James Franco on His Earliest Reading and Latest Writing
By Gregg BarriosDecember 9, 2012
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 literary theory and history. Franco is still a movie star, but he is also a hardworking writer and a welcome champion of the literary life.
GB: In your short story “Rainbow Goblins,” in Palo Alto, Teddy, the protagonist, does community service at a children’s library. It opens a whoosh of memory as he reads (rereads?) childhood favorites like The Rainbow Goblins, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where the Wild Things Are, etc. What was your first exposure to literature as a child?
JF: As a child I read a fair amount. I think many of the books I read at that time were very important in forming my imaginative world. When I was very young I remember The Berenstain Bears, Doctor Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Runaway Bunny, The Velveteen Rabbit, and especially the books of Bill Peet being huge influences. When I was a little older my father read to me from The Hobbit and that really set me off on a whole adventure into the world of fantasy: I ventured through all the Oz books by L. Frank Baum and the five-novel Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. Of course The Lord of the Rings, and the Carroll Alice books. A little later I got into more realistic fiction but in the early days I was all about fantasy.
GB: I recently learned that Betsy Franco, who writes children’s lit (over 50 books) is your mother. I used her anthology of poetry by teenage boys (You Hear Me?) with young poets at a Juvenile Detention Center in San Antonio, helping them craft their own poetry. How did Mom influence your reading habits?
JF: I love that you used my mother’s book. My mother and father started as painters; they met in painting class at Stanford. When I was born they both gave it up and my mother started writing. She has been writing my whole life and I can’t believe that hasn’t had a big influence on me. When I was young she used to show me early drafts of her work to get a child’s feedback. Something about composing books was instilled in me from that time. I tried to write at a young age. I remember some weird book called Deep Down, and a short story about suicide. Weird.
Now my mother and I seem to be on the same wavelength. She has branched out into acting and I’ve focused on writing. She wrote a young adult novel about high school students, I wrote a novel about high school students. She works with young people on theatrical productions. I work with undergrads on theatrical productions. She put together several anthologies of poetry by teenagers, I teach creative writing.
At first I didn’t want my mother to read my work, I really believe that parental approval should not be a consideration for an artist. But now when my mother reads my stuff, I think of her as good reader rather than as my mom. I’m no longer embarrassed or ashamed when I think about what she might read; I know she thinks of me as an artist rather than a son when she reads my work.
GB: For Metamorphosis: Junior Year, your mom’s YA updating of Ovid, your brother Tom did the book’s illustrations. You and your younger brother Dave did the audio book version. Plus there was a stage version produced in Palo Alto. It’s easy to see how such an artistic family influenced you. When you made your film The Broken Tower on the poet Hart Crane, you again employed your family as actors. What is the origin of this creative familial collaboration?
JF: My brothers and I were always encouraged to do creative things. Tom has sketched and made sculptures for as long as I can remember. My brother Dave has loved television and film since he was a baby. So when I started acting he saw that it was possible to actually be in all those shows he loved. I had to push a bit when I was younger and show that one could make a living as a creative person, but once I did, they all got encouraged. Now we can all work together because we all love each other and can put our real relationships into our work. My brother Dave has tried to separate himself from me a little, because he was becoming known as “James Franco’s Brother,” but I know I’ll suck him back into all my projects eventually.
GB: At the onset of The Broken Tower, a title card quotes Crane’s ars poetica of sorts:
The motivation of the poem must be derived from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and the terms of the expression employed are often selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associational meanings. Language has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.
How close does that come to your own understanding of what a poem or poetry should do? Was that epigraph closer to the intent of the film rather than this chapbook?
JF: Very good, yes, the epigraph is a way to establish my approach to Crane and his work in filmic form. I wanted the film to reflect Crane’s work, in both content and form. I knew that Crane got very little critical acclaim when he was alive and was in fact criticized in print by some of his close friends, like Alan Tate and Yvor Winters. He got it from all sides. I developed the film as my thesis at NYU and during the whole process I was told that I needed a more conventional structure. But I resisted that. I wanted the film to have the episodic, rough-surfaced construction that his poetry has.
