By James McAdams, Barren Magazine Flash Fiction Co-Editor
On Thursday, December 19, 2019, at 2:35 PM EST, Barren Magazine’s flash fiction email account received a submission entitled “In Marilyn’s Shadow.” The author’s cover letter described it as an ongoing poetic project about Marilyn Monroe. The flash fiction staff was thrilled by the imagery of the story, which conflated the Brentwood-area deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Brown Simpson. The treatment of celebrity, the overlapping of weirdly dead lives, or living deaths, bloomed like the flowers along the suburban L.A. streets. As the poet muses near the close, “Beyond the arbor, over the back fence, an old woman who taught acting to Marilyn Monroe was slowly dying in her white shuttered house. I didn’t think to pray for my neighbor.” (Fucking A!, I wrote in our Google Doc–if you’re curious how literary magazines work.)
Eighteen months later, I was elated to learn that the project had won the 2020 [Pank] Books Poetry Prize. An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe, by Heidi Seaborn shifts from the midnight reveries of a contemporary insomniac poet taking Ambien and recurring accounts of Marilyn’s life: her sexual abuse as a young girl, her marriages to Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio, her establishment of her own production studio, to her final years in and out of psychiatric clinics, up until that final night where nobody responded to her cries for help (“Dr. Greenson are you there…Dr. Greenson, come rescue me”). The titular “insomniac party” occurs discursively, in the bricolage text written by the exhausted contemporary poet consumed with the vicissitudes of Marilyn’s life, the words shared between them like lip gloss at a middle school slumber party.
For all this, however, the collection ultimately unfurls a hopeful message. The first poem, entitled “Insomnia Diary: 1:28 am” starts “I’ve taken Ambien every day this week,” while the last one, entitled “Then I Slept,” ends restating the themes of flowers, healing, and the momentary bliss to be found in gratitude. Like Plath (whom we learn in the collection dreamed of meeting Marilyn), the poet seeks solace in the rhythms, sounds, and smells of nature:
I slept in, slept through the night.
I slept without Ambien’s dark
fist pressing my pillow. Slept all night.
My love questions
God’s existence, but I hear the weather
is warming this week.
In celebration of its release by [PANK] on June 1st, Heidi and I had coffee and crumb cakes in an L.A. hotel …I mean, emailed about the origins of the book, how it changed from conception to completion, and the enduring power of mental illness and celebrity.
JM: In your Author’s Note you discuss the massive amount of research you conducted to learn everything about Marilyn. Many of the lines in the poems are literally taken from her letters, diaries, doctor’s charts, movie reviews, and so forth. Did you begin just randomly writing some poems here and there about Marilyn, and then, once you understood the project’s shape, undertake your research? Or were you a veritable “Marilynhead” before, filling up notebooks and digital files with quotes from her that you knew you would put to use one day?
HS: I wish we were hanging out, doing this interview in an LA Hotel–with something stiffer than coffee. That would be very Marilyn as I’ve come to know her. But I literally had only a vague sense of Marilyn Monroe three years ago. I’d just finished my first collection which is largely autobiographical (Give a Girl Chaos, C&R Press, 2019) and was starting an MFA. I decided that I wanted to stretch myself by writing in persona, and to explore celebrity and performance culture, particularly as it relates to women. Marilyn remains, nearly 60 years after her death, the most iconic female celebrity of the 20th century. Who better to inhabit? So, there was some randomness to writing Marilyn. But once I’d made that decision and my advisor had signed off, I started down a parallel path of extensive research while writing poems: the research informing the writing, the writing guiding the research. In the end, I did have loads of digital files and piles of books. My sister came over one day, looked over at the bookshelf next to my desk and said “what’s with Marilyn?” I did get a bit obsessive in my research in order to get to a place that felt authentic.
JM: For me, some of the coolest moments in the book involved deliberate anachronisms surrounding celebrity and technology. For example, there are imagined moments when Marilyn’s taking selfies, or appearing on Instagram and YouTube. What do these imaginings tell us about the kind of virtual immortality we see around us these days?
HS: That was exactly my initial impetus for this work–as exploration of our current performance culture. I read a great book called The Drama of Celebrity by Sharon Marcus that examines the historic rise of celebrity and some of the contributing factors. Marcus identifies Marilyn as inventing “Multiplication”–the concept of an image going viral long before viral existed. A press photo of her would get picked up by the wires globally, her quotes too. So Marilyn was definitely a precursor to today’s Instagram celebrities. At a recent book tour event, someone asked me if Marilyn would flourish in our social media environment. It’s hard to know–would she use it or be abused by it. Marilyn may have achieved iconic status before social media but social media has guaranteed her virtual immortality.
