How Amber Tamblyn Survived Creative Death and Lived to Tell the Tale

Actress and poet Amber Tamblyn's Dark Sparkler features poems about dead actresses, past and present. (Photo: Katie Jacobs)

Amber Tamblyn, the poet and actress best known for her Emmy-nominated turn on Joan of Arcadia, is well-versed in the emotional peril of being a young woman in Hollywood. The daughter of actor Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story, Twin Peaks), she got her start in 1995 on General Hospital. She left the soap opera in 2001, and went on to star in the popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants franchise. In recent years, the 31-year-old actress starred in Two and a Half Men, acted in a stage production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, and guest-starred on various television shows, including The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret alongside her husband, the comedian and actor David Cross.

At the same time, Tamblyn has cultivated a respectable career as a poet, with three books of poetry under her belt. Her latest, Dark Sparkler, is a perceptive, harrowing study of dead actresses, past and present: Sharon Tate, Judith Barsi, Frances Farmer, Dominique Dunn, Dana Plato, and Jean Harlow, to name a few. The book began as a one-off poem about Brittany Murphy, a peer of Tamblyn’s (the two actresses met once, during auditions for the Eminem biopic 8 Mile). “Brittany Murphy” manages to humanize the doe-eyed ingenue, who died in her shower of possible complications of pneumonia in 2009.

Tamblyn reads from Dark Sparkler at City Lights Books on April 28. The event is hosted by San Francisco beat legend Diane di Prima — an appropriate choice, as Tamblyn grew up surrounded by Bay Area poetry icons like Jack Hirschman and Michael McClure. KQED spoke with Tamblyn by phone this week.

How are you connected to the San Francisco poetry scene?

I was raised around a lot of those poets. Jack Hirschman is like a second father to me. He’s one of my dad’s closest friends. He and Michael McClure. My dad really only has like four core friends. Jack is one of them. Neil Young. George Herms, the collage artist. They all lived in Topanga Canyon together in the sixties. I was always in a household filled with poets and musicians.

Is it true that your first poem was published in the San Francisco Chronicle?

Yes, it was published in a magazine that was an insert to the Chronicle, called Cups. The poem was called “Kill Me So Much.” It was sort of a political ode. I wrote it when I was twelve. I was heavily influenced by Jack Hirschman’s work. It really was an ode to him and his style of poetry. He was very taken with it and he was the one that was responsible for getting it published. Anybody that knows Jack, it’s the communist/proletariat in him, he believes in everyone, and believes in art so emphatically. He’ll help you get your chapbook made, he’ll take your poems to his editor, that’s what he does.

You call him a mentor. Was he supportive early on?

Extremely. He’s also a mentor in the way that he’s hurt my feelings many times by telling me when a poem wasn’t good enough. He was always right. He’s not someone to mince words or to protect your feelings for the sake of protecting. That doesn’t mean he goes out of his way to hurt, but he will tell you like it is — especially when he knows that you can do better or dig deeper. My first book Free Stallions was dedicated to him. He’s edited almost all of my work aside from Dark Sparkler.

DarkSparkler hc c

Diane di Prima wrote the foreword for Dark Sparkler. Was she also around during your childhood? How did your connection to her come about?

Diane was always like a wild wolf that I could never quite get close to. I was heavily influenced by her poetry, and especially her memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman. That book single-handedly changed my relationship to myself as a woman. George Herms and Diane have been best friends forever. He’d known that I always had a wild crush on Diane. I think we were at Michael McClure’s 70th birthday and George specifically set it up so that I was sitting at the same table as Diane. My hands were super sweaty from nerves. We got to talking and slowly became friends.

In the foreword, di Prima writes: “Dark Sparkler is many things. It is, first of all, wonderful poetry. It is also cartography in that it maps a previously unexplored piece of women’s experience — a part of the map with which Ms. Tamblyn is personally familiar.” It’s an apt description of what you are doing in the book.

