On Wednesday, February 19th, Booklist senior editor Donna Seaman, and editorial assistant Courtney Jones went to see poet Frank Bidart and actor James Franco discuss poetry and film at an event during the Chicago Humanities Festival. Here’s what they had to say:
Lots of literati have been making fun of James Franco’s venture into writing via graduate school, but I’ve been intrigued by his great hunger for literary mentors and academic validation. Franco is a big movie star, so why subject himself to the demands of M.F.A. writing workshops? Why seek M.F.A.s in fiction writing and poetry as well as directing and filmmaking? The guy is already rich, famous, and able to do whatever he wants. He went back to school because he wants to do it all; he needs to do it all, and he wants to do it right.
I read Franco’s first novel, Actors Anonymous (2013) with high interest, and appreciated the nerve it took to write so scathingly about Hollywood from inside—his satire really does bite the hand that feeds him. The celebrity is keen to show just how oppressive and destructive fame can be.
Franco’s commitment to poetry had been expressed in films. He played Allen Ginsberg in Howl, created and starred in The Broken Tower, a biographical tribute to Hart Crane. Then Franco’s first poetry collection arrived, Directing Herbert White (2014) (see Donna’s review in the March 15 issue of Booklist!). The title refers to his homage to the master poet Frank Bidart—Metaphysical Dog is his most recent, stellar collection–and Franco’s short film adaptation of Bidart’s most disturbing poem, “Herbert White.” In his poems, as in his novel, Franco shreds the silver screen, but he also writes about his formative years, and pays tribute to Hollywood dead. It is an extremely compelling book.
So when I heard that Franco and Bidart were going to appear together at an event hosted by the Poetry Foundation and the Chicago Humanities Festival, I knew I had to go. And I was very lucky to score tickets. I found out later that the event sold out in seven minutes (the venue seats more than 800). And I was delighted that Courtney Jones was able to join me.
Girls screamed when Franco walked on stage, but ultimately the audience was just as enthralled by Bidart. What we witnessed was a two-hour mutual admiration marathon performed with affection by the 74-year-old poet and professor and the 35-year-old actor, director, and writer. A conversation facilitated by the poet, writer, academic, and Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito. Franco talked about how he always thought he had to keep his acting work separate from his writing—and he’s been writing his entire life. But once he realized that all kinds of fiction writers and poets were writing about the movies, a world he knew infinitely more about than they did, he knew that he could, and should, bring the two halves of his creative life together.
The actor loves poetry, the poet loves film—Bidart, like Franco, grew up in California and wanted to be a director. They talked about voice and adaptation and “Herbert White” and the mysterious and difficult art of poetry. They took great pleasure in sharing a stage, in reading each other’s work, and we all basked in that warmth, that radiance. Even if “Herbert White” the poem and Herbert White the movie are profoundly unnerving. Courtney and I continued the conversation as we left the building, concluding as we walked that poetry has a whole lot more dimension and impact than film.
What’s next for James Franco? He’ll be in Chicago for a while yet, rehearsing for his role in the Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Already an author of short stories and a novel, really it was only a matter of time before James Franco turned his eye to poetry. Of all his endeavors this one might seem to be the silliest, and that’s saying something considering his stint on General Hospital. Poetry is hard. Reading good poetry, for me anyway, is difficult, and writing it, seems nearly impossible. But alas, Mr. Franco has done it. Written a book of poetry, that is. That night, a few hundred eager, some might say giddy, young people clutched what possibly was their first-ever purchased book of poetry, sweatily awaiting their ten-seconds-or-less encounter with Franco when he signed it.
It was a full house, a mixed crowd—an interesting mash up of the hip, young, and possibly clueless, and the poised, poetical, and amused. There were those there obviously there to see Bidart. But Franco’s fans were dedicated. The young women sitting next to me had driven four hours for the event, and the women in front of us snapped pictures the entire time, zooming in on Franco as best their phones would allow. One might have thought they were at comic con, or some other fan convention. But it was not comic con. This was a discussion about poetry, specifically Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White,” a persona poem about a murderous, necrophiliac. Bidart had only ever read it publically two times; this event made three. Earlier in the day an email went out warning people about the content, and suggested a departure time for people who wished to avoid it.
I’ve written a couple posts about actor, writer, director, performance artist James Franco. He is a discussion topic precisely because he’s everywhere, and sometimes seems inescapable. And I admit, maybe I’ve been harsh, mostly because Franco is an easy target. By the time the film screening portion of the evening came around, I’d changed my mind about Franco. Watching him search for the right words to describe the immediate connection he felt to the poem (described as a “tingle”), it dawned on me slowly how into it he really is. He might not have the vocabulary to discuss the work, but as he laboriously explained his desire to capture youth culture and how Hollywood cannibalizes its young, gesturing enthusiastically when words failed him, it struck me that it isn’t some performance art piece or a practical joke to him. He cares. A LOT. Then I realized that I was the clueless one.
The film, like the poem manages to capture the isolation, self recrimination, and horror of the protagonist’s actions. Franco discussed honing in on the fact that Herbert had a family, and the bodies in the woods were his deepest darkest secret. A vice for which there was no help, no Murderers Anonymous support group he could seek out for comfort and the means to get over the compulsion. It was an interesting vision, and made for a gripping short film subject. Some of the deeper layers, the part that connects Bidart to the poem, don’t and can’t make it into that medium, and leaves some of the context to wither and die off- screen. But that’s part of adaptation, isn’t it? As with Franco there are facets to his nature which don’t translate to press junkets, movie premieres, and Oscar hosting gigs. It’s through the poetry and the novel, and short stories that we catch a glimpse of what he’s aiming for.