JM: About ¾ of the way through the collection, the poems shift to documenting Marilyn’s years as a young girl–unwanted, abused, ridiculed. What connection do you see between Norma Jeane Baker and Marilyn?
HS: Marilyn Monroe was a character that Norma Jeane Baker created for public consumption. My poem “Becoming Marilyn” is about Norma Jeane taking on the name given to her by Fox Studios, and in essence the character of “Marilyn.” Additionally, she could turn “Marilyn” on and off and often had an uneasy relationship with the character she created. My poem “Sometimes I Just Want to Be Norma Jeane” explores her desire to shed the “Marilyn” self. As someone who studied method acting, Marilyn was bringing all her history to her work. But she tried to leave it at the studio. The world just didn’t always allow that to happen.
JM: In “How to Throw a Communist Party,” you use Marilyn’s party menu notes to show her in a different light, as a more urban, educated, hostess concerned with fashionable foods and Chaplin and Robeson and…well, the opposite of the roles she was allowed to play in her movies. In other poems you mention her reading Ulysses and wanting to study literature at UCLA, only to be silenced by the men (and studios and businesses) who were of course assholes and wouldn’t allow her to participate in those kinds of intellectual spheres. Sadly, none of this is all that surprising, but I guess I’m curious about what you’d say was the most shocking discovery you made of this “erased” or “silenced” Marilyn that readers would not expect? (What a horrendously worded question!)
HS: I was surprised by how Marilyn maneuvered her career. As I mentioned above, she used the media and public spotlight to elevate herself to fame, then used that fame to force the studio to negotiate to her terms. It was a time when the studios owned the talent and controlled their media coverage. Marilyn broke that grip–by playing to the media and public and then using that to break with the studio and start her own production company. Right before she died, Marilyn was fired by Fox for leaving the “Something’s Got to Give” set to attend (and famously sing) at President Kennedy’s birthday. That birthday song made Marilyn even more enigmatic which led Fox to actually not only hire her back but to dramatically increase her compensation. Sadly, she died before the contract was signed.
JM: Finally, the thing that makes this collection sing–and the reason I recommend it to others who may be reading this–is the relationship between the anonymous poet/speaker and Marilyn. While the poet remains unnamed, we do know some things about “her”: she lives in CA, she delights in flowers, she has children, she suffers from insomnia. Unless it ruins the art (and arc) of the collection, how would you explain the way considering Marilyn’s life and death allows the poet/speaker to heal? Do you conceive of it as a permanent healing of a wound, or a scab that will be ripped open again? In other words, in the narrative universe of the poems, what are the chances the poet is, once again, on this date (June 18th, 2021) is once again up at 4 AM taking Ambien?
HS: Ok, first I’ll deliver the usual proviso that the speaker and poet are distinct. That said, I tend to think of the speaker in these poems as a version of the poet who is a version of me. Just like Marilyn in these poems is a version of Marilyn Monroe who is a version of Norma Jeane Baker. We are all performing some versions of ourselves. I’m glad you were rooting for the speaker/poet! Me too! I originally conceived of this collection as being all Marilyn. Being that it was my thesis, I was fortunate to have Catherine Barnett as my thesis advisor who pushed me to make it more of a collaboration, rooted in the common themes that I had discovered between my life and Marilyn’s. It was not easy to go there, both emotionally but also it meant writing dozens of new poems. But once I made the leap, it just flowed. And then it came together into a narrative arc that easily wove two stories into a poetic conversation. There became a blurring of voices–sometimes it’s clear who the speaker is and other times it’s not. In the end, I wanted that lack of distinction–the muse and the poet fuse then separate in the end, changed.
JM: You’ve published multiple books before. How was this different from your earlier ones? Finally, are there any real or virtual promotions you’d like to tell our readers about?
HS: My debut collection, as I mentioned, was more autobiographical. My chapbooks too. To undertake something that is a project, in persona, research-based was a real departure and challenge. The perfect distraction during the pandemic in many ways. And thanks for asking about the book tour–it has started out virtually with a series of readings which will continue through the summer then easing into in person readings in the fall. I think the crunch of the usual book tour jammed into a couple weeks going from place to place may be forever changed–it’s more leisurely and expansive. I’ve had people show up at virtual events from all parts of my life and from every locale. But I miss being in a bookstore or bar or festival and am excited that too will be part of this book’s journey into the world. Events and all things An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe can be found at heidiseabornpoet.com. Thank you so much for your terrific questions, and for publishing one of my favorite poems from the book and for Barren.
An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe can be ordered here