How Poetry Saved My Life; A Hustler’s Memoir by Amber Dawn

I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what life offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.     – Jeanette Winterson


I had no idea what to expect when I took out How Poetry Saved My Life from the library to read it in preparation for the March non-fiction Write Reads podcast. I had heard of it, but that was about it. It turns out that it is a mixture of poetry and essays she has written over the years, put together to make up a kind of a memoir; snapshots of different times in her life. I was intrigued and moved to find out that poetry really did save Amber Dawn’s life.

She was a sex worker, feeling pretty bad about herself, not really caring about what happened to her.

The more you daydream about suicide the more trash speaks to you-/ the latticework of back alleys smashed glass confetti oil drum fires/ barbwire   the poorly lit corners/ Damn Catholic upbringing has made you fear hell but maybe if you situate yourself/ within this strangled landscape death will  just   like    sorta   happen

One day she went to hear poetry spoken aloud at a Riot Grrrl gathering, and the experience left her wanting more. She began writing her own poetry. This, in turn, made her feel like she had something to live for; something to say; a way to be heard.

Why do we so seldom hear the voices of those whose experience is so widespread?

Since then, Amber Dawn has been speaking for the thousands of (mostly) women who aren’t in the position to speak for themselves; sex workers, yes, but also human beings with lives, hopes, dreams, and families. They go missing, and no one seems to care. What they sell is in demand and can make them more money than any entry level job. There are endless reasons why sex workers end up where they are, doing what they do, but most of us don’t take the time to wonder or notice or care or help.

Why are you sitting with your back to the only exit?/ This what – poem?/ is dangerous. Didn’t the speaker grow up shutting up/ like you did? If you stay perfectly/ still/ no one will see you

The part of us that is hurting does not heal in the dark; we must turn on the light to look at it. We must pay attention.

Amber Dawn’s book is brave, raw and honest. It brings to our attention things we might not care not to see, while demonstrating the power of people and the power of words.

Moreover, poetry reunited me with the girl/ who didn’t mind the endless backwoods tree line/ and was thrilled by the sound of coyotes screaming at night./ Someday I’ll write about her.

In the Write Reads podcast, Tania and Kirt talk about how this book would have been a good choice for the Canada Reads ‘breaking barriers’ debate this year.

Stacey May Fowles wrote a beautiful and personal review in the National Post that brought tears to my eyes.

For another thorough review, see Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, who talks about how this book breaks the traditional form of a memoir.

22 thoughts on “How Poetry Saved My Life; A Hustler’s Memoir by Amber Dawn

  1. Don Royster says:

    The Irish writer, Colm Toibin, has a new book about the poet, Elizabeth Bishop. It’s called “On Elizabeth Bishop”, of course. A great writer writing about a great poet.

    • Naomi says:

      This one’s good if you’re looking for something different. I don’t read a lot of poetry, so I’m not a good judge on how good it is or how it compares to other poetry, but it was good for me, because it was plain and honest – not too cryptic. Mostly I loved reading about what poetry meant to her, and her journey through life up to this point.

  2. The Cue Card says:

    You definitely have me curious to check this book out. I’ll read the National Post review as well first

  3. ebookclassics says:

    I meant to read this book with Write Reads, but probably had a million other books on the go. It sounds incredibly intimate and probably should have been selected for Canada Reads. The “breaking barriers” thing still bugs me.

    • Naomi says:

      It would have been a good one for Canada Reads- -better than a couple of the others that were on there! (I wonder how the book-choosing process works.)

  4. Brian says:

    I watched the movie Wild last night. There are several shots of the main character reading and underline a book of poetry. When another hiker was helping her lighten her pack she insisted on keeping her poetry books.

    • Naomi says:

      I read the book, and I loved how she carried a book around with her. I don’t know, though, if I’d be able to rip the pages out as I read them.

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