An exclusive excerpt from Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life

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With Vancouver filmmaker, performance artist and Lambda award winning writer Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir landing on bookshelves soon, GayVancouver.Net is pleased to present an exclusive excerpt from the book.

How Poetry Saved My Life by Amber Dawn“In most large cities,” writes Amber Dawn, “there are an estimated 10,000 people (mainly women) working as prostitution-based sex workers and yet we rarely hear from them.”  How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir is one of those voices.

A raw, moving, and provocative memoir about sex work, queer identity, and the transformative power of literature and art, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir is a multifaceted portrait of Dawn’s experiences from hustling on the streets of Vancouver to present-day life as a writer, filmmaker, activist, artist, and educator.

Amber Dawn hosts a reading and Q&A at the University of British Columbia bookstore on Monday, March 25, 2013 and officially launches her new book on Friday, April 12, 2013 at Pat’s Pub in Vancouver.

How I Got My Tattoo

Every other weekend I ate green olives, crude slices of cheddar,
Ritz crackers, smoked sardines straight from the can
with the turn-key lid, garlic pickles, and pepperoni dipped in sour
cream, spring onions, and hard-boiled eggs rolled under my father

’s palm until the shell fell away like lizard skins then rolled again
in a mound of kosher salt because these were the foods
that coalesced with father’s recent divorce status
and with beer. When

I hit my girlfriend, Valentine, with the phone receiver (a decade
later) I was dead set on having olives as the complimentary topping
on our delivery pizza. She wanted green peppers and bellyached

about how we never ate vegetables and we’d stopped
going for our all-night walks. We only walked those walks,
I reminded her, for the city to become field, or empty
parking lot, or a stretch of quiet railroad where we could kiss
each other raw and scream and hide
from Burgard Vocational High School and god and

daylight. Cocaine
is turning you into a fucking asshole, she said and picked olives
from her half of the pizza to feed them to me, a few missed
my mouth and rolled inside my shirt then onto the gold and denim
blue floral sofa, where we slept, a mess
of limbs and unconscious youth. I never lost my appetite

as an addict. I’m glad I was a girl and there were horse races
and truck stops and twenty-four hour diners where a girl,
with a bit of glitter lip gloss, could count on
the done-with-their-day men, up-or-down-on-their-luck men,
ball-busted broken-backed men, plain-sick-of-spending-timewith-
other-men men to offer a grilled cheese sandwich and a bit
of pocket money
so I didn’t have to raid the dumpster

behind the Nabisco factory with Petey and Steve.
They always smelled like corn syrup. Petey had beautiful eyelashes
that hid the bloodshot like a burlesque dancer
’s feather fans. I would have let him touch me but his hands were
the kind of filthy that won’t scrub clean.
I wish I could say I’ve been clean

since the day Valentine died. I was living in an artist loft
where I made non-wearable ball gowns out of copper wire,
old costume jewellery, and crayfish
claws I had saved up over the years and spray painted gold.
My girlfriend at the time, Jesse, was kind and always lied
when I asked her if my art stank like fish, she had her arms around
me before I even hung up the phone. Valentine’s little sister told me
I was the only one she would call, me and 911.

I returned to my old dealer’s house with the Confederate flag hung
in the bay window and the stupid smoke that couldn’t find
its way out of the living room and I told everyone there
Valentine had overdosed in her sister’s bathroom and the funeral
was on a Wednesday at Our Lady of Perpetual Forgiveness Church.”
My skin itched
from the second-hand freebased coke
and I had to go home and take seventeen
Gravol because that is all we had in the medicine cabinet
and I wanted to sleep
for as many days as humanly possible
but Jesse made me walk
in circles around the coffee
table for hours
before she was sure
I wouldn’t pass out cold.
I quit

for good up North in a small village where my hosts brought down
a deer which I volunteered to help them skin and piece the meat.
I didn’t expect the animal to resist the knife the way it did.
Everyone was amused at how I struggled
with its heavy leg in my lace-trimmed summer dress, they said
they had never seen a white girl so willing
to get blood on her hands since their land was taken.
The children made up words
and told me they were First Peoples’ words,
then laughed hysterically
when I tried to repeat these words back to them. I guess,
without realizing it,

I escaped by becoming an outsider. Sure, I’ve travelled
and gotten the kind of attention a girl gets when she is travelling
alone. The tattoo
on my back has been a means for men
and women to initiate conversation or touch, poking at the raised
ink peeking out of my shirt collar.
Junko approached me in a park

in Osaka while I was trying to coax a stray dog to let me pet it, and
asked me to come
for karaoke and drinks. I ordered cream soda that surprised me
by being emerald green.
The cartoonish rendition of Valentine, her half
-winking eye, her leopard-print swimsuit,
her halo that was supposed to be gold but I got too sore
for the tattooist to finish the colour made Junko ask,
why did you get this tattoo

I told her to kiss Valentine’s lips: my shoulder. We sang Beatles’
songs: “I feel the ice is slowly melting, little darling,
it seems like years since it’s been clear.”

How Poetry Saved My Life by Amber Dawn

Visit for more information on Amber Dawn. Copies of the book are available for purchase online at

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