; of the void of queer funeral etiquette. She writes of her life with weathered rage and hilarity and love; she writes of coming of age as a prostitute.

It happened suddenly. It happened without warning. One day I woke up and I was an old ho. … My dream shifted from high school sweetheart to winning big at the ho game. Maybe some dumb regular would buy me a condo or I’d land that mad-money stint in Vegas. My “real life” certainly didn’t have any bling makeover potential. I was a poet, a homo with a weakness for broke-ass butch dykes, and I danced burlesque—badly. I ought to have tattooed the word ‘penniless’ on my titties and tossed in the towel. If I was ever going to go from geek to chic, from trash to cash, I figured ho-ing was the only way. I constantly scanned the adult help-wanted ads for the perfect gig. I chatted online for hours with potential sugar daddies. But even in my final days of sex work, I still hadn’t discovered the place where the money was greener.

And she writes of reconciling with herself.

I understood very clearly then that there would be no cumload of cash or fame. No Ricki Lake Show. No free condos. No Viva Las Vegas. … I knew that this is what I am: a queer femme who often has misguided crushes, dances low-rent burlesque in sticky-floored dyke bars, and writes goddamn poetry. And what, I asked myself … is wrong with that?

Dawn also invites readers to join her, to stand naked with her on the art gallery’s steps, to be there at anti-homophobia kiss-ins, to ¬become a community of voices. Perhaps one that resists a society that transforms little girls who want to be scientists and teachers and artists into sex workers.

… And We Did

I have stood naked on the art gallery’s steps.

We were one hundred strong, lesbians,
we seized the food court at the Pacific Centre mall to disrupt
the heteronorm with an anti-homophobia kiss-in.

I have kissed pavement while an officer handcuffed me
another searched my bra and underpants for an alleged weapon.
(No one read me my rights. No weapons were found.)

Our rubber-soled boots tracked red footprints down
the highway on ramp. Vaseline will help
break down spray pint stains on skin—share this information.
Our mark the next morning: shame / stop / smash / the state
vote no / yes / now / rEVOLution.

We ate pepper spray.
We saw riot tanks rush London on Financial Fools Day.
I have torn a sleeve from my blouse and used it to bind
an open wound.
Once, I sat in a cake at a charity ball where the mayor
was in attendance.

Before the Internet we found each other in the streets like swallows
who find their way home each summer. How did we know?

We linked arms. A human chain, we chanted the people
united will never be defeated.
We were young. So certain we would change the world…

We were young. So certain we would change the world…
The people united will never be defeated.
We chanted. A human chain, we linked arms.

How did we know to find each other like swallows
in the summer?
Before the Internet we made our home in the streets.

I once sat in a cake at a charity ball where the mayor
was in attendance.
I once tore a sleeve from my blouse and used it to dress
an open wound.
We saw riot tanks rush London on Financial Fools Day.
We ate pepper spray.

shame / stop / smash / the state / vote no /
yes / now / rEVOLution: our mark.
In the morning, share this information.
Vaseline breaks down the spray paint stains
on skin and rubber-soled boots.
We tracked red footprints down the highway onramp.

(No one reads us our rights. No weapons were found.)
We have kissed pavement while officers handcuffed us,
others searched our bras and underpants for the alleged weapons.

We seized the food court at the Pacific Centre mall to disrupt
the heteronorm with an anti-homophobia kiss-in.
We were one hundred strong, lesbians!

I have stood naked on the art gallery’s steps.

…………………………………………….

Upcoming events

Amber Dawn will be at:

The San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival on May 23 and 24

A ”Meet the Author” event at Seattle’s Gay City Library on June 6.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and have been published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, The Ocean Beach Rag, The Progressive Post and San Diego Free Press. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.

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