analysis

A “Conversation” with James Franco: Celebrity Poetry

James Franco

Austin Duck

To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I get so irritated by James Franco. I just do. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, in general, I’m not a very nice person, and it’s no surprise that I (oh yes even I) have found a celebrity that I use to channel all of my frustrations with personal failures onto. I mean, c’mon, look at this stupid face.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to use this space below to try, in some way, to figure out why Franco is doing what he’s doing, to try and get inside his head. Recently, amid all the Facebook and Twitter fire he’s been getting from his newest poem in DIAGRAM and his “book review” that showed up in Vice, a friend of mine, someone whose ideas I take very seriously, asked us (the hungry pack of MFAs who love to trash Franco at every turn) to take a step back, to consider what he’s doing from a different angle. For her:

Uncomfortable as it makes me to admit it, I am interested in [Franco’s] perspective. He’s an actor, and I think he’s a good one. Acting is a delicate and demanding kind of translation. I can grant that he has an aptitude for art, although not so much for the medium he has fifty degrees in. He has the rare (among poets/ardent fans of poetry/scholars) distinction of having a great deal of influence in Hollywood — he’s at liberty to try things most poets/fans of poetry/scholars are not. That has some value to the world… and I’d rather it exist than not, even if he doesn’t please other poets/fans of poetry/scholars with his output. In other words, I think he’s in a position to do some great things, and unfair as that may seem (esp. given the shit-tons of good poetry by non-names that goes uncelebrated, unpublished) I’d rather him try those things and disappoint us than not try.

This got me thinking about what, really, his project could be, what he could be getting at, what sort of aesthetic he’s actually after. Sure, we all know him as the Frank-Bidart-imitating, couldn’t-write-his-way-out-of-undergrad-without-his-name poet who keeps producing less-than-satisfactory work (by poetry culture’s [hahaha like that’s a real thing] standards anyway) to sell to a massive (for poetry) audience, but why? Does he maybe have a grand idea that his writing chops just can’t approach?

I figured the best way to clarify this was by having a conversation with him. Of course, I don’t know him (though we almost went to the same graduate program for a minute), and I doubt he’d talk with me, but he has such a body of work (poems, interviews, book reviews) about writing, that I think his opinions on the matter are pretty much available.

Here we go:

All of Franco’s words come from interviews and poems published in the following places: CurbedViceThe Daily BeastYahoo NewsHuffington PostChicago TribuneDIAGRAM

Austin Duck: At what point did you get interested in poetry? How do you see it relating to your experience in acting? Your vision of making art in general?

James Franco: I was in my first year at NYU, and our assignment was to make a short film that was an adaptation of a short story. They gave us a list of stories to choose from, but at Warren Wilson this teacher I had brought in Frank’s (dark, disturbing, serial-killer driven) poem “Herbert White,” and it was amazing. That was the first time I read him. And I think I have since learned to be awake to those kind of moments, when you get impulses of connection. These impulses are visceral. It wasn’t only because it was about a killer. The killer had been fused with something else. Frank [Bidart] was playing with both sides of the coin. There are moments in the poem when the killer takes down his mask, and the poet shows through.

AD: So you feel like art is a kind of simultaneous masking and de-masking? Both a mirage come up and a human come through? Would you care to say more about that?

JF: Sometimes, I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world. When I was younger, when I had no friends, my mom drove me to school because I lost my license drunk-driving, and we wouldn’t talk, we would listen to Blonde on Blonde every morning, and life was like moving through something thick and gray that had no purpose. And now I see that everything has had as much purpose as I give it, [it carries] less and less of [its] original pain, And become(s) emptier, just [a] marker really, building blocks, to be turned into constructions and fucked with.

AD: So memory for you, then, is what? A marker? A mask? Is the past a kind of costume you slip into when you think you can remake it? I know you’ve done some work in performance poetry as well. Would you say that this idea, the idea of performing a past self, a self othered, is key to the art that you make? I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that the othering is absolutely necessary in acting; even in This is the End, when you play yourself, you’re not really playing yourself. You’re taking a construction and “fucking with it,” right?

JF: I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing. [Once] I called my class at UCLA, and told them to watch Apocalypse Now, and that it used Heart of Darkness as a model, and that we’d watch Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, the making-of, the following week, I told them Hollywood and its high and low priests and priestesses become icons that [we] can manipulate to find poetic truth rather than journalistic proof. I guess you can read it as fetishizing, but it’s more of an ironic form of fetishizing. Once I choose a subject, I’m not going to shy away from portraying that.

If you go back to something like General Hospital, it’s because I like that it allows for people to look at something with fresh eyes, or to rethink a situation. If it’s my involvement that does it, and I’m going against tacit beliefs of entertainment hierarchy, if I’m messing with that, that’s interesting to me.