I used Paul Mariani’s book The Broken Tower as a guide; but instead of trying to show the motivations behind Crane’s actions in a clear way, I wanted to line up the most important moments of his life and let them work off each other by juxtaposition rather than fluid ascent and descent. The sections in my film should work off each other in the way that Crane hoped his metaphors did. I knew that I would not get tons of commercial success with such an approach (or subject) nor would I get much critical success because film reviewers are generally stupid about poetry and want such subjects spoon-fed to them through lucid narrative. I also knew that the people who understood Cane the best were probably poets and scholars and they would want a film that told Crane’s life, as they understood it. I have been in movies that have broken box office records and I have been in films that have won academy awards, and I didn’t make this film for critical or commercial reasons. I was loyal to only one thing in my approach: Crane and how I saw and read his work.
My chapbook, Strongest of the Litter, is written in a much different way than most of Crane’s work. I use a lot of plain speech and also personae. I try to use personae to evoke rhythms of contemporary speech and to find the poetry in that. I am very interested in masks and ventriloquism. I have made my living as an actor for a decade and a half so I am used to trying on different roles; the poetry often works in a similar way.
GB: Your book’s title, Strongest of the Litter: Jack London or Charles Darwin? How did you come to selecting the book’s title?
JF: The title comes from the last line of the poem in the book called “Seventh Grade.” In that context it is ironic because it describes a baby mouse that fucks his own mother because he dominated all the other baby mice and because he had an instinctual drive to procreate. It is a way to show the sometime mindless processes we follow, the violence and sexuality at our core. It is an image that is juxtaposed with images of violence and fear in a junior high school as a way to show that the time of life when a young boy comes of age often pushes him to extremes because he is just trying to survive. I grew up in a very nice city, Palo Alto, so I’m not trying to say that I had to survive hardships that many have in their every day lives, but it is a way to talk about the emotional and psychic pressures one undergoes just by living amongst other humans. The title is also ironic because the mouse that is the strongest gets a sour prize; sex with his own mother (a violent act itself), a way to show the often pointless striving for dominance we all feel at times.
The cover photo is of me as the character Alien, from the yet to be released Harmony Korine film, Spring Breakers. Alien is a manifestation of the extremes of contemporary culture. He is a metaphor himself: the ugly rise to the top of capitalist culture through methods of competition, dominance and materialism. He wants to acquire and destroy and consume; he is a demon of unrestrained greed and violence. But he is also strangely charming and mystical; he is the soul of an age. But he is also a character I played, and because he is such an extreme character, it is a way to show how I am trying to use persona in the poems. Like Frank Bidart used the character of a necrophiliac-slash-serial killer in his poem, “Herbert White” as a way to show his anti-self, but also to show that the more autobiographical poems are also constructions of art and not non-fiction. This title stuck as soon as I knew the image I wanted to use.
GB: You also channel the spirit of William Carlos Williams. I sense that Williams also influenced your book of short stories. Palo Alto becomes your own private Paterson. Is he a template or a springboard? Which poem in your collection best emulates Williams’s “Say it, no ideas but in things”?
JF: Yes, Williams is a big influence. I am often drawn to plain speech and boiling things to their essence, simplifying them on the surface for more complex effects from structure and subject. Williams was not a fan of Crane’s, partly because I don’t think he understood him, but also because their philosophies of writing differed so much. Allen Ginsberg was a student of both Crane’s and William’s styles, and I like to think I am a student of all three — and of Frank Bidart as well.
When you ask about the poem that best encapsulates William’s famous dictum, I strangely think of the poems that use famous actors as their subject. The way I think about these famous people here is closer to thinking about things — very complex things — than thinking about biography. I want to use all the contortions of their lives and work to talk about more general things: fame, love, suffering, art making, persona. I describe them, often on a seemingly surface level; in order to paint a portrait, much like Williams describes a cat or a plum.
