If you’re on the highway Thursday afternoon and you notice a straight couple on a motorcycle, and the girl looks suspiciously like Tibby from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, don’t strain your neck looking. Yes, that’s actress Amber Tamblyn. And no, that role is not the most interesting thing about her. It just so happens Tamblyn is also quite a good poet, and she and fellow writer/poet Derrick C. Brown, her motorcycle-riding companion, are cruising into town to bring their “poetry reading” (if you can call it that), Lazers of Sexcellence, to the backyard of The Wild Detectives at 7 p.m. Thursday, where it will serve as the feature performance of local literary nonprofit Wordspace’s season launch party.
If you hear the words poetry reading and think “Blegh” or “Let’s not and brag that we did,” but like slutty dancing, T-Pain or absurdist humor, then this might be just the event for you. Tamblyn and Brown, who have been performing their writing together for over a decade, say all three are likely to come up on Thursday, plus a whole lot more, including audience participation.
Tamblyn will read from her most recent collection of poetry, Dark Sparkler, for which she researched and wrote from the perspective of numerous female celebrities who died young, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Brittany Murphy to lesser-known starlets. Brown, who lives in Austin and runs a publishing house there, Write Bloody, won the Texas Book Award in 2013 for his poetry collection Strange Light. This go around he's reading from Our Poison Horse, an autobiographical work named for a horse that had been attacked with pesticides. We talked with Tamblyn and Brown about their working relationship, what we can expect Thursday and why they think they’re entitled to be so goofy. Didn’t anyone tell them they are poets, and that is very serious business?
You two have been working together for a pretty long time now, right?
Tamblyn: Yeah, for 10 years … over 10 years at this point.
And even this particular show, Lazers of Sexcellence, you’ve toured for a while.
Brown: Yes, we’ve done 10 states and now we’re adding three. Oklahoma, Texas and Dallas.
You’re gonna flatter our ego! Can you tell me how your literary relationship began?
Tamblyn: We had known each other maybe 10 minutes before we were like, we should tour and do shows together. We both had the same sense of humor and felt the same way about poetry shows and how boring they can be. And how much more fun they could be, much more of a rock ‘n’ roll experience or improv experience — that they didn’t have to be this sort of boring thing, reading poems at a pulpit under a fluorescent light. We sort of banded together over that theory and did a couple of shows together. What you’ll be seeing in Dallas is basically exactly that connection.
Brown: Amber and I were obsessed with spontaneous dancing for a long time, where we would break out into sudden dance parties at inappropriate places, whether it was at an anthology reading series, all of these literary events — whenever it was our time to read we’d go up and be like, ‘Hi! Dance party! Let’s go!’ I noticed that Amber and I were the only ones dancing very sluttily. The idea of us dancing with a sense of excellent sexuality turned into sexcellence. We decided we should tour where we do poetry and have sassy dancing.
Tamblyn: That is pretty accurate.
There is reading though, right? Are there some elements that conform to what you’d expect of a poetry event?
Brown: There’s definitely reading out of books. But there’s also the added element of storytelling, audience interaction — sometimes we have volunteers perform in our poems, sometimes we perform in each other’s poems, becoming characters or adding to the story before it gets told. So it’s more of a theatrical experience. It’s difficult to label it as a typical poetry show.
In the 10 years you’ve toured Lazers of Sexcellence, you’ve both published several times. If the show involves playing off each other’s work does that mean that your writing always interacts well and shares themes, regardless of what you’re promoting at a given time?
Tamblyn: Oh yeah, vulgarity. It’s pretty consistent. Just patent lies. Lots of lying. Lots of talking about each other’s spouses in really derogatory ways. [Tamblyn is married to comedian David Cross.]
Brown: And I’m not married, so it’s weird.
That’s the lying part.
Tamblyn: But I get drunk and think he is. Even though he’s talking to his mom, I’m like, ‘Who’s that? Nancy? She’s dumb, I don’t care if you came out of her!’
Brown: She’s a saint!
Tamblyn: There will always be common themes.
The show obviously makes a lot of room for humor, but Amber, your most recent work for example, Dark Sparkler, explores pretty heavy subject matter. And Poison Horse takes its title from a maimed animal. Can you both talk about that interplay between dark and light in your work?
