Amber Dawn is the author of the poetry collection Where The Words End And My Body Begins, novel Sub Rosa and memoir How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Her writing traverses themes of sex work, queer identity and survivor pride. She lives on unceded Coast Salish territory (incorporated Vancouver).
Amber dropped by the BWS blog with this guest post ahead of her July 8 appearance.
Poetry: Queer and Connectional
The first poetry collection I purchased was P.K. Page’s Hologram: A Book of Glosas. I was in my early twenties and had already written a couple of dog-eared notebooks worth of poetry, and had even discovered a few scrappy open mics around East Vancouver to read my newly penned poems to audiences, but it had never occurred to me that I could walk into a bookstore and buy a published book of poetry.
It was summer of 1998 and I had secured myself a sugar daddy—a client who picked me up from my regular street corner in a champagne-coloured Mercedes-Benz, and who paid me enough to send me to my first creative writing class at University of British Columbia. I decided to enroll in Introduction to Writing Poetry.
Poet Kate Braid was UBC’s summer poetry instructor. My first realization about my inaugural university experience was that I was treated exactly the same as the other students. Whereas, my customary cuts and bruises and “fuck the world” attitude received exasperation or pity at the doctor or social worker’s office, in the creative writing classroom, as long as I was participating, I was a valued peer.
The next thing I remember thinking was that if I was to be treated like other students, then I’d better level up my dedication and determination. I needed to take poetry seriously, to deepen my understanding of the craft. Kate Braid told her students that if we wanted to know poetry we must read poetry books cover-to-cover, hopefully many books. This is what poets do, they read. So I set off to the People’s Co-op Bookstore on Commercial Drive in my quest to seriously know poetry.
It could have been the pleasing kaleidoscope image on the cover that drew me to Hologram. I read the foreword, in which P.K. Page likens her process of writing the glosa form to birds that learn to sing by blending the notes and cadences of other birds into their own call. “We have a song – of a kind. But it’s not until we have heard many other songs that we are able to put together our own specific song.” This alone was compelling enough for me to buy the book.
First used in 13th century Spain, the glosa typically opens with a source quatrain from an existing poem by another writer, followed by four stanzas of ten lines each; the last line of each stanza is taken sequentially from the opening quatrain, and lines six and nine rhyme with the borrowed tenth. P.K. Page’s enactment of this form is gobsmackingly fine as she works quatrains by canonical poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Sappho, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, and Pablo Neruda. I had never read any of these poets before. My experience with poetry was slam and spoken word, not textbook. (Well, I actually had heard of Sappho, that she was a lesbian, which is what I was calling myself at the time.) In this way, P.K. Page introduced me not only to her own writing, but she gave me an “in” to experience the writing of other poets from a canon that previously eluded me.
I’ve re-read P.K. Pages glosas so many times that the poems have become even more immersive than song. I’ll call the feeling I get when reading Hologram consanguineous: connected by blood. Nearly 20 years later, I’ve become acclimatized to English-language canonical poetry, and Hologram now allows me to feel the very pulse of Rilke’s concentrated incantations or Sappho’s longing vestigial verse.
Inspired, I wrote my own collection of glosa poems, Where the words end and my body begins (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015). When I began the book, I looked well outside the canon that P.K. Page drew from. “Glossing” quotes from Rilke, Thomas and other mostly white men of systemic esteem does not fit with my values or lived experiences. I looked to queer women, women of colour, and/or survivor justice-minded poets for my source quatrains; poets like Lucille Clifton, Lydia Kwa, Trish Salah, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ritz Chow, Leah Horlick, Chandra Mayor and Jillian Christmas.
Through glossing these (and eleven other) poets, I aimed to do three things:
First, to venerate and observe the remarkable and unique lyrical verse of each: some are widely published, while others have yet to release a first book. Here I must mention the barriers to publishing for queers, women, and most especially women of colour. Again and again, I see Can Lit publish and recognize white authors (like myself). I am a learner in anti-racism work, and what I’m learning is that poetry can and should play a role in disrupting white privileged/Eurocentric narratives and in honouring diverse voices.
Second, I simply wanted to share the work of the poets I admire the most. Several of the poets I glossed are friends, mentors and chosen family. What can I say; I love the talented folks I know! It brings me joy to quote them and to respond to them in verse. And I can always use more joy.
Last, I chose source poets that would allow me to continue my own exploration of survivorship, sex work, and creative queer healing. I desire companionship when writing through pain and recovery. I need solidarity because writing lived experiences can be isolating. I’m always looking for kin. I will always be seeking that bloodline of language and craft and healing and resistance. I am deeply indebted to all the poets who reminded me just how connectional poetry can be.
Amber Dawn visits the Brockton Writers Series on our annual Queer Night, Wednesday, July 8, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Trish Salah, Vivek Shraya, and Syrus Marcus Ware, and special guest speaker Michael Erickson of Glad Day Bookshop.