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My Art Is Killing Me and Other Poems

by Amber Dawn

In her sophomore poetry collection, Vancouver’s Amber Dawn explores various dissonances in her personal life and career: her poems address Hollywood, academia, the internet, and the poet’s experiences as a queer femme, former sex worker, and writer. As much of her work does, My Art Is Killing Me explores living as a survivor of trauma: “I put it in ink: I write / for other survivors. I am listening … I’m here / for the divine and complex work that is healing.”

“Hollywood Ending,” Amber Dawn’s poetic examination of some very famous actresses – including Anne Hathaway, Elizabeth Taylor, and Meryl Streep – who advocated against Amnesty International’s push to decriminalize sex work, is harrowing. The actresses argue, in part, that such an endeavour could lead to a category of women who are “set apart for consumption by men.” Amber Dawn points out the irony in the fact that those same actresses – all of whom won or were nominated for Oscars for playing sex workers – have not put the same effort into eradicating rampant sexual violence in their own industry.  “Tell me,” Amber Dawn writes, “who is being consumed?”

The poet also turns a keen eye toward hypocrisy in CanLit, addressing her time as a student and professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia. In “How Hard Feels,” she repeats the refrain “everywhere there is a man,” referring to powerful men’s roles as both cultural gatekeepers and holders of institutional power. Amber Dawn encapsulates the frustration of seeing writing by women – especially queer women – bursting the boundaries of form while simultaneously being belittled as practising “confessional poetry”: “Everywhere there is a woman working her masked craft / invisible labour / ungraspable praxis.”

Amber Dawn explores the lack of respect offered to artists on both a societal and an institutional level. Writing about publicly sharing her experiences as a sex worker and coming out as a queer femme, she decries the fact that once someone shares their experiences, they will be assumed to be always available to speak to those subjects, without any compassion for what such disclosures can cost. Amber Dawn’s poems speak of the extent to which she truly wants to connect with and support fellow survivors but finds herself frustrated by a lack of boundaries and empathy that make this difficult.

The haunting “Touch ≠ Touch Screen” includes what the poet describes as a collage of selections from 71 private Twitter messages about sexual violence Amber Dawn received after publishing her memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life. The gravity of this is palpable, and stark in its juxtaposition of survivors and trolls in the same inbox. In “An Apple, or Haunted,” Amber Dawn explores her complex relationship with some of her family members and shares the vulnerability she experiences in her own writing process. She asks, “When the mind processes trauma through metaphor is it compassion?”

Amber Dawn’s sense of place and style is bewitching. Poems include Catholic iconography, a steel barn in Alabama, museums, and a strip club in Italy. She employs effective use of repetition and line breaks and adds layers of meaning through the clever use of grey-scale on certain blocks of text. “Think about it, sex work is both / invisible and it is a mirror,” she writes. “Hold it up. / Don’t think this isn’t about you.” This is a deeply personal collection that also offers a worthwhile opportunity for readers to evaluate themselves.