“Language to Live By”

  • Amber Dawn
    How Poetry Saved my Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Catherine Owen
    Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tiffany Johnstone

When authors write about the process of writing, they inevitably explore tensions between art and life, and between art and society. As in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), this inquiry often occurs in an autobiographical context. Vancouver authors Catherine Owen and Amber Dawn draw on this tradition of literary memoir in Owen’s Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (2012) and Dawn’s How Poetry Saved my Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (2013). They combine autobiographical non-fiction and poetry to recount the search for a voice as a writer and advocate for social change.

Catalysts is Owen’s first prose collection. It consists of a series of autobiographical essays written between 1999 and 2011. Throughout the text, Owen chronicles her attempts to embody artist/muse relationships from the perspective of a blue-collar feminist environmentalist with an interest in “subculture” in all its forms. The book is divided thematically into two sections, “Origins” and “Theories.” The first section features a series of “pilgrimages” fuelled by esoteric muses, including American environmentalist poet Robinson Jeffers, obscure female BC pioneer photographer Mattie Gunterman, a host of almost forgotten medieval European female poets, and a lover in Montreal lost to drug addiction and suicide. Catalysts abounds in inter-textual references that challenge us to abandon lingering perceptions of art as a pure or timeless aesthetic practice. What we have instead is a polyphonic “mishmash” of “language and rhythm,” a conversation rich in peculiarities. The second and stronger part of the book consists of meditations on artistic and scholarly practice, and concludes with the impressive “Dark Ecologies,” which envisions a new “ecological consciousness” in Canadian literature. She highlights American writer and holocaust survivor Terrence des Pres’ observation that “Poetry that evades our being in the world offers… no language to live by,” and she encourages “a reconfiguring, through poems, of ways of relating to the planet.” Owen’s fixation with downtrodden muses, from little known artists to species on the point of extinction, creates a paradoxical artistic persona. She is drawn to loss and trauma, which she suggests art has the power to recognize but not fully repair. While her message is at times didactic and inconsistent, particularly in her criticism and simultaneous engagement in aspects of popular culture, she invokes a powerful alternative mythology of subcultural poets and muses.

Dawn also adopts what can be seen as a radical blue-collar feminist poetics “to live by” in How Poetry Saved My Life. Her follow up memoir to the Lambda award-winning novel Sub Rosa contains poetry and essays about her experiences as a Vancouver sex-worker, activist, and writer since the 90s. An instant classic in the vein of Evelyn Lau’s Runaway, Dawn’s memoir is extraordinary not only for its tale of personal survival in a community ravaged by poverty, serial killings, disappearances, drugs, and disease, but also for her representation of art as integral to personal and collective survival. The book is divided into three parts, “Outside,” “Inside,” and “Inward,” which refer on a literal level to her time as a sex-worker and activist on the streets of east-Vancouver and in massage parlours, followed by her retirement from the sex-trade and her writing career.

These sections follow Dawn’s development as an artist from being inspired by poetry on skid-row, to developing her craft, achieving an MFA in creative writing at UBC, and becoming a celebrated queer feminist author and activist. The poetry of “Inside” combines restrained and sensuous imagery with her signature understated humour and colloquial tone to evoke glimpses of life on the streets: (“/. . . women break/barstools, bathroom mirrors, jawbones, neighbours who go missing”). Dawn traces her early identification with art as a source of identity and empowerment amidst the challenges of sex-work, drug use, health issues, sexual experimentation, identifying as queer, and finding a voice as a poet and activist of “street social justice.” “Inside” follows her development as an increasingly self-aware activist and scholar and includes the standout essay, “How to Bury Our Dead,” dedicated to her friend, Shelby Tom, an Asian transgender sex-worker who was murdered in 2003. Dawn shows the need to properly mourn violence against the LGBT community whose history of disenfranchisement she shows to be intimately connected to that of women and sex-workers. An idea that emerges with nuance throughout “Inside” is that our collective humanity depends on our ability to humanize each other equally. She juxtaposes a massage parlour client’s post-coital remark, “[n]ow I feel human again” with her own question of “[w]hat would I pay to feel human again?” to show how society ironically stigmatizes and depends upon sex-workers. Dawn challenges readers to relate to her story while avoiding dissociative reactions of voyeurism or pity. At the end of “Inside,” she interrupts a story of an aggressive client: “Right now, I want to remind you of how this moment represents all of our lives. Part of us is hurting while part of us is unable to see the injury. We must talk more about this disconnect.” Dawn’s memoir ends with her continuing to find her voice in a community of artists and activists she helped to forge. The brief and open-ended final section places the focus on Dawn’s earlier challenge to readers to connect her individual survival to collective redemption and reform.

Owen and Dawn show the necessity of art to personal and cultural survival, and to political advocacy. Their street-smart, inter-textual feminist poetics offer new ways of making art and of seeing ourselves that engages in the political, cultural, and interpersonal complexities of the world around us.

This review ““Language to Live By”” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 176-178.

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