Amber Dawn’s latest and second collection of poetry, My Art is Killing Me and Other Poems, is an exquisite, hard-hitting book. At times devastating, My Art is Killing Me is not without its moments of humour and light. Amber Dawn also shows off her formal talent and skills with an ample amount of free verse experimentation done through creative spacing and repetition, and using non-poem formats such as spells and business emails.
As the aptly dark and funny title suggests, this book is a chronicle of Amber Dawn’s experiences with the burdens and joys of writing from the perspective of a woman, queer person, survivor, and sex worker. Being an artist in the public realm, particularly in the nefarious realm of social media and the digital world, is an intricate and complicated role.
The book begins with this eerie snapshot:
My mama: What? You’re crying.
You wanna cry, eh? I’ll give you something to cry about.
The rest of my life: You’re writing confessional poetry, is that right?
Well, lah-de-dah, girl. I’ll give you something to write about.
Thus she tracks from childhood this self-fulfilling prophecy of self-expression stemming out of pain and pain as a base from which self-expression emerges. The rest of the collection grapples with this never-ending circle.
It asks: what is the relationship between pain, trauma, and creativity? Is reliving trauma the price one pays for being an artist? How can that be? What role do readers and audiences play in asking or even forcing artists to perform and convince them of their trauma? How can readers and audiences take and take and take from artists without acknowledging what it might cost them to give? Without even acknowledging they are finite and flawed human beings? Amber Dawn asks: “Who do I confide to about pain when pain is my praxis / and best performance?”
In the opening poem, “The Stopped Clock,” Amber Dawn writes about finding out she had been accepted into UBC’s creative writing program while in Alabama, backstage at a strip club wearing a “white tiger striped bodysuit.” Her stiletto gets caught on the wooden stage; she falls onto her knees. She asks:
And besides, what’s another bruise?
What’s a bruise? What’s a bruise? What’s a blue moon bruise
to do but pull young blood to and fro like the tide? What’s a bruise
but a testament to the sharp art of surrendering to time and place?
If the (literal, metaphorical) bruises are what you write about, then do you have to continue to bruise yourself in order to keep writing? What if all your readers expect you to do is write about the bruises? Are bruises the cost of “surrendering to time and place,” being present in the moment as an artist?
In another poem, “How Hard Feels,” Amber Dawn chillingly repeats the line “everywhere there is a man” as she chronicles dealing with abusers in positions of power in the literary community: authors, professors, mentors. The line inserts itself into the poem, interrupting and lurking in the background, right aligned on the page and often repeated over and over like an intrusive thought, a whisper in the back of your mind. But Amber Dawn also pushes back against the ubiquity of men with a solid block of text:
Everywhere there is a woman queer or fury or holding her beloved body
however she can everywhere there is a woman working her masked craft
invisible labour ungraspable praxis her voice shivering out a frequency
only other women can hear her unsung opera her nixed lexicon censored
origin stories publicly mocked creation myths her hands quick quick quick
undetectable a slight a secret she never has to reveal other women already know
the shape of a veiled monument already follow her pen and ink abstracts …
beharassedseeharassment beharassedseeharassment …
everywhere there is a woman shaping and reshaping and reshaping the deep
lower than thermocline that sunless room of her own underwater spinning
bull kelp and eel grass into words that only other women will ever look for
Women continue their artistic labours and creative output, made by women for women to “hear” and “look for.” This is despite being surrounded by men’s harassment, men’s self-interested so-called guidance and mentorship, men’s fervent denials of privilege, and men’s manipulation. Unnervingly, at the end the poem goes back to the refrain of “everywhere there is a man,” repeating it three times as the boldness of the text’s black colour fades to grey.
