Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake) once said, “Surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”
Amber Dawn’s words stop time and perhaps even a heartbeat. They reach into the deepest part of your soul, stir up reactions and feelings you might not have thought possible from a slim book. Her words not only affect us and alter us, they transform us, make us question everything we have thought to be true, and leave us yearning for more. Characterized as “transgressive” and “no-holds-barred”, Dawn’s writing is nothing short of coming face to face with the raw core of our existence when there are no more layers to be peeled.
Author of Lambda Literary Award winning novel Sub Rosa and her brilliant follow-up How Poetry Saved My Life, Dawn has just released her new book of poetry Where the Words End and My Body Begins (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015). Dissecting everything from sadness to queer identity and erotic encounters in all its specificity and dimensions, Dawn has weaved a sublime book of poems of profound insight and intensity.
Dawn is currently on a west coast tour with authors Leah Horlick and Vivek Shraya. Where the Words End and My Body Begins will be available in the U.S. on April 21. Reserve your copy now! She graciously spoke to Bi Magazine about her craft, with some advice for young writers.
Bi Magazine: When you first decided to write about your lived reality, were there external and internal voices that said you can’t write about that because no one cares? Who or what were those voices and how did you overcome those voices?
Amber Dawn: I do not have that particular daunting “no one cares” internal voice. I think the “no one cares” voice is dangerous, not only because it’s self-abasing but also because it doesn’t push the author to rise to the privileged occasion of having a readership. When I wrote How Poetry Saved My Life I believed people would care about a memoir written by a former street-based sex worker and queer survivor. The internal voice that speaks to me wonders how to do right by all those caring readers. How can I possibly write what they most need to read? Can I offer something of value and authenticity and wisdom? If I fail to portray myself in a dignified way, does that mean I also fail other survivors? What if folks of similar experiences and lived realities feel averse to my writing? How exactly does a writer take responsibility? How do we represent? My internal voice loops like that. I am gripped by these thoughts, but it’s also these thoughts that foster my sense of accountability. These thoughts remind me that I have joined a much larger conversation, and that I need to keep learning and speaking up to stay in the conversation.
BM: Your writing exposes truths buried deep within someone’s gut or emotional memory. What advice would you give to another writer who wants to reach into spaces that could be terrifying?
AD: I’ve heard all sorts of keen advice from other writers. For example, every hour of writing tough content should be followed by an hour of self-care. That sounds amazing! I have yet to meet a writer who is this successful at self-care. My own advice is simply not to isolate. Writing is a solitary practice as it is. And pain can be extremely isolating. Writing about pain … that’s a lonely and perhaps emotionally unwell place to be. Join a writers group. Tell a few friends you’ll be working on a challenging manuscript and could they frequently check in with you. Plan dinner dates. Sit in a park where people walk cute dogs. Don’t wait until you are feeling low and lonesome to reach out. Whatever smashing isolation looks like to you – plan ahead, make it part of your writing practice.
BM: Your writing tends to be blunt, which has the potential to be mistaken for indelicate or disrespectful. Do you make a deliberate choice to write for maximum visceral impact because you feel that ‘blunt’ fits the subject matter (life on the streets, survivorship, queer activism)?
AD: To me, the highest calling an artist has is to disrupt dominant patterns and narratives. The dominant narrative tells us that trauma survivors should be “pathos-worthy” and palatable. For example, if the mainstream media (in North America) actually covers a survivor’s story, it’s never a fucking candid and angry-as-hell survivor. An angry-as-hell survivor is too “uncomfortable” for public consumption. We could say the same about queer identities. What queer identities have been permitted, albeit at an arm’s length, into the dominant narrative? Mostly white, “normative” acting queers that can adhere to, or at least entertain, the ruling status quo. I bet everyone who reads this interview can relate to having their identities somehow coopted, silenced or stigmatized by the mainstream. Let’s disrupt that bullshit. Let’s be blunt about it.
Further to this, I consider all my writing—published or in-progress—to be exploratory, not definitive. Through writing, I lay bare my values and experiences, as well as my ignorance and mistakes. I’m not interested in presenting as perfect or palatable. I’m interested in writing myself as I really am.
BM: Do you struggle with form and, if yes, how much, how do you get past it, and what advice would you give to young writers about form?
AD: It’s a fantasy of mine to bring my favorite women peers, mentors and literary epitomes together (imagine them all in the same room!). This is why I wrote in glosa form—it’s an interactive form that allowed me to work with text from other poets. The form brought me joy and connection. There was almost no struggle, for me. I would encourage any writer—young or experienced—to traverse form poetry. I like to say that form gives poetry a place to live, and poetry shouldn’t be homeless. Follow that metaphor: form poetry welcomes a poet inside a well-built, long-standing home, a place where a poet can try out techniques and ideas they may not attempt in free verse.
BM: In your poem Sweet Home you wonder what poetry is yet to come now that you “stand in this world as someone who is completely loved.” How does Amber Dawn feel as someone who is completely loved?
AD: I feel very lucky.