YOU KNOW WHO James Franco is. He is a household name, an award-winning actor, the sexiest person on the planet. But that was then. The 34-year-old Franco has been turning a new page in his life, walking down roads not previously taken as a teacher, a poet, and a writer.
His collection of short fiction, Palo Alto (2010), was praised by writers as diverse as Amy Hempel and Gary Shteyngart. Now he has published his first chapbook of poetry, as well: Strongest of the Litter (2012). The award-winning poet Frank Bidart (who advised Franco on the arrangement of the poems) calls Litter “a superb, touching debut.”
For some, Franco’s enthusiasm outweighs his ability to convince. Critical response to his forays into fiction, his feature-film directorial debut, and his art installations has been divided. Others have questioned if his work would be good enough to stand alone if his celebrated name wasn’t on the title page. Others have welcomed Franco as a 21st century Renaissance man, someone who, despite the blandishments and blarney of celebrity culture has turned his talents to the creative world of art and literature, and done so in a serious and sustained way.
In the poem “Fake,” Franco wryly addresses the perception of his persona — of his masks — head-on. “There is a fake version of me/ And he is the one who writes / These poems. / He has an attitude and swagger / That I don’t have. / But on the page, this fake me / Is the me that speaks […]”
Franco’s preparation and education for his writing and filmmaking life displays the self-discipline of an Olympic hopeful. He is both indefatigable and prolific. His passion and energy imbue his artistic efforts, his conversations, and his respect for his teachers and literary heroes.
The interview was conducted by email while Franco was on an overnight flight from LA to Frankfurt, Germany. We spoke about his interest in literature while growing up in Palo Alto and how his mother, the renowned children’s author Betsy Franco, instilled the love of books and storytelling at an early age. He addressed his decision to go back to school (he received his undergraduate degree from UCLA) to earn two MFAs and is now pursuing a PhD at Yale.
He spoke about the visionary American poet Hart Crane and why he made a non-commercial film, The Broken Tower, about Crane. Ditto his interest in the Beats and how he came to portray Allen Ginsberg in the indie film Howl.
We discussed the new collection of poems, which includes a love song to William Carlos Williams and a suite of poems about acting and the cost of art. (“I am a raging Kowalski whose / Temper can be measured by how little I give / How abusive my reticence.”) He discussed the writing, style, and format of his poetry, and why some elements in his fiction reimagined in Litter make better poems than short stories. We grappled with the question of adapting poetry into film and vice versa, a topic that will inform his doctoral dissertation.
His discussed his abiding interest in American homosexual writers and poets and his dedication to exploring and honoring them. And finally, he talked about his personal reasons for pursuing the road less traveled.
He never once winced or dodged the questions I posed. He is a young scholar who holds his own in discussing...read more