GB: After portraying two distinct American poets (Crane and Ginsberg), what details or facts about their lives brought you the most valuable understanding and appreciation of their poetry?
JF: I did both of these films around the same time. I had been planning Crane for over a year and eventually shot it as my thesis at NYU. Ginsberg came along while I was doing Milk — Gus Van Sant executive produced Howl and told me Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman wanted to work with me. I had been a reader of both poets' work for years before I did the films.
Doing the films showed me how the poets differed. Ginsberg was a communicator. He wanted to reach people. He was a teacher. His work reflects that. Although it has a collage-heavy beatnik-style approach, most of the references are traceable. It is not difficult to give definition to his miasma of references.
Crane was a difficult poet. He was opaque on purpose, especially as his career (or non-career) progressed. He wanted to make work that engaged on a different level than readers were used to. It's hard to follow much of his work. Because of this, he was less a communicator than he was a visionary.
GB: There are autobiographical elements in this chapbook that harken to stories in Palo Alto (“Seventh Grade,” “Fifth Grade”). Are some biographical experiences better expressed in poetry than fiction? Have you ever gone with one form and later realized it wasn’t working?
JF: Yes, it’s interesting how subject matter can cross between disciplines and mediums. I am also bringing film and performance into poetry, which is a strange direction to go in. In our culture film is often the final end of the adaptation. The poetic form allows me to take the subjects into more lyric directions, to use the material for ends that are less narrative and more transcendent.
GB: Staying with Williams — he was an MD. But luckily for us, his other mistress was poetry. He did well at both, but it is the poetry for which he is remembered. Which will be your legacy, your acting or your literary work? Which do you prefer: writer, actor, poet, or artist?
JF: Funny to think about. I hope that I will be known for everything. Medicine and poetry are very different worlds; they are not closely connected. The different things I pursue are more connected that Williams’ pursuits. I hope that I am remembered for the way that I brought many of these things together.
GB: WCW included Allen Ginsberg in Paterson. He even wrote the intro to Howl. Which came first for you: WCW, Ginsberg or Kerouac? How did Howl influence you?
JF: Kerouac came first. On the Road was my introduction to the Beats, but “Howl” was my introduction to poetry. I studied Williams in school, but I didn’t really study him as a craftsman until later, when I went to the writing program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
GB: I love the way the “Elizabeth Taylor” poem faces the “Montgomery Clift” poem. It’s as though they were caught kissing when we open the page and then return to kissing and embracing when we turn the page. Ditto “Whales” and the whale-watching poem, “Fifth Grade.“ They face each other in another time and another place but moored by the idea of Moby Dick and the underlying sexual tension. This is followed by “Gay New York” and “Theater.” And later with “Marlon Brando” and “Paterson Love.” Was that intentional or fortuitous?
JF: In addition to my great editor and friend Ian R. Wilson at UCLA — he was my first creative writing teacher — I owe much of the construction and ordering of this book to the master, Frank Bidart. Frank is known among his friends as a great reader and editor and arranger of books. He helped me select the poems for inclusion in this book and helped me with the ordering so that the poems would work off each other in the ways that you pointed out. Frank sees poetry spatially. When he looks at words on a page, it is more than notations for sound and meaning, he sees things spatially. It is as if the words are carved in stone. He pays so much attention to every detail because poems are precise constructions for him.
Yes, Elizabeth Taylor and Monty are supposed to go together, they are a couple, at least in poetic form. Moby Dick is my favorite book and sometimes I dream of writing such a book. But I also know that I live in different times than Melville. I could write a book about whaling in the 1850s, but I would be writing about the past, while Melville was writing about his own time. By infusing Moby Dick and whales into poems about contemporary life I hope to elevate the work and enrich the experiences by giving them historical references. To give the yearning of a younger voice more strength.
