Amber Tamblyn spills societal commentary at Literati poetry reading

Sunday, February 14, 2016 - 6:14pm

“I think it’s important to find out first, are you one of two writers? Do you write what you know or are you just a vivid imaginer — or are you some sort of combination of both?” said Amber Tamblyn in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily.

The actress and poet’s most recent book of poems, “Dark Sparkler,” strikes a balance between Tamblyn’s familiar and imagined world. The collection focuses on the untimely deaths of female actresses from the iconic Marilyn Monroe, to actresses whose names warrant few results from a Google search.

“It’s such an interesting topic to me — how we immortalize celebrities and glamorize them after they’re dead and sort of treat them like objects and so I wanted to give a voice to female actresses because I am one. I have some sense of what that loneliness and life must have been like,” she said.

Tamblyn has intimate knowledge of the way that the world regards young female actresses. Having risen to success in roles in “General Hospital” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” (a piece of her identity that may resonate deeply with the tween hearts of University of Michigan students) she meditates on the destructive nature of fame on the psyches and habits of young starlets through poetry.

Tamblyn read from “Dark Sparkler” on Saturday at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor. Her reading was punctuated by candor and hints of dark humor. She offered the audience a healthy dose of hugs, selfies, feminism and her two cents on sexist critiques of Hillary Clinton.

She discussed her process of writing “Dark Sparkler” as emotionally taxing. She started working on the collection in 2009 following the death of “Clueless” actress Brittany Murphy, and she worked on it for six years with a one-year hiatus in between. Tamblyn joked about taking a year off, suggesting that there were a lot of things from which audience members likely hoped to take a year-long break.

“Can we just get a year off of the patriarchy? Y’all can come back and swing your dicks around — just give us a year off,” she said. I laughed — she knew her crowd. 

Her experience as a young actress is supplemented by a lifetime of writing poetry and exposure to influential female poets such as Claudia Rankine, Wanda Coleman, Diane Di Prima and Marie Howe, all of whom have done extensive writing on what it means to be a woman.

“She (Wanda Coleman) certainly wrote about the darkest parts of being a woman and her mind could go to really dark morbid tough places about soul-searching and connecting herself with the souls of other women, so that really influenced me,” Tamblyn said.

Tamblyn still has the clear and versatile voice of a seasoned actress, from precise enunciation and a style that inflicts distinct emotional undertones to each poem she reads.

Her dark humor is displayed in the naturalistic slant rhymes in “Untitled Actress” in the lines, “Straight teeth a must, Must be flexible. Small bust a plus. Can do own stunts. Will waive rights to image, likeness, publicity and final cut.”

Other moments in the collection are more whimsical and abstract. The poem entitled “Laurel Gene,” from which the title “Dark Sparkler” is pulled has a few lines that resonate deeply within the larger scope of the book. Tamblyn writes, “I was his dark sparkler. A tarantula on fire. / An innocent with apple juice eyes and a/ brain full of famished birds.” She recognizes a life that is powerful, yet volatile and vulnerable.

Amid the recounting of stories outside of Tamblyn’s own, she anticipates a search for her personal stake in the matter. She included an epilogue to the book, that catalogues her process of creating “Dark Sparkler” through lists, Google searches, emails and narratives of her own experience generated from a good portion of life spent in the limelight.

“My editor there was really adamant that people were going to want to know what it was like to be me while I was writing those poems. People were going to want that meta-experience,” Tamblyn said.

The directly personal portion of the book is a point of both angst and pride.

“I was proud of that because I meditated on it for a long time and I kicked and screamed psychologically like a little kid. I threw an internal tantrum because really, I didn’t want to go back over all of the emails and the notes I took over five years,” she said.

Spoken with a soft reverence “Dark Sparkler” contains deft lyrical lines such as, “The Country says good things/about the body/ They print the best photos;/ The least bones, the most peach.” The more direct and anthemic “ these are the new rules I play by/ this is the end of the line, k, old white guy,” Tamblyn invokes fury and justified rage. Throughout the collection runs the line of girlish stars, burning out before their times.

“I feel like there’s space for me this time around to be heard. I also happen to be speaking on a message — women being objectified, whether you’re an actress or not, that really resonated with people and got their attention,” Tamblyn said.

Although Tamblyn is privileged in a way that by no means represents the majority of women to which she speaks, she writes from an honest place, extrapolating on her own experience, to beg an important question. What does the way we treat young women in the public eye — whose lives are cut short due to the pressures of objectification and a cutthroat rise to fame, suggest about the treatment of women as a whole?