By Leah Horlick
Amber Dawn came to my house for an interview one rainy February afternoon during the last term of my MFA in Vancouver. “It’s so weird to be here,” she told me. “I used to have friends who lived in this house. It was a bit more punk rock then. I even broke in through that back window one time.”
As if she wasn’t badass enough already, Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker, activist, and performance artist whose first novel, Sub Rosa, won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011. Her poetry chapbook How I Got My Tattoo won the Eli Coppola Chapbook Prize from RADAR Productions in 2012, when she also won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Writers. In her forthcoming book How Poetry Saved My Life, Amber Dawn tells her story of working in the sex trade in Vancouver through nonfiction and poetry. I spent an afternoon with Amber Dawn where she talked about her star-crossed relationship with memoir and poetry, and her commitment to community activism.
I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about writing and publishing a mixed-genre book like How Poetry Saved My Life.
Well, I first of all did not say to myself, “I want to write a mixed genre prose and poetry book” and set out to do that. If someone asked me to write out my life story, or a chunk of time where I worked in the sex trade, there’s no way I could stomach it. I also just don’t feel like my story is best told through a chronological view of time. I don’t think that most people’s lives are that tidy, and mine certainly isn’t. So I just started writing bits and pieces, mostly therapeutic to begin. Then, when I got to grad school I tried nonfiction with Andreas Schroeder for the first time. That’s when I really started to write my story, in that class. But where I did most of my writing was to submit to sex worker festivals in the United States that were. I would often write just to be able to be in those shows, I was so desperate for community. It was great to leave the city and be more anonymous. And eventually realized I had a book’s worth of writing. And even then I sat on it for a long time because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put it out in the world. So I didn’t set out to do it. If I had set out to do it I’m sure I would have failed. [laughs]
I’m so glad you did. I wanted to ask about some of your poetic techniques—I really liked how you used glossing and drew from such a diverse selection of poets. Are they pieces that have been with you for a long time? Is the form something you crafted yourself?
I love a glosa. One is an Irving Layton quote, which is almost cheeky—Layton is one of those “fellas,” who has been widely canonized. But the other two glosa quotes are from feminist poets Beth Goobie and Lucille Clifton. I was a late reader; I didn’t really start reading until I hit my mid-twenties, and so I felt I should get caught up, especially with the Canadian canon. And once I did that, I pretty much went right for lesbian feminists and more radically-identified poets, which is still what I read a lot of today.
I was lucky enough to help you copyedit the manuscript of How Poetry Saved My Life one afternoon. When you write, do you have an imagined first reader? Do you often show things to groups of friends, or to your wife? Who gets to see things first?
Vancouver is a very transient place; I found that my community in grad school dispersed pretty darn quickly. So I’m in the lurch, to be honest. Luckily enough I’d say maybe forty percent of this book was stuff that I had worked on when I was at UBC. People in your undergrad or in grad school in creative writing right now: do not undervalue the creative writing classroom! As much as it might drive us all crazy at times, it is such a tried and true structure and the idea that there are other people there to take interest in your work, and vice versa, is such a powerful thing. So no, I don’t really have first readers. I do have women who I think are elders in the sex work activism movement who I can check in with, which has been really helpful. And I read a lot at community events. I think that’s a great pilot audience. I find community readings very helpful.
What does it feel like to have a poem come to you? Is there a part of you that observes and says “I have to write about this,” or is your process more about sitting and looking out a window and the poems arrive?
I have this terrible joke that I tell about the Canadian poem. Canadian poets have their ideas come to them when they’re like, kneading bread dough and looking out the kitchen window at some snowy vista. That’s how the Canadian poem happens. Maybe there’s like, a red-winged blackbird that flies by or something.
I wonder what that would be like. That would be nice.
I know, right. That’s not my experience. [laughs] Poetry is my first love in terms of creative writing. As much as it sounds a little west coast woo, poetry is the closest thing I’ve had to a spirituality. Says the ex-Catholic. I can’t write poetry as often as I’d like because I have to be in a fairly sound place in myself, an almost meditative-level state. I have to feel as though my sensitivity towards language is resonating at a higher place than when I’m writing prose. Going to readings really helps; it really helps me reach that place, listening to other poets. When I don’t read books of poetry or go out and see other poets it’s almost like I lose a language. Poetry doesn’t keep pace with the rest of the world, so I have to slow down to meet it.
What’s it like, by contrast, when you’re writing your nonfiction?
Oh it’s fast. I can’t keep up with the ideas. I usually have a fairly good outline and character sketches and I’m ready to go. And I could do it anywhere. I could be in a cafe, I could be in bed with my laptop. It could be noisy, it could be quiet. I could have only an hour to write or I could have the whole day and something will happen. Poetry’s not at all like that. I feel like I really need a whole week just to settle into writing poems.
You definitely get a sense of that when reading your work. Do you have a process, for your nonfiction, where you decide what to share and what you don’t?
Nonfiction for me is the complete opposite of poetry. I think that in this book a lot of the nonfiction, with the exception of a few pieces, was me responding to some sort of call. I’m also an activist, and a woman that’s had some stigmatized experiences. I’m very keenly aware of the communities that I came from that have many day-to-day barriers to finding their voice, which I do not—I’m privileged that way. But I listen to people. There’s a piece called “Ghetto Feminism,” which is something a lot of my sex worker friends and I would talk about—wanting to be activists but not feeling like we have the political chops or the research-based knowledge that we need to be activists. Towards the end of the book there’s a piece called “To All the Butches I Loved Between 1995 and 2005” which I actually wrote for “Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme” (Arsenal, 2011). I wrote it specifically because it seemed like, at that time, every sex worker I knew was breaking up with someone and feeling discouraged about relationships. There’s always been some sort of call, and I’m trying to address it through my nonfiction. It’s probably the only reason why I write nonfiction. I never would write nonfiction about like, whales or something. [laughs] I’d never write out my travel journals. Writing is activism. There’s no other reason for me to write nonfiction, I think, than making some sort of statement that I hope will help the communities that I have in mind when I’m writing.