GB: Landscapes, buildings, architecture, and burning houses appear throughout your literary and art work. These physical buildings are places you or the reader remember: your room at home, the middle school buildings, the library, and the mansions. And often your characters have an emotional tie to these places. I’m reminded of Antonioni’s Eclipse, where the final 10 minutes are a montage of places where the lovers met, walked, and where they were supposed to meet but didn’t. It’s straight out of Spengler. How have the different landscapes shaped or redirected your work? In your art exhibits and even in your prose, I sense the influence of Gordon Matta-Clark.
JF: It’s funny that you mention Antonioni; I use the end of Eclipse in a poem in a series of sonnets about films that will be in my first full-length poetry book, Directing Herbert White, which will be published by Graywolf. Yes, houses and structures are very important to me. I suppose because I can focus on them and say so much about humans and human interaction without directly focusing on humans. Houses and shelter are so connected to civilization; they are great symbols for human creation and human interaction. They are also great frames and provide great shapes.
Yes, I love Gordon Matta-Clark. I love the idea of repurposing constructions made for one thing for a different artistic endeavor. Matta-Clark used buildings as raw material to be manipulated; I like to use films as raw material, to rework their subjects so that the original meaning and inflections are both retained in a new context but also, in some cases, obliterated.
GB: In the suite of poems about actors, you hold them up for praise but you also point to their flaws, many of them tragic. George Cukor once told Marilyn: “A person is soon forgotten, but an image remains forever.” Do we have to be reminded that Liz got fat or that De Niro runs restaurants?
JF: I suppose I am trying to pose the images with the people behind them. To show art and artist. To show the strange position actors are in because their bodies are their medium. And to show how performance goes beyond the screen and becomes part of life.
GB: In your work, there is this tension about masculinity, a curiosity, if that’s the correct word, about homosexual artists, writers, poets, and actors. What motivates this? Are you appropriating gay culture?
JF: Yes, I think I am interested in masculinity and gay culture because I'm so interested in indoctrination and development. I feel like I was brought up in a culture that inscribed ideas about being a man into me, and I want to question all those ideas. I am interested in queer culture because it is a way to question heteronormative lifestyles. As an artist I think it is part of my job to question and to open fissures in thought processes that we often take for granted, or don’t even know we follow. I think there is a social and political side to my interest in gay artists, but there is also an artistic interest and meaning. All the gay artists I’ve incorporated into my work lived in the past.
GB: Are you excluding Frank Bidart and Kenneth Anger who are very much alive?
JF: You're right, not all of them are from the past. I suppose I was talking about Ginsberg, Crane, and Scott Smith (from Milk). But Bidart and Anger are very much alive. Frank was an unofficial editor of Strongest of the Litter — he is the best reader of others' work. And I just shot a short film with Kenneth Anger called "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." He plays a priest. I'm still putting this together. I also have a film premiering at Sundance called Interior, Leather Bar that I co-directed with a gay director named Travis Mathews.
GB: In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers proffers his vital statistics — height, weight, allergies and his “place on the sexual orientation scale, with 1 being perfectly straight, and 10 being perfectly gay.” Would you do the same for us?
JF: Funny. I’m 5’11; I think 185 pounds; as far as sexual orientation goes, I think I am one way in life and another way in my work. I’m pretty straight as far as my romantic relationships go, but pretty gay as far as my friendships go, and very gay as far as my art goes.
GB: T.S. Eliot refused to let his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” be adapted to film. He felt a film would no longer allow his poem to be a poem. Nor would it allow the reader to form her own meaning of the work — instead it would give the work an authorized and closed version of what the poem meant. What are your thoughts on adapting poetry into film?
