Amber Tamblyn's Dark Sparkler: an unsettling meditation on early fame

The former child star performed her new book of poems with Yo La Tengo in New York, taking a gimlet-eyed aim at the pressures Hollywood places on women

“A child star actress is a double-edged dildo,” Amber Tamblyn told a surprised audience at the Housing Works bookstore in New York this week.

“Yeah, I said that,” she added, breaking out of her reading for just a moment. Tamblyn is used to upending the expectations of her audience. Now 31, she is still best known as an actor who got her start in the mid-90s, first on the American soap opera General Hospital, then going on to a series of generic teen roles in films like The Ring and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. But all the while she wrote poetry too, publishing her first poem aged 12 in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work has appeared in a number of indie literary publications all over the US.

Dark Sparkler, from which she was reading on Monday, is Tamblyn’s third collection of poetry, published by Harper Perennial. As the title signals, Tamblyn’s subject matter – the careers of a number of fallen actresses – is dark. Surprisingly, it is humorous too. In 38 poems, ranging in style and tone, Tamblyn gives voice to actors lost before or at their prime. The book also includes an epilogue stuffed with journal excerpts, research notes, emails and search histories.

The atmosphere was appropriately eerie. The band Yo La Tengo later joined the stage with Tamblyn, providing ambient, and at times unsettling, background music as she read. The collaboration included percussionist and vocalist Georgia Hubley taking the mic to sing Tamblyn’s poem Sirkka Sari.

Tamblyn’s poems all took a gimlet-eyed view of the requirements Hollywood exacts from its young actors. Untitled Actress, detailing the exhaustive qualifications for a role including, “Role calls for nudity. Role calls for simulated sexual intercourse. Role / calls for role play with lead male. No stand-in avail”. The expectations pile into a frenetic, yet archetypal, Hollywood role, where the character is “a young Carole Lombard meets a younger Anna Nicole”. Tamblyn pauses before the denouncement: “Not a speaking role.”

The last line hints at the theme of the collection. Some of the women Tamblyn’s work canvasses – like Marilyn Monroe and Carole Lombard – are well-known to American audiences, their failings catalogued in the numerous biographies and television specials their private tragedies inspired. Some of the other women – Laurel Gene, Dana Plato, Bridgette Andersen – have been less obsessively covered.

But in all cases we haven’t heard much from the actors themselves, Tamblyn’s poems attempt to embody their wishes, their seasoned and world-weary observations. Her research on Brittany Murphy, for example, turned up the surprising revelation that Murphy herself wrote poetry.

In an email to the Guardian, Tamblyn emphasized that she doesn’t wish to “take ownership” of anyone and that the poems represent her “feelings on the subject”. In other words, the voices of these past actors are only as she has imagined them. So it is not difficult to imagine that Tamblyn sees reflections of herself in these women. As with the reference to Murphy’s poetry, Tamblyn often inserts herself into the narrative, most notably in the epilogue.

The music itself seemed arranged to reflect the mood of the book; at one point the sounds broke off into cacophony. At other moments, the guitarist and vocalist Ira Kaplan played a triangle, affecting the sound of a tolling bell. The looming nature of the music built until Tamblyn began to read her online search history, delving into the keywords and search terms she Googled from names and ages to reviews of her own films. The guitars strummed at first, a steady beat, building to the point that Tamblyn’s voice had faded to the background as she listed off the name of dead female actors. She stepped away from the mike for a moment, and then stepped back in time for the mic to add her own name to the list of the dead.

Perhaps she meant to indicate that her child actor persona was now over; or perhaps she simply meant to indicate that her own voice had died on the page. Either way, Tamblyn was leaving the meaning of the moment up to the audience to decide.


Sarah Galo

The GuardianTramp

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