Thursday, October 8, 2009

Amber Tamblyn Writes Poetry

Yes, that Amber Tamblyn, the actress whose career includes roles in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Grudge 2, plus the lead in the TV show Joan of Arcadia. I discovered this (little-known?) fact because she's currently blogging at the Poetry Foundation.

My first thoughts, of course, were like, "Huh?" and then "Ew." But her first post is actually kind of good (also, we share a fondness for Noelle Kocot). But it's not really my style; I don't like the preemptive tactic of avoiding critique by exposing all your weaknesses upfront ("You're a Hollywood actress who can't spell," she writes in the faux second person, "None of the writers at the Poetry Foundation will take your writing seriously. Seriously. Stay in your safe zone where your publicist can help control your image."). The need to lower people's expectations is a sign of insecurity; I do it when I'm playing pool because my game is highly variable, but not when I'm playing ping pong, because my ping pong skills are tight. All this jive, well-written though it may be, tells me that she's not just worried about how she'll be received by the PoFo crowd; she's worried that she's actually not that great a poet.

Are her concerns founded? Well let's take a look shall we??? First I consulted Wikipedia. Simon & Schuster (the Children's Publishing division, ahem) published her first book of poetry, Free Stallion, in 2005. The title certainly sounds like a children's book (Elevator pitch: A cross between Black Beauty and Free Willy for the tender young animal activist). But is it poetry for children?

Semi-inconclusive. Amazon classifies the book as "Young Adult." But maybe she's just been pigeonholed because her acting roles are very YA? The School Library Review says "Free Stallion is a compilation [sic] of poetry that amounts to a portrait of the artist as a teenager.... Many of the selections are appropriately self-absorbed but move beyond journalistic catharsis to real insight and stunning language for one so young." Well, um, she's 26 ... not exactly a teenager. I really hate when young women are marketed as precocious little ingenues. When a 26-year-old man writes a book people don't treat him like the boy detective. (OK, so she was younger when the book came out, but I know a 29-year-old whose publisher just tried to give her the same treatment.)

Back to the poetry, and whether it's any good. (Of course the simple fact that she got a book published doesn't mean anything since everyone knows that's easy when you're already famous (see Billy Corgan*).) You can read a selection of poems from her book on a website called Rebel Asylum (red flag). I think I'll just annotate one of her poems. (Amber, consider this a review. I don't like the poem very much, but part of being taken seriously is getting negative reviews. And if some dipshit reviewer on Amazon made you cry, you need to toughen up a bit. Poets are mean.)

Moths © Amber Tamblyn from the book Free Stallion

I consider myself flexible in awkward positions. [a promising first line]
Not a home wrecker,
but I do knock.
And you and I are pals.
The kind that
open up to each other but keep mouths
at a safe distance. [meh, but withholding judgment]

But I cannot amend all tongues. [taking a turn for the worse]

I walk the dubious centerfold of your eye-line, friend. [kind of interesting, though reiterating that you're "just friends" (with benefits?) is unnecessary]
I carry my purse on the same side you walk next to me
to avoid hand. [speaking of awkward]
To avoid saying anything small.
We are the shredded fuse,
the rebound wires commencing,
badly rerouted and iniquitous. [not convinced Tamblyn is adept with vocab]
We are the failed test of the emergency buddy system. [UGH]
Chums. [WE GET IT]
I am a derelict without furniture or life signs,
painting your posture from distance that
can fit inside the palm of your land. [really, no]

Though we share ice cream instead of pipedreams,
I know
you'd never be lover to another poet
because you are one. [totally unnecessary line]
And the fear of being served a reflection
in the way that you have served some,
is a glass house you are not ready to escape from.
I'll keep liking mint, while you go for chocolate.
I can't seem to get away from. [from/drums/from. um...]

You are just another sheep
jumping the fence in my nightmares. [truly, Tamblyn, you're no "linguisticon"/"metaphor aficionado"]
Counting out numerical complacency,
a platonic answer with a nod-off.
Like a million hairs you've grown near your mouth
plowed down, rough and sore
my beard too wants to be a little fucked and worn, but [whoa, what? that's not very YA]

the time is not now, if not never. [I like this line; could see myself writing it]
Not before, during or after
her, your lover, another, or the next chapter. [just took it too far though]
So lets just say
lets just stay
friends, forever. [way, way too far]

There is no title for our book cover-up,
so I will keep reading like a brood kept laboring. [huh?]

