Eyewear Exclusive: Interview With James Franco

The two faces of James Franco: poet as actor, actor as poet


My first impulse on receiving James Franco’s Strongest of the Litter was to go all William Logan on it. It seemed so Jewel. But I’ve been a Franco fan since Freak and Geeks, and as a poet myself I endeavored to give him the same chance I would want from a reader. Most fellow poets I’ve talked to about the book are skeptical—and some enraged—when they hear about it.  Would Strongest of the Litter have been published if its author weren’t a celebrity? Probably not—or not yet. But I’m not naïve enough to believe any collection is published on the merit of its poems alone, without consideration of its author’s biography, charm, hard work, hustle, and perseverance. Nor do I believe that they necessarily should be. (My forthcoming debut, Our Obsidian Tongues, is no exception: I’m pretty damn handsome.) Would Strongest of the Litter have won a first chapbook contest? Maybe if Frank Bidart, Franco’s gushing blurber, were judge, but otherwise I doubt it. The best chapbooks are defined as much by what is left out as what is included, and Litter is uneven: a more severe editorial paring would have served it well. Franco can turn a handsome phrase—I think of the end of his poem “Paterson History,” which features its speaker as a bus driver in William Carlos Williams’ hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Franco’s stint as poet-busdriver, on a route through the nostalgic detritus of literary Americana, ends with a metaphor for Franco’s recurring obsession, in this chapbook, with the frames through which artists see the world:

My bus is muscular;
A brontosaurus
With a tiny brain
That is me.

Looking out.

Franco obviously reads contemporary poetry, and his endless degree seeking is well documented. He has obviously spent serious time in the craft workshop of the creative writing MFA, but I suspect that what I like best about his book—the believability of his turns, like the end of his Moby Dick poem “Whales,” one of my favorites, and the straight face, or Montgomery Clift-inspired “handsome mask,” that he delivers his often violent or sensual (or both) punch lines with, as in the too-long “Seventh Grade,” the source of the collection’s title, which also, to its detriment, features big black dicks—is his rawer poetic talent, and I wish he bared his teeth more often.

Franco’s best poems synthesize a wide range of influences from American literature and film, inviting William Carlos Williams to converse with the Sopranos, Melville with Kowalski. His weaker poems make mostly good points: yes, sexuality is less binary than our culture allows, and yes, Harvey Milk’s story should be taught in schools. Sometimes Franco’s subject matter, especially his poems about being young, in school, or working as a young actor, restrains the potential scope and authority of his poetic voice. Their occasionally patronizing tone is their most irritating quality, exemplified in “Art School,” which begins in lecture:

The undergrads are fuckers,
Kids that do nothing
For their education.
They got in because they could draw.

This is the stuff that incites poetic rage: the sense that Franco himself got in because he can act, not because he can write poems, that this chapbook was published, ultimately, because of his face and his fame. The uncomfortable truth is that that’s partially—but definitely not entirely—true. His lecture drones on:

                                …it shows

When your life hasn’t yet been lived.

A bunch of bratty art about nothing.


Unless it has a frame.

Let me give you kids adult context

And I’ll make your young passions

Ferment into great art.

James Franco’s full-length debut is forthcoming from Graywolf in 2014, and I’m eager to read it. I hope Franco’s fame won’t inhibit a bloodier editorial pen, that this chapbook be a stepping stone rather than high mark, both in terms of ambition and execution. Because of his fame in other disciplines, Franco has a unique platform from which to write and publicize his poems—if nothing else luring new potential readers to the bookstore’s poetry aisle. That’s good for me, and for any poet that hopes to be judged on the soundness of their work.

Franco and I corresponded by email. He was all business, quick to respond, and I greatly appreciate his taking the time from his busy schedule to talk about poetry.

DAVID SHOOK My favorite poems in Strongest of the Litter are your three Paterson poems, which begin in dialogue with William Carlos Williams—especially his famous "No ideas but in things" dictum—then broaden in scope to include Ginsberg, who lived there in his youth, then several references to films, including Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, and even the Sopranos. I like your synthesis of such a wide range of influences, which I think reveal a preoccupation with lineage, or influence. You begin the first poem by speaking of your late father, then in the second you mention Ginsberg's father Louis, a minor poet himself, and Williams' becoming Ginsberg's new father when he wrote Howl. Who are you poetic fathers and mothers?

JAMES FRANCO I think artistic parents are very important to me for several reasons. When growing up I felt both supported and unsupported by my biological parents. They were both artistic souls and gave me plenty of artistic inspiration but they also had the burden of shaping me as a civilized and responsible human so sometimes it felt like they were an inhibitive force. This really has nothing to do with them as artists or parents; I think they did an amazing job. But I had to look elsewhere for guidance when it came to the arts. Some early influences on me, like they are on many young men, were the beats. In the film Howl, in which I played a young Ginsberg, there is a line quoted from Ginsberg where he says that poetry is the great time traveler and can touch people one hundred years after it has been written. In that sense art becomes parental, it is wisdom, and life, and different perspectives contained in a crafted container that can guide a person just as much as a living person can. Early on my father gave me As I Lay Dying, which started a lifelong Faulkner obsession; I just directed a feature based on that book that I first read twenty years ago.

