Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Pay it Forward . . . with Poetry

Written by Amber Dawn author of How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir
Don’t let my new book’s title, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, lead you to believe I am a poetry expert. Besides “A rose is a rose is a rose” and “You do not do. Anymore, black shoe” I cannot recite Gertrude Stein or Sylvia Plath from memory. I would do a hack’s job at defining Concrete Poetry, Ghazals, Los Contemporáneos, PoesyBeat or any other literary movement. I do know that transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them . . . but the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody." Emerson was writing about the age-old idea of paying it forward.
I have a lot to pay forward. As an out queer, sex worker, and survivor, I have looked for community and comfort in many places, and I found it in poetry. A sort of calling drew me to my first poetry instructor, Kate Braid, a carpenter-turned-poet, who wrote about her capable, mighty female body in “These Hips” from Covering Rough Ground
Some hips are made for bearing
children . . .
Others are built like mine.
A child’s head might never pass
but load me up with two-by-fours
and watch me

A tough woman’s tale told through poetry! I was hooked. Braid spoke to me through the zeal of her feminist-minded poems, but also through her kindness. I was working on the street when enrolled in her class in the late 90s. She ensured a place was made for me in the university creative writing classroom, and kept in touch until the mid-2000s to see me off to a graduate program. She was the first poet to look into my young, often distant eyes, and say, “You can write. You must write.”  What I heard, back then, was, “You deserve to live. You must live.”  Writing poetry and staying alive then became synonymous for me. In its way, poetry acted as a lifeline during my most critical moments. It is likely that I’ll never be able to repay Kate Braid—but maybe I can pay her life-affirming gift forward?
In 2005, I began to take my university-taught writing skills back to the streets I once came from (not literally the very corner, but to street-based communities). I facilitated memoir-writing workshops for under-aged, exploited girls. I coached queer youth in therapeutic-style letter writing. I made zines with male and transgender sex workers at a local health clinic drop-in. It was at one of these writing projects that I met Antonette Alexandra Rea, carrying all of her poems around in a dog-eared binder inside her oversized purse. Many of her poems she had memorized, as she is a natural off-book performer, but also out of necessity. Antonette's memory, unlike a computer, couldn’t be stolen from her or broken. I remember the first poem she recited to me, titled “High-Track Tranny-track No-track Dies”:
in the cold night.
Hoping for a date
on high-track,
used t’be.
Dates are few and far between.
Pushed undercover or out to the Low-track.
Another tough woman’s tale told through poetry! A stark admiration coursed through me as I listened to her. It was a poem about being a trans woman doing sex work in Vancouver’s most dangerous neighborhood for women—a neighborhood I also knew. And it was a poem with a practiced melody and a wonderful internal rhyme scheme. The words sprang from Antonette’s mouth, transforming her experience into something beautiful and vivid.  

“You can write!” I told her that day, and every time I saw her after that. I hoped she would hear what I had heard when Kate Braid told me the very same thing: ‘You must live. You deserve to be heard. Your voice is important.’  Antonette and I have known one another for eight years now—and I am thrilled to report that she is writing. In fact, she is gradually becoming one of Vancouver’s most beloved performance poets, sharing the stage with some of Canada’s literary who’s-who. We’ve even had the pleasure of appearing in the same readings, from time to time. When she is on stage the audience becomes very still, as if they are hypnotized by her bravery and her melodious verse. I suspect many audience members have never heard a story quite like hers, but they listen intently. Through her poems she reaches people; she invites them to see the world through her unique perspective. People whistle and clap extra loudly for her. They shake her hand after the readings. They hug her. They thank her.

Each time I see her perform I am grateful for whatever small role I played in her creative career. The funny thing is, while Antonette has given me the opportunity to pay it forward, I still feel like I’ve received a gift—not given one. I realize Antonette has given me the gift of poetry all over again. When I wrote the introduction to How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, I knew my book had to be dedicated to her. This dedication is a small thank-you for voicing her story and the role poetry played within it. As I launch my own very personal book of tough woman’s tales told through poetry and prose—I hold Antonette’s wisdoms close.

I’ll end with more of her own words—as she says it best, most recently in an essay published in Poetry Is Dead Magazine:

My poetry and writing were my most valuable possessions. I wrote on scraps of paper, the backs of flyers, anything I could get my hands on at the time. These worn and tattered poems resembled old treasure maps. My pen became my best friend. My writing allowed me to process so much adversity and trauma. I have now filled the void with writing and performance poetry.

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