Take a long walk off my short feet,
my stomach pleads hunger no matter
how much I eat
and its open mouth aches.
Where there should be butterflies there are moths. [This could be a good idea/image if it weren't coming after all the muddied ones before it. Like most famous people, Tamblyn needs an editor]
Eating through my loins like loincloth. [huh?]
If there's a map to things spoken, friend
we'll see we are way off.

Buddies. [FINE, have it your way, Tamblyn. You know where I stand.]
You're the worst kind because
you wont even reject me physically,
we can't even celebrate celibacy. [So you ARE friends with benefits!!]
I am your dirty washboard
and yet have never had you inside me.

There's no declaration in our country.

Pals. [ ... ]
You tug the one red string
that seems to run through everything.

I seek your flying patterns from behind,
the blue leading the blind.

Friends. No beneficiary.
So we stay.


Like I said, I'm not impressed. On the other hand, it's her first book, so she might have written the poem a long time ago. She might be a much better writer now, especially if she's reading poets like Kocot. (Though Kocot is kind of a visionary and not easy to imitate successfully.) "It'll be interesting to see" if Tamblyn turns out to be worthy of the PoFo (not that I think the PoFo is so great). But not that interesting.

*Kathy Rooney wrote a great essay on rockstar poets a few years back but the link is broken. Did Contemporary Poetry Review fold?


  1. she might have written the poems when she was a teenager. of course in hollywood most teenagers are actually 26 anyway.

    i believe harriet has, how do you say, jumped the shark.

  2. Ha, true! As a teenager I kept wondering when I was going to look like teens on TV look. Never happened, because by the time I looked that old I looked old.

  3. Yeah, at first I was perplexed by the choice. I had to google "Amber Tamblyn", I had never heard the name (or saw the soap or movies), but then again I'm somebody's mother and woefully square and old-timey. I found some of her poetry, and like you, wasn't impressed. But I also thought her first Harriet post was decently written (despite your accurately pointing out the lowering expectations tactic). I wonder if this might be an attempt by the Poetry Foundation to reach more communities of poets (although I waiver a bit on that).

    I decided to reserve judgment until after she's posted a few more times. She might very well be a good contributor. I mean there have been quite a few talented poets who really phoned in their Harriet contributions. I'd rather read something by someone who takes the task seriously.

  4. I agree, her blog posts might be far more compelling than her poetry.

    I haven't really been excited about a Harriet contributor since Olena K. Davis.

  5. Thanks for liking that essay! I don't know what happened to the rock star poet link, but Tamblyn might actually fit into the poets-at-the-movies piece I wrote for them, too: I don't think that CPR has folded, but Garrick Davis, the editor who runs it, takes forever (years in some cases) to pay his writers, so I wouldn't be surprised if it had. I'd like to get my hands on a review copy of BANG DITTO--I like your annotation, but this is from her older book right? The new one is out with Manic D, a respectable press, and I'd be super-curious to see how/if her work has matured.

  6. I agree with Reb---too easy to be hard on someone like this---young, beautiful, famous. I feel like at least she wants to write poetry. I think that's important and it's great that poetry attracts people from all walks of life. Wow, I'm feeling generous today.

  7. @Sandra,

    I don't think Reb and I really disagreed about anything, but I disagree a little that it's "too easy to be hard on someone like this" -- I wouldn't want people to withhold judgment on my poetry because they consider me young and beautiful. I'm evaluating her poetry, not her youth or beauty or fame, none of which I resent. Nor do I resent her writing poetry. I just wanted to find out if it was any good. And I hope she does keep writing poetry, but I also hope that it gets better.

  8. Elisa, I did really like your post and that's why I made a comment. And I totally agree that you should evaluate her poetry not her. I guess that I was talking about myself being very quick to judge someone like this and not even look at the poetry. My initial response is: WTF?

    I think you are right to focus on her poetry instead.

  9. Sandra, I hope I didn't seem combative. I appreciate your comments. I just didn't want to seem like I was being mean for meanness's sake. I actually annotated the poem in real time -- I didn't know whether or not I'd like the poem before I started the post. And I didn't think it was without redeeming qualities.

    anyway. happy weekend. :)

  10. I used to watch Joan of Arcadia. For some reason. This blows my mind though.

    In her defense, I think an actor trying to write poetry is about a thousand times less annoying than any artist trying to act. It's like, a step down on the popularity-of-art meter.

    Or is it a step up on the credibility-of-art meter, and therefore, I should be upset by this?

