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Social Science Lesbian Studies

How Poetry Saved My Life

A Hustler's Memoir

by (author) Amber Dawn

Arsenal Pulp Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2013
Lesbian Studies, LGBT, Prostitution & Sex Trade, LGBT
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2013
    List Price

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Vancouver Book Award winner; Lambda Literary Award finalist

A memoir about sex work and sexuality, and how writing became the author's lifeline.

Amber Dawn's acclaimed first novel Sub Rosa, a darkly intoxicating fantasy about a group of magical prostitutes who band together to fend off bad johns in a fantastical underworld, won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011. How Poetry Saved My Life, Amber Dawn's sophomore book, reveals an even more poignant and personal landscape--the terrain of sex work, queer identity, and survivor pride. This story, told in prose and poetry, offers a frank, multifaceted portrait of the author's experiences hustling the streets of Vancouver, and how those years took away her self-esteem and nearly destroyed her; at the crux of this autobiographical narrative is the tender celebration of poetry and literature, which--as the title suggests--acted as a lifeline during her most pivotal moments.

As raw and fiery as its author, How Poetry Saved My Life is a powerful account of survival and the transformative power of literature.

About the author

Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker and performance artist based in Vancouver. She is the author of the novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), editor of the Lambda Award-nominated Fist of the Spider Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008) and co-editor of With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005). Her award-winning, genderfuck docu-porn, "Girl on Girl," has been screened in eight countries and added to the gender studies curriculum at Concordia University. She has toured three times with the infamous Sex Workers` Art Show in the US. She was voted Xtra! West`s Hero of the Year in 2008. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Currently, she is the director of programming for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

Amber Dawn's profile page


  • Short-listed, Lambda Literary Award
  • Winner, Vancouver Book Award

Editorial Reviews

Amber Dawn's account, which includes wise reflections on class, queer identity, and the way in which sex work can change its practitioners, is compulsively readable and nuanced. -Room

Defiant and proud, Amber Dawn's memoir categorically refuses silence, daring to imagine a better world while offering hopeful testimony for those subsisting in abject spaces its author has since vacated. -Vancouver Sun

Powerful and necessary ... The book's very structure rails against convention and expectation, linking together poems, prose poems, and narrative storytelling to build a cohesive portrait of Dawn's queer identity, her life as a sex worker, an assault survivor, an activist, a writer and an artist. It is tender and biting, gorgeous and courageous, even heroic and, above all, it is hers. -National Post

Amber Dawn's How Poetry Saved My Life made my hard femme heart burst out in tears in a working-class bar an hour away from my hometown. I've read a lot of mediocre queer poetry; this isn't it. This is a queer femme survivor sex worker love song triumph every single piece of which made me yell goddamn. I can't wait to gift this book to every single femme I know who will knock you flat for no goddamn reason--who are the femmes I love the most. I cannot thank Amber Dawn enough for living to tell this brilliantly gorgeous, needed offering. How did we live this long without this book? These poems didn't just save Amber Dawn's life: they will save yours. -Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, author of Dirty River and Care Work

Amber Dawn's new memoir maps the heart of one feminist sex worker poet ... Do not look for a plea for attention, a whitewashing, a simplification that can allow you only to sympathize or discount or pathologize. To feel this work is to feel yourself.

How Poetry Saved My Life is like watching Melhos Place (the nickname given to an apartment complex where Amber Dawn lived with other sex workers in the 1990s). The episodes are filled with scandal, struggle, and heartbreak, but you're eager for it to all play out, because this is Amber Dawn's show - and it has a happy ending. -Xtra

How Poetry Saved My Life is every bit as forthright as Amber Dawn's novel Sub Rosa, with the bonus of being a subtly pitched call to arms. -The Globe and Mail

Amber Dawn's story is told as much in its form as in its content. Weaving between memoir and verse, the book embodies the way that poetry has influenced her life. Many of the poems play with repetition and lines plucked from epigraphs, techniques that highlight the imposition of poetic form, without undermining an inherent accessibility and narrative power in the lines.-Arc Poetry Magazine

Amber Dawn documents her profound journey through the indoor and outdoor sex industry, offering up awkward, tough, funny, and tenderhearted reflections on her survival and emergence as a gifted poet and novelist. -Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People

Amber Dawn's voice is heartbreakingly sensitive, yet unabashed. The empowerment and solace she found in the poetry that saved her life is contagious. -GO Magazine

There are few books that will take you by the hand and lead you into the sometimes seedy, sometimes bawdy, and all times heart-wrenching world of Amber Dawn's memoir. This is work that not only flows from her pen, diaries, and thoughts, but blood-love seeping out onto the page, necessary and honest. From "Before I Found a Lesbian Feminist Doctor" to "What's my Mother F***ing Name" to "Missing Children," you will be kaleidoscoped inside this special world of seemingly lost souls-only to be brought back to what is real-and what has been seen by many but written by few. Be brave in your reading. And appreciate the beauty inside the so-called filth of the street-see beyond the mask of that massage parlour girl. She will show you how she soldiered on-and how many women out there continue to do so.
-Cathleen With, author of Skids and Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison

Lit by compassion and courage, How Poetry Saved My Life is a tribute to the marginalized and maligned, the survivors and statistics. -Georgia Straight

In her witty, difficult, frank, marvelously varied book How Poetry Saved My Life, the writer Amber Dawn peels back the veneer society has imposed and humanizes the sex trade. In so doing she claims her voice. Part confessional, part polemic, part pure poetry and prose, Amber Dawn shows herself to be an author worth watching. -Ottawa Citizen

An emotionally difficult but revealing read about the sex industry and the lifestyle of sex workers in which the author encourages more frankness and discussion in the future. -Library Journal

An instant classic, Dawn's memoir is extraordinary not only for its tale of personal survival in a community raged by poverty, serial killings, disappearances, drugs, and disease, but also for her representation of arrt as integral to personal and collective survival. -Canadian Literature

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