Immediately following “How Hard Feels” is the first of the collection’s spells: “Stregheria Instructional #1.” I inferred from the poem that Stregheria had something to do with witches, and of course I was familiar with the classic children’s picture book Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola. When I looked up stregheria, I was fascinated to find it’s an archaic Italian word for witchcraft, among other uses. I love Amber Dawn’s use of the mystical and witchy to draw villainized women’s power up against the fear so powerfully evoked in the previous poem. The spells are angry — “tell / the waning moon fuck it / fuck this fuck me fuck him fuck him / fuck her fuck pain fuck poor decisions” — as well as playful and funny: “I’m making this shit up as I go.”
In addition to poetry as spell, Amber Dawn also cleverly writes poetry as academic email and business letter. These “found and redacted from my inbox” poems are painful(ly funny). They immediately gave me that feeling of well, if I can’t laugh about this I might cry, so let’s try a dark joke, maybe laugh and cry at the same time. Beginning with “Dear IncorrectName,” the poem goes on to expertly mimic and parody academic word choice and tone:
Please allow me to introduce myself as the OfficialTitle at the College_University_GovernmentFundedInstitution. At my InstitutionalPlaceofEmployment we are Studying_OtheringtheLivingHellOutof Prostitution in Canada_FeministViews on Prostitution_ProstitutionExploitationTrafficking_ and other topics related to your “hellish existence.”
Your book How Poetry Saved My Life is on my students’ critical book review list alongside TextsbyFeministsWhoHateYou and UnethicalResearchers. … I do not have funds for guest speakers, but I would be happy to offer a $50 honorarium from my own SalarythatIsFourTimesWhatyouEarnedLastYear
The deep disrespect, ignorance, and hate masked under the formality of academic, institutional, and bureaucratic discourse are astounding. Amber Dawn harnesses this discourse to use it against itself and the powers it serves.
I don’t want to focus only on the burdens of the artist, though. “Fountainhead” chronicles some joy as Amber Dawn travels to Italy in search of her queer ancestry and past. She
… spent a humble lifetime looking for
others who too labour to live inside their skin. My kink is to loudly love those
who’ve been told to keep quiet. Erotic boom. I want outlaster love. Against-
all-odds love. I, finally, want myself, and I want slick fluency in this desire
While in Napoli I wrongly read a museum label to say that Parthenope
wished to marry Circe the sorceress. I read queer determination, and imagine
how that ancestral beach might feel if my mistranslation was an origin story.
Imagine if the grounds we walk were built from queer love?
What if indeed. Although I am too wimpy I think to ever actually get a tattoo, I have a running list in my head of lines by women poets that I might get tattooed on my body. “My kink is to loudly love those / who’ve been told to keep quiet” is now one on of them.
Amber Dawn is certainly building her poetry from the queer femme ground up. Some of my favourite lines in the book were about reimaging and complicating what poetry is. Poetry as queer femme:
I wouldn’t mind if poetry mimicked racing tipsy down the subway stairs
in platform heels to barely catch the last train of the night.
Poetry as a mirror: “A poem is always a mirror / that we must hold up before us”
Amber Dawn also interrogates narrative itself, of the linear storyline made for straight white men’s stories. She asks:
But you (literally you) are reading queer and desperate poetry
so may I assume you too have never been afforded
an uncomplicated story?”
Part of that linear narrative made for people not like Amber Dawn, or me, or queers, or sex workers, or survivors, is the idea of closure. To neatly close a story off with a bow doesn’t fit. Closure, in fact, is a hungry, oppressive force. The beautifully alliterative line, “Closure / is like the conspicuous consumption / of real life,” circles back to the question of who is consuming what or whom when we talk about art.
This also connects to “Hollywood Ending,” a poem where Amber Dawn tears apart the hypocrisy of Oscar award-winning and nominated actresses who have played sex workers—read: consuming them — who then sign a letter demanding Amnesty International halt a proposed policy to decriminalize sex work. Their reasoning? It supposedly allows men to consume women.
Like all the best poetry, My Art Is Killing Me is a book to reread and savour. And as I said, maybe a collection from which to pick out some new words to tattoo on your body.