  11. In the xmas episode of My So-Called Life, one of my favorite shows ever, Juliana Hatfield, one of my (very) former favorite musicians, guest-stars. She's a pretty horrible actress.

    I don't think either is as annoying as when actresses try to sing (a la ScarJo) ...

  12. Oh man. Agreed.

    I wonder. Has that ever worked out? Because I can think of maybe 5 or 6 examples of an actor/actress turned singer, and not a single instance where it should have been done.

  13. I know a couple people who like Milla Jovovich's music. I'm not personally convinced she can actually sing but at least she tries for something sort of moody and atmospheric as opposed to a standard overproduced pop record.

  14. Mine may be the shallowest read on the entire situation, but a month or two back, Tamblyn boasted a big ole thanks somewhere to people for making her latest book "number one" in poetry book sales on Amazon, as though this were the penultimate measure of poetry success.

    Ahem, anyway, my shallow read on her writing poetry is that she may turn younger peeps on to poetry, possibly possibly, who will then explore and seek out more poetry, fingers crossed ... of course, I'm ever the optimist.

    Honestly when she boasted this thanks, I didn't know who she was, but I looked at the first poem or two in her latest book (you can read them on that Amazon preview) and thought they weren't half bad. Of course, I spotted a typo right off too and then looked her up to discover just why her half-not-bad poems were top selling - oh, she's a known kid actress. Such is the twisting and mockery of the fates!

  15. time was, acting and singing went hand-in-hand.

    the golden dayz: i rememberz 'em.

  16. Have another helping of snarky snark with snark sauce ... she's a good poet who happens to have a better day job than most poets. Why not take a look at her most recent work before asserting your poetic superiority?

  17. I googled her and read what was available on the web. I don't think anyone is obligated to read a full book (or two) before they make a judgment.

    And I kind of think if your early work's not good, don't publish it. You can't just disown it and ask people to only read your most recent book.

  18. Cruelty has a human heart, And jealousy a human face...

  19. Ha ha. Negative reviews aren't cruel. Give me a break.

  20. Did "Sempervirens" create a blogger profile for the sole purpose of defending Amber Tamblyn's poetry?

  21. Dear Elisa,

    Thanks for sharing. I think you should amend your comments about how easy it is for the famous to get published and that most famous people need an editor.

    I think it's manifest that it's easy for anyone to get a book of poetry published these days. Ditto that most everyone could use an editor, famous or not.

    On Tamblyn as a poet, I didn't much like the poems in Free Stallion (2005). In the last two weeks, I've read about two dozen or so of the poems in the new book Bang Ditto, at a bookstore. Those poems are better, much better, than those in the earlier book, but not super. I did love the prose one (can't remember the name, forgive me) that includes some of the crazy shit she (presumably) did as a kid. Some of the poems are declamatory, preachy, somewhat similar to some of the poems by Jack Hirschman, a poet that Tamblyn has known for years.

    Another thing -- it's expensive, and hard to find (there were only 300 copies) -- but Tamblyn's The Lonliest,, a set of haiku-like poems inspired by Thelonius Monk, with color photocopies of collages and handset type by George Herms, is a very cool thing.

    I think one of the poems in there goes:

    dear thelonious
    make beatz break them start awkward
    do it be that song

    The words there I think have moments that are Monkish at piano, it seems to me.

    Finally, Tamblyn has been reading, at least here in San Francisco, and down in LA (e.g., at Beyond Baroque) for several years. I'm surprised it was a surprise to you that she wrote poetry, but maybe that's geography.

  22. Steven, thanks for your comment! Nice to get an informed and fair (and not defensive) opinion on the rest of her oeuvre. I'll certainly take a look at Bang Ditto when it crosses my path. I think I had actually heard the name of the book a couple of times, but had no idea it was by Amber Tamblyn.

  23. If you want to see her performance and an appeal, ahem, to bring her to your school by Tamblyn herself, here:

    And Jason Quackenbush describes how he hurt her feelings and her history with Slam, among other funny stuff, here (she notes him in a recent interview, incredibly enough):

  24. Wow. Oh man. Good stuff! You people are really bringing it in the comment department lately.

    The slam thing makes total sense. She is slam all up and down.

  25. Something else ... Amber Tamblyn appears to have a bit part in this trailer I just watched on Noah Falck's blog:

    I guess it's a documentary about a book by Jack Kerouac?? Her line is "Oh, Jack, Jack, Jack ...!" (said while laughing)