Further to that—do you know Louise Halfe at all? She was the Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan, and writes a lot about survivorship. She once said writing is a part of the work, but it’s not what’s going to heal you. I was so moved by your pieces about queer funerals and Trans Day of Remembrance in your book, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your experience of writing through grief.
Yes. Well, first, I disagree with that quote. That you can write about fear, or grief, or whatever the emotion is, but it won’t heal you—that wouldn’t be a credo I could adopt. My writing doesn’t live in isolation. I’m not very precious with my work; in fact, I’m quite the opposite. I want things to be seen as soon as possible. I’ll read something that’s raw at events because I think that writing, for me, is a call-and-answer. I want to be a part of the dialogue. That’s why I write. I want to be a part of dialogues. I’m not a very good political speaker, as I mention in “Ghetto Feminism”—I get really flustered very easily. I don’t like to talk with a voice of authority, but I do like to talk in a peer-to-peer way and I feel like writing allows me to do that. So bringing stories of grief and loss to my community feels like the right venue. And when I say my community I mean queer and allied communities, survivors.
Did it feel therapeutic for me in any way to sit down and write that story out? No. It felt like cutting my eyeball open and pouring some lemon water on it. But once I got out there and started reading it for people, and getting responses—that’s healing.
I’m not an extrovert either, so writing’s kind of what I’ve got to join in the conversation. Especially with grief; I’ve had a lot of grief in my life. Writing nonfiction and nonfiction poetry has been great to show people that I’m present and that I share some of their experiences and am willing to speak out about it.
Reading “How To Bury Our Dead” has been really rewarding for me because a lot more people knew Shelby Tom than I I had realized. I had such an isolating experience when she was killed because I was working in a massage parlour in Surrey and I just felt like no-one acknowledged her death besides other working girls. None of my queer friends knew her and there was this big divide between my queer friends and my sex worker friends. That story actually helped me start to bridge those two communities a little bit more. I’m so glad I wrote that. It was extremely helpful for me.
I know you address themes of grief in the poem “How I Got My Tattoo,” and that’s the title piece from the chapbook that won RADAR’s Eli Coppola chapbook contest. Can you talk a little bit about the chapbook, and the prize—is it included in How Poetry Saved My Life?
Mhm. You’ll see a lot of overlap between the poems in the chapbook. The Eli Coppola prize is a funny thing, because I tried to apply a few years in a row. In my work desk, I had an envelope with the RADAR address written out, stuffed full of papers and my cover letter. And two years in a row I didn’t send it. I’m so insecure about my poetry! I’ve been really blessed with people like Rhea Tregebov and Kate Braid who have supported me, but my poetry never got published in literary journals—there’s been a lot of rejection, and I know part of it’s the content. How do you just put one of my poems in with, the other poems that in appear in the Fiddlehead? I get it. I’ve been a curator and sometimes it’s not about the quality of the work but about the fit. But I do have such insecurity about my poetry and I was so happy to win—I never get anything for poetry! [laughs] Me and poetry are like star-crossed lovers or something! I love poetry but it doesn’t really work out between us, so it was really nice to receive recognition.
That’s so great. Do you have any wishes for How Poetry Saved My Life? What are you doing next?
I wrote this book really with survivors in mind. I think sex worker is one of many examples of a stigmatized identity where the speaker—in this case, me—takes a risk and sticks their neck out to tell a story. So I wrote with those people in mind—who are many people. Many, many, many more people than the literary marketplace might realize. Not my publisher [laughs]—they’re great.
I’m really excited to go to different cities. I have been making contact with sex worker activist groups in Toronto and New York so hopefully I’ll connect with those communities as well as book lovers and readers as I go. That’s always huge for me, when other folks, especially women, approach me after a reading and tell me how hearing me read has been positive. That makes it worth my while. Why stick your neck out unless it’s going to do something positive for others? So, here I go. . .And then I’m sure I’ll crash, and cry. [laughs]. The crashing and the tears are a part of it! I’ll have the queer bookstores and places where there’s going to be a lot of sex workers in the audience, and then I’ll have Ottawa Writers’ Festival, where I might be introducing ideas to people as opposed to sharing experiences with people. So, we’ll just see how it all plays out. As for what I’m doing next, I’m looking forward to returning to speculative fiction.
I feel that way too. I grew up in a very small town in Ontario called Crystal Beach and it was an amusement park town for 100 years. The park closed in 1989. So the book is set in 1990, the year after the park closed and there was an economic decline prior to the park closing but when the park closed part of the town basically became a ghost town, and it’s very small to begin with. So my story’s about a disillusioned twenty-something protagonist, quite in debt financially, who returns to live with her mom in this small town because she’s sort of run out of options. And magic ensues. For folks that read Sub Rosa, they’ll know that it was pretty overtly about sex work. This next book much more allegorical, with subtle messages about queer suicide and mental health. It will be one of those books that readers can take to whatever level they want—a plot-based page-turner or a deeper look at queer identity and melancholy. It’s going to be a lot more speculative than Sub Rosa was.
Leah Horlick is a writer and MFA candidate in poetry in the Creative Writing program at UBC. Her first book, Riot Lung (Thistledown, 2012), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award.