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Last Word: Amber Dawn on the role poetry plays in our lives

(photo: Sarah Race)

In March 2012, I pitched a book with the working title How Poetry Saved My Life to my publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press. It was a lousy pitch that suffered from being overambitious. The original idea suggested the book overflow with: 1) a collection of my own poems; 2) a series of essays discussing community-based creative writing as an empowerment tool for under-heard peoples ““ the story of how I developed my own voice very much included; and 3) select poems from some of the sex workers and street-based writers I work with at various drop-ins around Vancouver.

Fortunately, Arsenal Pulp co-owner Brian Lam had the diplomacy to steer me toward a more focused collection of my own prose and poems that tackles themes of sex and survival. “Your voice is so powerful that a collection of your own work, by itself, would be better,” Lam offered. Swoon! Who wouldn’t want to hear that from a publisher?

A year later, I keep those words of encouragement in mind as I launch a very personal collection of prose and poems. While this book is perhaps more “me” than anything I’ll ever write, poetry as a saving force is certainly not unique to my experience. As my original pitch suggested, poetry offers sanctuary, recognition, and community to those who need it. I know this to be true for the “hard-knocks” writers I connect with at drop-ins. I continually witness how poetry holds the weight of their daily struggles.

But what I didn’t realize is that writing (and reading) poetry is a kind of investment in living for a wide breadth of people.

The first response to my book’s title came from gusty counter-culturalist Elizabeth Bachinksy (God of Missed Connections, The Hottest Summer in Recorded History), who was kind enough to read my manuscript-in-progress.

“Poetry saved my life, too,” Bachinksy declared over lunch. I remember her slapping the table with her palm, making our coffee mugs jump. “If it wasn’t for poetry”¦. If it wasn’t for poetry.”¦” Bachinsky couldn’t finish her sentence. The thought of a life without poetry was simply too grave to put into words.

The day I signed my author contract, the essayist Zena Sharman (Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme) sent me a congratulatory text message with a quote from the brilliantly enigmatic Jeanette Winterson, painstakingly typed out on Sharman’s iPhone:

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. (From Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

I’d call most of the poets I read tough, like the wildly intellectual Eileen Myles. (Recently, Poets & Writers magazine posted a quote from Myles’ newest collection, Snowflake, on Tumblr: “I am a bad / place without / paper and pen.”) Myles is a poet who frequently and scrupulously connects the worth of a poem to the worth of her own life, claiming “the material of a poem is energy itself.”

The life-affirming themes that run through Myles’s work must be part of the reason she has gained a large cult following. I was at a literary reading in San Francisco where no fewer than three audience members wore T-shirts that read, “You Got The Styles, Eileen Myles.”  (And Myles wasn’t even reading at the event!)

Before I head out on my Canadian book tour, I’d like to make similar T-shirts that read, “Daphne Marlatt Is Where It’s At” and “Rita Wong Keeps Me Strong.” I think there are scores of writers and readers who would wear a testament to poets with pride.

Why? Because being a poetry lover means also being a lover of life. Each time I bring my fingers to the keyboard, I join the many who explore the complexities, hazards, and beauty of living, who speak the tough and tender words that are too rarely articulated in day-to-day discourse, and create that place where we have permission to do much more than simply survive.

Don’t take my (or my book’s) word for it. Ask one another. How has poetry saved your life?

Amber Dawn is the author of the novel Sub Rosa, and editor of the anthologies Fist of the Spider Women and With a Rough Tongue.

This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Q&Q.