AD: So while you have interests in characters, in the cracks that appear in their personas, you’re more interested in pushing formal boundaries, messing with people’s perceptions of who you are? Can I ask you something blatantly? Are you more interested in the work or in how the work makes the public perceive you?

JF: I’m going to try to not let anyone put me in a box, and that certainly applies to the things I do outside of acting. There’s a tacit belief that actors shouldn’t write books, they’re sort of allowed to direct movies but there will be a lot of skepticism, and they shouldn’t do artwork, or music. There are these invisible roadblocks to gain entrée to these areas for actors, and you kind of have to crash through those invisible barriers. I know why those barriers are there. People are skeptical of anyone who has any bit of celebrity going and doing anything else because they might be wary that they’re cashing in on their celebrity, or that they’re doing these other pursuits not because they’re genuinely into them, but because of their celebrity in other areas. I understand that skepticism, and think it’s valid. But I told myself that if I was going to go back to school and study these other things, I knew I was going to get some shit, and that people were going to be prejudiced without even knowing what I’m doing, and that’s the price I have to pay for doing what I want to do. I think a lot more people that “care” and pay attention to what I’m doing have turned and understand that I take all these other disciplines seriously. I think it’s better now. I’m sure I still have a lot of haters, but I don’t really interact with them.

AD: It seems to me, then, that you’re interested in something a little more “pure” than many people give you credit for. “Poetic truth” I think you called it. How would you characterize that “truth?” Is it the same “truth” that you’re after when acting?

JF: If I were to act in the film about Obama, all I would need to get down, aside from the outer stuff—and I know that’s important—is his essential kindness. Poetry’s just like that, like hearing a performance going on. It is a portrait in some ways of someone trying to make sense of his world. I was taught to grab a reader, not push them away, and, I guess, that’s what I know of how to be a poet. The way I view it, poetry is like the movies, this monster at the center of the room, articulate, and behind it, a poet figure peeks out, a torque that acts as a through-line to ideas. And his ideas came out of a cheap, dime-store, medical case study that came out of Lowell and Bishop and Ginsburg. It goes on and on. Remember that the bricks of LA were mortared with thick Indian blood.

AD: Oh I see, so it’s about history. You seem to see the poet as inhabiting a kind of history that she makes, again, human, that we’re all imitating one piece or another and, in finding what’s human in the work, we find it with ourselves. Your work, particularly, engages in the history of Hollywood, the history of film, just as your films seem to be engaged in the history and the moment of literature. I think I get it: You engage in Hollywood because acting and film, like poetry, are obsessed with moments—of masks dropping, of traditions shattering and becoming alive. The history of literature and film are all about reinvention, about bringing back the dead, and, as I think you know, the only way to do that is with the human, the real. Is that about right?

JF: Hollywood is an idea. I want to get into the thick of it. Movies won’t be around forever.

AD: Do you think you’ve achieved this in your work?

JF: …

——————————–

While I still think that Franco’s written work, ultimately, isn’t very successful, I think that he has a vision and is pursuing a worthwhile project.

Fuck. I have a lot of tweets to delete.

Image source: The Guardian

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What is Poetry and Why Do We Care?

Austin Duck

“What is poetry” is a question I’m asked a lot and one that I can’t answer. In fact, everywhere I go, every job interview I have, every time someone asks “what’s your degree in,” they follow up with some permutation of that question. You see, I’ve got a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry (along with a few other useless degrees) and, expectedly, I’m constantly bouncing between jobs, looking for the next big thing which requires near-constant explanation of how I got here and why I made the choices I did. And my god, you should see the looks on their faces (unless someone in their family too has made this… choice) when I start stammering and trying to explain myself: pity, embarrassment, amusement that an adult would proudly (sort of) admit that he spent years (YEARS) reading poems, writing about poems, and, most questionably (because academia and the idea of a PhD still hold some cultural capital) learning to write them himself… It’s a dark time to be a poet (though I suspect that, outside of Eastern Europe [where poets are celebrated] it probably always has been).

Not everyone, though, is totally unreceptive to the choice of poetry. For some, poetry still holds its place as a kind of epicenter for literary bad-boy-ness (after all, poets work in shorter bursts of clarity and don’t require the same kind of discipline as someone writing something long-form that is either narratively or argumentatively coherent): hard drinkers, sexers (is that a thing?), druggers and live-r’s that occupy that very thin line between intellectual and indigent, the Jim Morrisons of the not-quite-so-fucking-stupid, the arty guy or gal who, even though they manage social media and blogging at a major corporation (guilty), still has a deeply mysterious and deeply sexual wilderness in their heart.

