From Marilyn Monroe to Brittany Murphy, there’s little that compares to the tragedy of a life cut short. Fans mourn the loss of actresses, though in her third collection of poetry Amber Tamblyn reflects on their deaths as only a fellow actress can. In profiling these actresses, Tamblyn creates a genuine sense of curiosity and desire to know these women better. Readers are advised to have a computer or smartphone handy, as reading inevitably leads down the Wikipedia rabbit hole in search of more information, a fact Tamblyn even references in the work. Here, we talk with Tamblyn about the personal toll writing Dark Sparkler took and what these women are owed.
Amber Tamblyn: I couldn’t believe it at first. I asked her if she would blurb the book and she said no, which at first felt like she was rejecting it, but then she quickly explained she didn’t want to blurb it because she wanted to write the foreword for it. Diane is the most important kind of feminist writer because she both doesn’t constantly identify with the word (feminism) yet her work remains dangerous and groundbreaking to this day. There is a violence to her writing that I have always loved. She is political without being so.
Bookish: Martha Mansfield is one of the final actresses mentioned in the collection and you write that she was “owed her ode.” What is it that you feel these women were owed? What is it that you hoped to bring or give to them through this collection?
AT: With [the Martha Mansfield] piece, which is more prose, I wanted to give the reader insight into how the poems sometimes came to form. In this case, I had run out of ideas. I was tired of writing about dead actresses. So I thought I’d write about how I was tired of writing about dead actresses. At a certain point, the project did feel like I owed this book to myself, not so much them, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish it. There were several times where I just wanted to quit. To answer your question: I wanted these women to be seen, humanly. Intrapersonal suffering and self doubt are international languages we all speak, no matter what we do for a living.
Bookish: This is an intimate collection. It reads as though a lot of your own insecurities were laid bare as you worked through the lives of these actresses. What did you learn reading their stories?
AT: I think in some ways that’s true, though greatly exaggerated for the sake of the poem. I mean, a lot of people ask me if the poem, “Untitled Actress” is from an actual casting breakdown I’ve seen, or something where I was really required to weigh 109 pounds. Of course the answer is no, but also, I didn’t need it to be true in order for it to actually BE true, ya know? Every line in that poem is completely believable and absolutely has been true to someone, at some point, and you don’t need to be in the Hollywood business to know that. That poem is a collective consciousness poem. This book is not about my insecurities as a woman, its about women’s insecurities.
Bookish: You have a section of search terms that covers not only the women you write about, but scores of other actresses that you didn’t touch upon. Were there any that you didn’t write about but wish you had?
AT: Great question. There are several, yeah. Candy Darling is one of them. I even begged my editor to get Misty Upham’s name in the search list when she died in October of last year, moments before the book went to print. I think I will forever want to add young women to this list if they die young. I don’t think this book will ever be finished for me.
Bookish: On page 78, you write, “The author died during the writing of this book.” Is that a reflection of the writing experience and of spending so long writing about such tragic events?
AT: Yes, and thank you for seeing it that way. A lot of interviewers took it as literal. The person that existed before the book began was dead—IS dead. Does not exist anymore. The book is an invitation to her funeral. I see all of this as a beautiful thing.
Bookish: For a lot of readers, this may be the first time they are hearing the “voices” of these actresses. Can you tell us about the experience of getting into their heads?
AT: I didn’t really need to get into their heads, per se, I just did as much research into their lives as I could and wrote what came to me. Sometimes nothing came to me for years, as was the case with Dana Plato. I kept trying to come at the poem in different ways, to no avail. Other poems like Brittany Murphy and Laurel Gene were written in the same afternoon.
Bookish: It seems as though this collection was born out of how these women were treated by Hollywood, by the press, and by themselves. Did your own feelings as an actress inspire this book or was it something else?
AT: I think it was a combination of all of those things, yes. I don’t think it was my feelings, it was just my experiences that inspired it. The great irony of this book is that I have been an empath for a living since I was eleven years old—literally feeling and interpreting the lives of women, who were not actresses, for a living. THAT is what lent itself to the writing in this book. Not just actresses recognizing the lives of other actresses, but the deeper rooted truth of it: Inside, all pain is relative.
Bookish: When your first poem was published, the publication spelled your name wrong. You’ve come a long way since then, this being your third book of poetry. What has been the biggest change in your writing from your first book to this one?
AT: Ha! Leave it to Bookish to do the real research. Yes, this is true. Jack Hirschman was so pissed about that (he is the person who got the poem published in the first place). I think the biggest change is just the change that every writer experiences, which is one of growth—finding your voice. I don’t believe in juvenilia though, so I don’t ever look back at my old work and pedantically belittle it. I am who I was and I was who I am. Those poems are extremely important and sacred to me.
Amber Tamblyn is a contributing writer for the Poetry Foundation and the author of two previous works of poetry, Free Stallion and Bang Ditto. As an actress, she has been nominated for an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and an Independent Spirit award. Her writing has appeared in Bust, Interview, Cosmopolitan, the San Francisco Chronicle, Poets & Writers, Pank, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles, California, and Brooklyn, New York.