JF: Yes, this is a huge subject. I have written a lot about this. But you nailed it, poetry is generally more open to multiple interpretations while film is generally more concrete: you have solid images, you have actors to look at and listen to, you have a time-based sequence of events, etc. I’ve adapted many poems to film: “The Feast of Stephen” by Anthony Hecht; “Herbert White” by Frank Bidart; “The Clerk’s Tale” by Spencer Reese; and with my film classes at NYU: the collection Tar by C.K. Williams and the collection Black Dog, Red Dog by Stephen Dobyns. When you adapt a poem to the screen it makes one think differently than when adapting a short story or novel because poems are generally so much more dependent on tone, rhythm, and sonic elements than prose. Also, poems, even narrative poems, usually incorporate narrative in ways that are different than prose. So, when adapting a poem to the screen, one can try to be loyal to tone and structure and maybe to the characters. But choices — a thousand choices are made just by casting the film and finding locations.
GB: In “Feast of Stephen,” I found the title character mirrored Kenneth Anger’s persona in his groundbreaking film Fireworks (1947). Was this intentional? How did that fusion of experimental film and poem become “Feast”?
JF: My short film “The Feast of Stephen” wasn’t meant to depict Kenneth Anger at a young age at all. It is dedicated to him for aesthetic reasons. It was my first film assignment at NYU. I needed to make a four-minute film, and I remembered reading “The Feast of Stephen” while in a class about Hecht taught by Jonathan Post at UCLA and thinking that it would make a great film. When I was at UCLA I didn’t know how I would adapt it, but once I was at NYU and was pushed to make a short film, I realized that the poem would be a perfect source. It was four stanzas long and had a strange little narrative buried inside it.
In the poem, until the end, there are hardly any characters that stand out from the group of boys described. But the speaker is also a character, a kind of voyeur. I had recently become obsessed with Anger’s film Scorpio Rising and loved the way the gaze of his camera transformed the macho biker gang into homoerotic thugs. I wanted to use the idea of the transformative gaze in my film, so I made the main character a kind of Kenneth Anger type. He is also like the speaker of the poem who describes naked boys in the locker room.
The movie tries to take on the perspective of the poem's speaker, so in that respect my protagonist is a combination of Hecht's speaker and Anger's camera eye in Scorpio. The laughter at the end is ironic, it starts over the beating of the boy, but it ends on his smiling face; it's not about his enjoyment of the beating as much as it's an acknowledgment of the complicity of the brutal boys in the homosocial world, a complicity that I found in the first stanza of the poem, the locker room stanza.
GB: Is poetry and/or the exploration of poetry and film the focus of your PhD studies at Yale? Have you settled on a thesis?
JF: Yes, poetry is a big part of my studies at Yale. I did a lot of work on Whitman with Michael Warner and romantic poetry with Paul Fry and beatnik lit with Amy Hungerford. I have not settled on a thesis, but I'm sure it will be about the interaction of cinema, video, performance and literature. I think I'm in a unique position to work on such a topic.
GB: Finally, what is this thing with rabbits: Brer Rabbit, Donny Darko, Peter Rabbit, etc.?
JF: Animals are a great way to talk about human traits. As for rabbits, my production company is called Rabbit Bandini, and when I was in elementary school my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle role-playing game character was a rabbit. I suppose I like rabbits as metaphors because they are at the same time: vulnerable, sexual, cute, fast and innocent. They have been used for a number of things that are also ironic, from Playboy to Gummo. So, I like using all animals, and especially rabbits. I guess it’s been that way for a while.
Gregg Barrios is a playwright, poet, and journalist. He is a 2013 USC Annenberg Getty Fellow, and serves on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters this year. He is the 2015 Fall Visiting Writer at Our Lady of the Lake University. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Texas Observer, Texas Monthly, Film Quarterly, San Francisco Chronicle, and Andy Warhol’s Interview. He is a former book editor of the San Antonio Express-News. He has received a CTG-Mark Taper Fellowship, a Ford Foundation Grant, and a 2013 Artist Foundation Grant for his theater work. His play Ship of Fools about Texas writer Katherine Anne Porter premieres this year in San Antonio’s Overtime Theater. He is collaborating with actor and filmmaker James Franco on a book of his experimental work in poetry and film.
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