For others, poetry itself has a kind of heroic capital. It allows one to project the image of hyper intelligence (just look at the number of poets who win MacArthur genius grants and you’ll see that poetry and physics seem to fish from the same pond) and a kind of bohemian “casting off” of economics, of choosing to pursue “art” when really you should have gone into investment banking but this makes you more pure. It sounds fucking stupid, doesn’t it? It is.

The trouble, for me, of people believing these myths—of the poetic bad boy and/or the self-sacrificing genius—is that it creates a cultural expectation of the “poet” as a thing to which young, narcissistic, self-righteous fucking losers (guilty) flock to prove themselves the next Rilke, the next wild Jack Gilbert, the next (ugh) Charles Bukowski, and, in doing so, they build a scene. They themselves (with all of their ideas) create an idea of poetry, promulgate a notion of poetry as sexy or smart, and, in doing so, recreate the culture of poetry.

However, that’s not to say that I’m here to bemoan it; to believe that the state of anything isn’t in flux is naive and prescriptive and hey, I forgot to put on underwear this morning so I’m probably not the best person to make a totalizing statement what is right or wrong for poetry as a whole. I say it’s a trouble for me because it so deeply complicates what poetry is, really. If I had to give a totally uninformative (but accurate) definition, I might say that it’s the silently agreed-upon, written production of a continuously changing group of half-educated, half-myth-drunk twenty-somethings with progressively more impressive resumes continuously reinventing something so fundamental to humans that it existed before God. But that wouldn’t be entirely right.

Sure, that’s the bottom of the scene right now (if you want to think about it hierarchically), but it tells nothing about the multitudes of unpaid apprenticeships with those “living masters”—old people writing poetry who their peer-group agrees is writing the best poetry—of the unpaid publications used to build reputations used to leverage shitty-paying jobs so that one day you and your group can sit among the “living masters” all while under the cold scrutiny of critics who constantly remind you that there are dead masters too, that you’ll never approach them, because history, because craft, because they didn’t get paid to watch Twitter for 8 hours a day while wishing for a different life.

And even that isn’t exactly right when you consider the fact that poetry, for all of its shared resources, doesn’t have a single, unified community; there are groups upon groups, each with slightly different aesthetic- and philosophical-projects, and then there are those who aren’t, exactly, part of groups, who have participated—to some degree—in various groups and projects, have gone through various apprenticeships (or not), who read books that are recommended by friends, or old colleagues, or whose covers and back-blurbs and first poems look appealing at a bookstore (though this is becoming less and less an option) and each one of these people, each one of these groups, is making a case -through-example of what poetry is, can be, does, or (sometimes) what it really shouldn’t do.

So what is poetry (or, really, more accurately, what is American poetry [because each culture has its own organic process for bringing up poets, its own poetics, etc.])? I don’t know. I used to ask my students this question on their final exams just to see their faces fill with terror like mine does each time I’m asked. When asked this question, I usually answer with something along the lines of:

an empathy machine, a text that appears to be written in lines but which actually is a dramatic rendering of a scene, no matter how brief, when the speaker of the poem (usually the “I”) interacts with a specific problem, usually in the realms of nature, language, memory, or culture, outside the self and, in that interaction, is changed, though it’s not enough to tell the reader that the speaker has changed, the mechanics have to be there, the change has to be structural, linguistic, imagistic (made with images), sonic (made with sound), so that, by the end of the poem the audience has had the same experience, their very brain has processed the same images presented in the same way, heard the same sounds, stumbled over the same sentence constructions, and thought the same sentences in the same order so that the speaker and the audience are, for a second, the same person, the other, so that the reader is not confirmed in their own experience but is instead forced into a new one, understanding, yes, both intellectually and emotionally, thinking and feeling as another person. Oh and did I mention that poems “should” almost never go where you think they’re going, that they contain surprise for the reader, the writer, there must be a ghost you didn’t know come to inhabit the body you’re only starting to get a sense that you’re looking at?

I do tend to get sort of breathless (even in writing, apparently) when writing about “what poetry is” because imagine that last paragraph taking place in a single instant; imagine that you were able to achieve what I’ve just described (either as a writer or a reader) and now think about the community differences I’ve described above. To say specifically “what poetry is” is impossible and even to say what it should do is pretty dubious.

In the end, my take on it (above) will yield a pretty classical American/English poem (or, at least, I think that it will), but won’t account for more than 5% of what’s been produced, what you will search through—line by line for some organizing pattern (because poetry is fundamentally [and equally unhelpfully] patterned language).

So why do it at all (reading or writing)? Aside from the fact that some people will think you’re a sexy genius and others will bathe you with counter-cultural social capital, why?

