By David Nilsen
My wife and I recently traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a weekend of buying books, drinking good beer, and freezing our asses off. We succeeded on all points. On our second night in this beautiful college town, we headed to one of our favorite bookstores–Literati Bookstore–to hear a reading from poet Amber Tamblyn. Tamblyn is also a film and television actress and has been publishing poetry since her early twenties. Her poetry is heavily informed by her experiences in Hollywood; her poems explore fame, mortality, love, failure, sexism, the objectification of women, and other related topics. Her most recent book, Dark Sparkler, brings these themes together under an interesting ruse: Tamblyn researched every film actress who has ever died before the age of forty and then wrote poems about their lives and deaths and the fame machine that buffed them raw, presented them to the public, profited from them, and discarded them when the time came.
In the second-floor coffee shop of Literati’s lovely store close to a hundred people crowded to listen to Tamblyn read from Dark Sparkler. After an insightful introduction from a member of the staff, Tamblyn stepped up to the microphone and read engagingly from Dark Sparkler. Her pedigree as a performer shone through in her reading, her powerful delivery moving effortlessly between humor, anger, fear, and vulnerability. She was in total command of her voice as she read her poetry, and interacted freely with the crowd.
Tamblyn began her reading with perhaps my favorite poem from Dark Sparkler, the satirical poem “Untitled Actress.” The poem is a casting call for an actress. The actress needs to have a specific physical appearance, will be required to appear nude on screen and do a sex scene, and will need to draw a strong reaction from the audience for the depth of her performance and emotional evocation. However, the role pays scale and at the end we find out it is not a speaking role. From there Tamblyn read several of her poems about specific deceased actresses, including poems about Thelma Todd, Jayne Mansfield, Carol Landis, Brittany Murphy, and a number of others. She also commented on the cheekily blank poem in the collection she titled “Lindsay Lohan.”
Tamblyn then read entries from the book’s extended epilogue in which she explores the ways the writing of Dark Sparkler deeply affected her and forced her to explore the ways her ambivalent relationship with fame has impacted her own self-image, her creativity, her sense of mortality. Writing this book took over half a decade and took her to some very dark places. She took a year off in the middle of the writing process to be able to breathe, and when asked later on during the Q&A if there was anything she would like to go back and tell herself when she was just starting this project she responded she would tell herself to be patient, to slow down.
Tamblyn’s political passion showed through when she read the poem which she clarified “…is not even a poem, it’s just anger.” The piece is addressed to men in congress who have taken it upon themselves to legislate women’s bodies. Tamblyn’s voice raised to a yell as she spat out these words with controlled fury, lambasting the sexism and privilege of these out-of-touch overseers. When she finished the room sat silently until she tilted her head and said softly with a smile, “How about we read a love poem?” This brought laughter, and she suggested they read something that made her think about her husband (comedian and actor David Cross). The humor sprinkled throughout the poems and epilogue of Dark Sparkler came through clearer in Tamblyn’s reading than they did on the pages of the book, and it was helpful to hear her voice dryly inflect these lines in a way that highlighted her clever self-awareness.
During the Q&A session after the reading, Tamblyn answered questions about her writing process, her political views, and, with good humor, her experience working with Hugh Laurie on the television series House. She also shared poets who have inspired and influenced her, either through their writing, personal relationship, or both. She mentioned Marie Howe, Rachel McKibbens, Jack Hirschman, Diane Di Prima, Wanda Coleman, Anne Carson, Charles Portis, and others.
When Tamblyn signed my copy of Dark Sparkler I asked her what the hardest omission had been from the book, which deceased actress she had wanted to write about but had chosen not to. Her answer surprised me: there were no omissions. Every single known film actress who has died before her 40th birthday is included somewhere in the book, making Dark Sparkler a poetic encyclopedic guaranteeing these women will never be forgotten.
I’ve gone back to my original review of Dark Sparkler for this site, and I’m disappointed with myself and a little baffled. I liked the book well enough, and, for the most part, presented it fairly, though my brief critiques feel silly and self-satisfied. But mostly it feels like I didn’t give this book enough time and consideration, especially considering the place film holds in my heart, the way so many performers have captured my mind, and particular writing projects I’ve rolled around my head that will explore issues of fame and mortality. I needed to sit with this one for longer, and I’ll be making up for that in the wake of Tamblyn’s reading as I sit and listen as she unpacks her themes from these pages. Amber Tamblyn is an important poet, and I look forward to reading her future work. She’s on a book tour right now, so if you’re in or near one of these cities, makes plans to attend a reading. You won’t be disappointed.
Dark Sparkler is available now at GPL.