What Can We Steal From Amber Tamblyn’s “Head Lock Heart Choke”?

Title of Work and its Form: ”Head Lock Heart Choke,” poem
Author: Amber Tamblyn
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in July 2012 on InDigest, a very cool ”online literary magazine and arts blog focused on creating a dialogue between the arts.”  You can read the poem here.

Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, you can even see her read her poem:

Bonuses:  Want to book Ms. Tamblyn for a reading?  Here is her agency listing.  Here is a poem Ms. Tamblyn published on The Nervous Breakdown.  Here is a brief but pretty interview with Ms. Tamblyn in which she discusses poetry.  Ms. Tamblyn co-founded Write Now Poets, a great organization “dedicated to increasing the audience for poetry through performance, education, publishing and grant-making.”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure

Ms. Tamblyn says that this is a poem about drinking with Hugh Laurie, so I think I’ve solved the “who is ‘H.L.’?” mystery.  The poem is indeed spoken by a narrator and directed toward what could very well be a drinking companion.  The poem possesses a conspiratorial tone; the narrator is constantly inviting his or her conspirator to do something new and entertaining.  The poem ends with self-realization-it’s not just the poem that is “so drunk”-and the kind of epiphany a person stumbles upon after a long night of drinking.

One of the things I love about the poem is that Ms. Tamblyn adopts and recreates the feeling that you have during a long night out with a good friend.  The sentences and lines start out long and complicated and get shorter and are slightly less coherent.  Why is this appropriate?  When you drink a lot, you end up thinking shorter thoughts that, in retrospect, aren’t as complete as they seemed the night before.

Why is this such a felicitous choice?  Even a teetotaler can understand the basic format of a NIGHT SPENT OUT DRINKING WITH A COMPANION.  The poem consists of jokes that only a drunk person (or a good poet) could think up or find entertaining.  Sexually charged verbs replace the customary ones.  After last call, you find an extra shoe under your chair and wonder how the heck it got there.  And, of course, you tell your companion how much you love them, your mind loosened by drink.

Appropriating a structure also allows you to cut out some exposition and to ease your reader into your work.  Instead of wondering what is happening in the poem or waiting for Ms. Tamblyn to set a scene, you’re relaxing in your own chair beside the narrator at the bar.  You’re also making a visceral connection with the reader; the situation of the poem invites the reader to subconsciously recall our own nights of debauchery.  For better or worse (depending on what kind of drunk we are), this choice of structure forges an inherent and powerful connection between poet and reader.

If you watch Ms. Tamblyn read her poem, you will find that she seems to have added a subtitle to the poem (in addition to a few new lines).  Why did she remove the subtitle “Drinking with Hugh Laurie” for publication?  Or why did she add it during her reading? Why did the line “Where did this shoe come from?” become “Whose fuckin’ shoe is this?” Ms. Tamblyn, for whatever reason, did not psychically know I would write this essay and therefore did not write me an e-mail to tell me about the chronology of the poem’s composition.  So maybe those lines came from an earlier or later draft.  The point I want to make, however, is that Ms. Tamblyn is demonstrating that poetry is ALIVE…or should be.  I like to think that Ms. Tamblyn was so into reciting her poem that she was inspired to change her lines. Maybe she prefers the original lines, maybe she prefers the improvisation that may or may not have been nudged into being by whatever was in her glass.

(The other important idea to take from the video is that a poet is a PERFORMER.  Even if you don’t consider yourself the best actor or actress, it’s your duty to try and entertain those adoring throngs.  Think about it; “Bownbooze” is a word that is meant to be PERFORMED, not read.)

Ms. Tamblyn also uses words in a fun and powerful way.  Look in the fifth stanza.  The words are “waged.”  The drunken friend is urged to “jerk off” rainbows into the enemy’s valley.  These are strong and unexpected verbs.  Not only does the reader briefly stop to consider the mental images in the lines, but those images are stronger because of the unconventional use of language.

What Should We Steal?

  • Appropriate an established form for your work.  Take advantage of your reader’s innate understanding of an afternoon spent at the DMV or the tedium of an evening spent in the audience of an elementary school talent show.
  • Allow a live reading to influence your work.  You may or may not retain changes you make in the heat of the moment, but you can draw in your audience by being playful.
  • Blast your reader in the face with powerful verbs and unanticipated choices of words.  Zip through your poem or story and nuke the words that are the most out-of-money-in-the-strip-club.