Brown: We may joke around a bit in interviews, but the roller coaster of emotions goes from beauty to heavy to light. We treat it like a first date, where you don’t want to ram your grief down someone’s throat. We warm ’em up so we can go to these other places. I think it’s a unique experience that so far audiences seem to like in other cities.
Kind of like a spoonful of sugar approach.
Tamblyn: Yeah very much so.
Brown: And then a hammer in the teeth.
Tamblyn: And it depends audience to audience. Sometimes people, it’s impossible to disarm them and they’re just not feeling it. It depends on what kind of preconceived notions they come to a show with. Certainly Derrick and I have had our fair share of bizarre college shows. Or you know, Midwestern shows with lots of young girls who are coming to see Tibby from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. By that account, it can be a little more difficult to get them into the experience of it. Or it can just be a really bored academic crowd.
There can be so many different things, and then we have to work harder. But I actually love those shows. Because I get a little more angry and funny and carefree. That can be an instance where you’re reading a poem — I’ve seen Derrick do this many times — and you just know people are not feeling it. They’re checking their phones, they don’t care. And then what are you going to do at that point? You’re going to say, you know what? I’m either going to switch to another poem or I’m going to just put on some T-Pain on the old iPod and bring Amber up here and we’re gonna throw diapers at everyone and see what happens. Diapers full of pennies … not in the face, that would hurt.
Yeah, that would probably come with some kind of legal consequence … So are you guys really making this Texas tour by motorcycle?
Brown: One motorcycle.
Tamblyn: I’ll be hanging onto Derrick’s back hair like a horse saddle.
Brown: Yeah, I only ride topless in order to make a statement.
Tamblyn: Men have rights too!
Brown: My nipple is not to be feared!
I think a lot of people, who perhaps haven’t been exposed to much poetry, would say you guys don’t conform to their expectations of poets. Your show is definitely atypical of literary events. You’ve mentioned that it’s very theatrical, and that certainly makes sense with your acting background, Amber, and your experiences with slam poetry, Derrick. Is it part of your mission to use that theatricality to make poetry appealing and accessible to a new crowd?
Tamblyn: Yeah I would say that’s really accurate. For us, we have the feeling that the poetry experience — not just poems themselves, the experience of hearing them, of absorbing them — doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to be just reading. And while that is enough for some people, it’s not for the majority of people. To broaden the audience for poetry and get them into it, you have to find new ways to get people engaged and interested. And sometimes that doesn’t involve straight reading for an hour and a half.
And that’s the other thing, too. People put on poetry shows that are far too long. It’s such a narcissistic move to do that. For us, we like a tight, succinct show that has a lot of different elements and a lot of what we call palate cleansers. So that we’re not just reading or performing for people who love poetry, we’re reading and performing for the people, the person, the date, the friend that they brought who doesn’t like poetry or poetry shows. Cause we want to turn them on. We want to make more people give a shit, and the only way to do that is to not blend into the clichés of that.
Derrick, will you be reading from Strange Light?
Brown: I have a new book called Our Poison Horse, with poems based all around writing in Texas and different elements involved in Texas.
You live in Austin, but you’re not from Texas originally, are you?
Brown: I was born in California. My father was born and raised and still lives in East Texas.
Having won the Texas Book Award for Strange Light, operating a publishing house, Write Bloody, in Austin, and then of course living there, it seems you’ve really become a Texas author. Do you identify that way?
Tamblyn: He’s kind of a douche.
Brown: As a douche? What are you trying to say? Yes, fine, yes … No, I absolutely do identify myself as that [a Texas author]. But I think what I don’t identify myself as is a slam poet. Slam is a thing you do. I’m not a library poet; I’m not a motorcycle poet; I’m not a slam poet. I write all kinds of things — I do comedy, I do poetry, short stories. So I feel like any sort of classification that slams you in a box could be kind of difficult. I’ve written poems at sea, and out and off the coast of California. This book is definitely written as a Texas writer. But who knows what the next one will be like.
What are you both working on right now? Besides this tour, of course?
Brown: I’m working on a musical with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs.
Tamblyn: No big deal. I have a new book that I’m working on, of love poems. And also a novel. It’s really quite a terrifying experience.
Amber Tamblyn and Derrick C. Brown will bring Lazers of Sexcellence to The Wild Detectives (314 W. 8th St.) at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 17. Admission is free. More info at thewilddetectives.com.
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