I’d been emailing Diane these poems from the book and getting hand-written letters from her (which are now framed in my house!) She doesn’t usually quote books. And she turned me down when I asked for a blurb for Dark Sparkler. She said, “I’m not interested in quoting the book, but I will write its foreword.”  I almost fell off my chair. Only she could write so eloquently, having no understanding of Hollywood in the intimate way that I do, but that she could nail it on the head in the way that she did, was so profound.

At the end of the day, what she’s saying, and what she understands is that, the stories of these women in this book are not just the plight of celebrityism. They are the plight of everyday womanism – what it’s like to be projected on, no matter what field you’re in. To not believe in yourself and not think you’re good enough. To constantly be struggling against those paradigms and double-standards.

That’s how I felt reading Dark Sparkler as well. It’s a harrowing read — for the reason you just mentioned, and also because of learning the horrific things that happened to these women and girls. Like Judith Barsi, for example. I hadn’t thought about her since the ’80s. And you look up the stories and they are just so sad. What was the process of writing the book like?

It was a huge process. Some poems would come really easily. Other times I was just mad at the entire process, and over it, and wanted to quit. I did stop writing the poems for about a year. It was after the Dana Plato poem. I’d made myself listen to this Howard Stern interview that she did, where she started crying, and people were saying these terrible things to her. And then she died the next day of a drug overdose in her mother’s RV on Mother’s Day, which I also talk about in the book a little bit.

Look, it’s really hard to study your dead peers. Not just their death, but to study their pain. That’s not to say that I identified with them, because I didn’t. But I did understand their helplessness. Or, what I perceived to be their helplessness. Their suffering at not being able to get out of certain pigeonholes, to not be able to grow and see themselves in a certain light. Those things, I had some understanding of.

Going back to that cartography, ultimately, that’s what the book became for me. It was less a study or a journalistic look into these women’s lives, but instead it was about the interpersonal life of women, and how we treat ourselves, how we view ourselves, and ultimately, my own relationship with myself. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The book is an invitation to my funeral. The me that existed before this happened was a less strong person who wasn’t totally ready to grasp what they are capable of.

In one interview you said, “Making this book was a life-saving experience for me.” I thought that was interesting, considering the subject matter. What did you mean by this? 

I feel like a lot of the interviews with me have taken this out of context. The interview with the Washington Post, and the woman at the Los Angeles Times did the same thing.

I never felt suicidal. There was never a sense of thinking I wanted to die. It was more about surviving the pigeonhole. It was more “I’m going to survive the cliché that I’ve become, or that I think I am.” I didn’t know anything other than how to audition, my entire life. I did nothing else but that and writing poetry. I wanted to direct, I wanted to write a great novel, I wanted to write a script, but I didn’t feel like I had permission to do any of that. The word “permission” comes into play big-time in the inner minds of women. You constantly feel like you’re having to ask for it. You’re needing to have it. So really this was my mind’s survival. The book became the way for my brain and my heart to survive that which was creatively killing it. It was survival from creative death.

The challenge then becomes, how do you take those insights into your current life?

The minute I embraced that idea of creative death, it was really revelatory. Writing the epilogue in this book was a revolutionary act for me. And then having Harper Collins buy it, knowing it was going to have an impact, being able to say “Look at this thing you’ve done” — that let all the gates open at the same time. A film I wrote and directed, Paint it Black, based on the novel by Janet Fitch, was shot. I’m producing a TV show in the fall. All the things that I wanted to do, but I just didn’t know how to get them going, are now off and running. What I experienced is not unlike what any other 28- or 29-year-old is experiencing, which is Saturn’s Return. This big existential crisis. This sense of “what am I doing?” There are bigger fish for me to fry. I have the fish. I just don’t know how to fry them. Writing Dark Sparkler was me taking cooking lessons, for lack of a better metaphor.

How Amber Tamblyn Survived Creative Death and Lived to Tell the Tale 21 July,2015Leilani Clark


Leilani Clark

Leilani Clark writes about books for KQED Arts. Her writing has been published at Mother Jones, The Guardian, Civil Eats, Time Magazine,  Food & Wine, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and The Rumpus.  She is the editor of Made Local magazine in Sonoma County. Find her on Twitter @leilclark.

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