Star autobiographies have always done brisk business, but nowadays an increasing number of actors have decided to get serious about writing. Following the tradition of the Beat generation poets who took up residence in Venice West in the ’50s, thesps such as Viggo Mortensen, Amber Tamblyn and Michael Madsen are keeping the underground alive in L.A.
Though actor-poets occasionally turn up for readings at Borders, Barnes & Noble or independent bookstores like Book Soup, the surest place to find them is in their natural environment, at the literary arts center Beyond Baroque, which occupies the old City Hall building on Venice Boulevard just above Abbot Kinney.
In operation since the late ’60s, Beyond Baroque has featured readings by such celebrated writers as Christopher Isherwood, Gary Snyder, Raymond Carver, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Diana DiPrima and Hubert Selby Jr.
Amber Tamblyn has read at Beyond Baroque as well as toured nationally to promote her recent book of poems “Free Stallion.” Published by Simon and Schuster, the book was hailed by San Francisco poet laureate and City Lights bookstore founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti as “a fine, fruitful gestation of throbbingly nascent sexuality awakened in young new language.”
Daughter of actor Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn describes her childhood as one surrounded by artists from all walks of life. As a major influence, she cites poet Jack Hirshman, former UCLA literature teacher who had Jim Morrison among his students, as well as attending local poetry readings.
As Tamblyn says of her poetry on her Web site RebelAsylum.com, “You see me smiling in magazines, but through this endeavor, which I offer with not a small amount of humility, you get to see clear through to my heart.”
Mortensen has a long history as both poet and artist. As owner of the Santa Monica-based Perceval Press, the actor has published his own books — “Recent Forgeries,” “Coincidence of Memory” and “Linger” — as well as those by many other authors writing on artistic and political themes.
Once an active participant in Beyond Baroque’s Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop, Mortensen was also a board member there for a number of years. His most recent performance, in which he shared the stage with his son Henry and fellow poet Scott Wannberg, was titled “Three Fools for April” and kicked off National Poetry Month on April 1.
As Venice poet laureate Thomas recalls, Mortensen began the evening by lighting a candle and quoting from poet S.A. Griffin: “We are here for the sweet stigmata of the poem. And here’s the news.”
“It does get more complicated when one is dealing with celebrities,” says Fred Dewey, exec director of Beyond Baroque. “We had thousands of people approaching us for Viggo’s reading and only had space for two shows of 150 each. For a struggling, small nonprofit, it’s definitely a challenge, but it’s really exciting when movie stars are willing and eager to show people the power of poetry.”
Madsen has read at Beyond Baroque from his poems chronicling his family life, experiences on movie sets and topics as diverse as his thoughts on the death of Frank Sinatra to getting advice on acting from Robert Mitchum. The author of several previously published books, Madsen recently collected his poetry in one volume, “The Complete Poetic Works of Michael Madsen, Vol I 1995-2005.” While reading live, Madsen plays with his tough guy persona, often asking the audience whether he should continue to write poetry.
One of the most unique L.A. voices is Crispin Hellion Glover, who, in creating his books “Rat Catching,” “Oak Mot” and “What It Is and How It Is Done,” took 19th-century books, augmented and manipulated the pre-existent text to create original stories and added hundreds of vintage photographs and engravings.
To promote his work he has organized the Crispin Hellion Glover Big Slide Show, a nationally traveling performance/exhibition that combines live readings, a slide show of illustrations from his books, and a screening of his feature film “What Is It?” The Big Slide Show will visit Los Angeles at the Egyptian Theater in December.
Conveying a highly personal and sometimes brutally graphic sensibility, Glover says of his aesthetic, “There are certain taboo areas that I feel aren’t being addressed in pop culture. I’ve been interested in these subjects since a young age, and I now have reasons why they are important culturally.”
While he acknowledges that some readers and viewers want to dismiss his work as merely shocking, Glover emphasizes that the question-and-answer phase that concludes the Big Slide Show makes his artistic intentions clear.
Though few follow in a strictly bohemian tradition, the Hollywood entertainment community suffers no lack of actors who have substantial careers as poets. Corey Roskin, an organizer of the West Hollywood Book Fair, cites the works of Val Kilmer (related to the poet Joyce Kilmer, author of the classic American poem “Trees”) and Charlie Sheen.
The question remains whether any of these actors would give up their primary career if they could make it solely as poets. In Madsen’s case, his best poetry is probably in his performances — his written verse, while terse and fine, serves mainly as a record of his experiences, not a potential substitute for them. Glover sees himself as a champion of the counterculture, and despite his successes as an experimental writer, he still points to his film “What Is It?” as the exemplification of his aesthetic. Amber Tamblyn has been quoted as saying that she finds greater expressive freedom in poetry, but as an actress still in the early blush of her career, she seems very eager to grow as a star.
The maverick is Viggo Mortensen, who has bluntly stated that given his druthers, he would never make another film. Perhaps the most dedicated and involved poet/artist of the four, his confidence is reflected by his remark that he can “publish books by interesting painters and artists, and I can afford to do so because my own books sell.”