     When I moved to Los Angeles from Palo Alto I went to UCLA for a year and then left to go to acting school. The head of that school became my first artistic father. It was a moment when I had left the path my real parents wanted for me and I clearly chose my own path. Unfortunately he was my only teacher at that point and he became too influential. I had to learn how to have influences without slavishly following them. Later, after going back to school I got to study with many of the best writers around: Jonathan Lethem, Amy Hemple, Michael Cunningham, Tony Hoagland, Frank Bidart, Heather McHugh, etc. They are people that read my work and responded closely to its nuances much like a biological parent making sure her child is learning to interact well with the world.

I care about books so much they have become characters in my life. I write about them in my own work because they have shaped me just as much as the people in my life. I don’t look at art as a secondary experience; in my life it is a primary experience, just like falling in love, having a fight, or making a friend.

DS I'm interested in your Faulkner obsession. Do you think his influence has rubbed off on your poetry? Do you like his early poems?

JF I don’t look to Faulkner for any direct influence on my poetry. He considered himself a failed poet and put his poet’s impulses into his fiction. I think his big influence as a poet was A.E. Houseman. I know his big influence as a writer was Joyce. What I do take from him is his insistence on risk in style and the great interconnectedness of much of his work. I like to have my later work build on what has come before; both in my own output and in general.

DS In 1888 Walt Whitman told an interviewer, "To young literateurs I want to give three bits of advice: First, don’t write poetry; second ditto; third ditto. You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped.” As an already succesful artist, why poetry? (Is there a need for poetic expression?)

JF Poetry is one of the most refined art forms. Compared to others it is the master of the lyric moment, the moment that is inward, coiling inside poet; not in a purely psychological, physical or sociological way, but in an artistic way. Meaning, poetry is the not the master of imagery (film and photography) and not the master of narrative (theater and the novel) or the master of objects (painting and sculpture) but it can work with all of these things with its own codes of words arranged like music on a page. Poetry does what great literature does combined with the lyricism of what great music can do. The writing of poetry has a history of rules that makes its composition much more sculptural in feel. My friend Frank Bidart says that words are things in space, meaning their placement among other words on a page has as much to do with their significance as their history, their denotation and their sound. This kind of expression is still necessary because it speaks a language that is rarefied and elevated, it turns the mundane into the lapidary.

My guess is that Whitman was not earnest in that statement above, instead I bet he was ironically mourning the loss of general love for the arts; something that poets from Wordsworth to Tennessee Williams have mourned.

DS You've made several films about poets, and in this chapbook you have written several poems about actors, from Elizabeth Taylor to Robert De Niro. Is your physical embodiment of poets like Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane as an actor reciprocal to your writing poetry about actors?

JF I am engaged with many different disciplines. I started my professional career as an actor, but now my other pursuits are just as important to me. As you pointed out, I have played poets in films and I have directed films about poets and films based on single poems. In those cases poetry was the starting point and film was the destination. In Strongest of the Litter the direction is reversed, I use elements from film as material for poetry. Not many films are made about poets but I think fewer poems written about films. (Actually I may be wrong about this, as I write this I can think of examples that contradict this from John Berryman, Tony Hoagland, Allan Williamson, Stephen Dobyns and Frank Bidart). Anyway, I am in a position where I can write about Hollywood, persona and film from the inside. I am not writing about it like a tell-all book but instead I transform the material in one arena into material of differing significance in another. The source is film but the result is something more universal.

DS Do you think that poetry is more universal than film, or that the lyric articulation of personal experience is more intimate and better able to convey emotion?

JF No, poetry is not more universal than film. Film is the universal language. So is music. But poetry is too bound up in particular written languages to be universal. And because it often uses language in more intricate and complex ways than prose it is harder to translate. It is a great conveyer of emotion, but lyric emotion, meaning emotion bound up with imagery and written language. Film and performance can convey emotion much more directly than poetry, but poetry can reveal more complex emotions than performance. It can put the reader inside a character’s head in ways that film can not.

DS Are you working on a book-length collection of poems? How do you make the space and time to write poems with your busy schedule?

JF I have a book-length collection coming out with Graywolf in January, 2014. I have been attending Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina for over three years. It is an intense program that requires a large amount of output. This is one of the ways I am sure to keep up a regular writing schedule.

DS What are you reading, watching, listening to now? What's inspired you recently?

JF Right now I’m doing a ton of teaching; both film and writing. It keeps me pretty inspired. We have been looking at Hunter S. Thompson, The Jersey Shore—

—Have you read Kate Durbin’s poems about reality TV?

No, are they good?

Hell yeah, they’re good. What else?—

—Joan Didion’s The White Album, Spalding Gray, David Sheild’s Reality Hunger, Dennis Johnson, My Dinner with Andre, Andy Kaufman’s My Breakfast with Blassie, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, The Fervent Years, Boswell’s The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, Holy Land by D.J. Waldie, Mr. Paradise and Other Plays by Tennessee Williams, and the plays of Clifford Odets.

David Shook is a poet, translator, and filmmaker in Los Angeles. His debut collection, Our Obsidian Tongues, is forthcoming in 2013 from Eyewear Publishing. He’s currently translating Vasily Kamensky’s ferro-concrete poems while building a Blériot XI he intends to crash and write poems about. He’d like to collaborate with Franco on a Weldon Kees or Raymond Roussel biopic.