How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013

Reviewed by Quentin Mills-Fenn

The book is divided into three parts: Outside (chronicling her life on the streets), Inside (working indoors, which is safer and pays better, and paid for her university education), and Inward (acting as a coda, containing reflections about love).

The book includes some of her earliest poems that came out of her participation in an outreach project for at-risk girls. (“The outreach project worked for me,” she writes, “I made it to the age of twenty-one.”) Inspired by the brave, confrontational content of Riot Grrrl/Spoken Word poetry, these early works introduce us to the author’s personal landscape. The details make the pieces all the more compelling:

Drugstore red lipstick

is all I need — a Lincoln Town Car

will pick me up in the gas station parking lot


from “Chevron Restroom 1212 East Hastings”

The personal, lived-experience voice is also evident in pieces that aren’t directly derived from her career as a sex worker, as in the conclusion from one of the poems in Inward, “These are the Romances that Stick”:

And I loved long drives

how you close your eyes,

then open, and everything around you has changed.

The essays are complementary but not secondary to the poetry as Dawn works through similar themes. They’re as unflinching as the poems, whether offering comment on the sometimes uneasy relationship between sex workers and university feminists or relating a work vignette. There’s a dark and revealing but funny story about working in a massage parlour above a salsa lounge. Mind you, “But I’m in College” ends with another of the girls passed out on margaritas, and the rush and burn of cocaine, where “One pain situates itself so close to another pain.”

This review is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

Quentin Mills-Fenn is the name Bruce Symaka uses when he’s interviewing writers and writing about books. Otherwise, Bruce has been the publicist and audience development coordinator for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival for the last three years.