Fundamentally, the interaction of poetry will get you closer to another person’s mind, more fully engaged in empathy, understanding, learning, compassion, joy, sadness, recognition, than literally anything else on the planet. Music for your ears, visual arts for your eyes, writing, particularly poetry which is so often concerned with the instantaneous, the momentous, for wherever your mind and your humanity mix.

For more equally incomprehensible definitions of poetry, go here.

Image source: The Guardian

Kristen Stewart’s Public, Private Poem: Celebrity Poetry and the Sadness of the Watcher

kstew

Austin Duck

When I sat down this morning, I didn’t intend to write about celebrity poetry (because who cares), but, after a brief glance at my long-neglected Twitter account, one thing was clear: Kristen Stewart wrote a poem and everyone thinks it’’ bad.

And, well, it is, it’s really bad (you can read it here), riddled with the self-obsessions and obfuscations that litter beginner poetry—private poetry, really (but more on that in a bit)—and thrust onto center stage (via Marie Claire and Entertainment Weekly and the dozens of other blogs that have picked it up to garner a little viral attention for something other than talking shit about Sochi [the irony that I’m writing about it right now is not lost on me]). But why is it here? That’s what I’ve been wondering all morning. Why does anyone care whether an actress writes a bad poem?

If you think this will be a large-scale condemnation of audience by some high-minded, poetry-for-all douchebag, you’re sadly mistaken. Remember that Twitter account I mentioned? I almost exclusively use it to tell James Franco to kill himself. Instead, what I’m interested in knowing is why, why is this a spectacle? Why does the production of a poem in general—usually so unnoticed that I dare you (MFA-holders excluded) to name three poets writing today or even to tell me who the last poet laureate was—create so much buzz when it’s bad? I mean, I know why James Franco’s does; it’s because it’s absolutely mind-numbing how he buys his way into the poetry community, gets thousands of people to buy SHORT STORY collections or pick up avant-garde poetry journals like Lana Turner to read his work, and then it reads like someone who wasn’t listening in school, who’s never read a poem before, who’s never thought to themselves holy shit! There’s so much I don’t know. Rather than just getting my work out there, I should take a minute to learn how to make it worth being out there because poetry isn’t just personal expression, it’s a fucking public performance made in language that other people need access to!!! (Alright, truth time: I feel some feelings about James Franco.)

I feel though that, K-Stew’s (can I call you K-Stew?) case is different. I don’t think that anyone actually believes she thinks she’s going to become a poet, hold NYU, Stanford, and Warren Wilson hostage while she shoots movies, etc. Instead, this seems sensational precisely because it is, because it is a first-class American spectacle, and one that has pretty serious implications.

The “theory” of spectacle that I’m using, though, doesn’t come from newscasters tweeting about shitty water in Sochi (take that SEO [Editor’s note: totally tagging this with Sochi now]) or from some super high-minded critical theorist; instead, it comes from what I intuit in David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” (from the collection Oblivion) to be an actualization of spectacle, one that I have a hard time articulating except by giving you one of the story’s plots. In this particular plot, there is a man, possibly carrying a gun, climbing a very tall building, while, in the plaza below, people watch. No one can really make out what he’s carrying, why he’s climbing, or even what he’s wearing, but they keep watching, making up stories, and hoping for a clue. But that isn’t all. There are also those inside a department store in building he’s climbing who can’t see him, but who can see those on the plaza reacting; they watch with equal amazement at the inscrutable intention of the reactions of those watching the climber because they can tell they’re watching someone watch something important, but they don’t know what.

It’s a pretty heady metaphor, I think, for how we might begin to talk about K-Stew’s poem (and public reaction) and why it’s here as “news.” Let’s start from the top (bad pun intended): K-Stew (already such a celebrity that I feel no remorse about associating with thick soup) publicly releases a private poem. Why she does it, we have no idea, but that she does it, we are certain, and, when we read it, it becomes clear—to those of us who are such assholes we say we read poems regularly—that this is what we might talk about as a “journal” poem, or a “private” one. This type of poem is one that isn’t meant for the public, not because it contains too much personal information, but rather because it is inaccessible. It doesn’t create a pattern for the audience to interpret. Instead, it jumps around using private references, phrases that are meaningful to the author but are totally unclear/uninterpretable to the audience. What I mean is that there’s no frame of reference through which all the metaphors (the devils, the sucking of bones, the pumping of organs, and the digital moonlight) become meaningful (that’s what public poetry does). Instead, we have someone really high up doing something that we fundamentally can’t understand.

But we are not the ones watching from the ground. Remember that. K-Stew didn’t come to your house and say “check out this poem I wrote.” Instead, she wrote something she was excited about, something she thought was “really dope” and shared it—seemingly offhandedly—in an interview. The interviewer, along with all requisite editors, publishers, and the like, then, make up those on the ground, those looking up and determining the spectacular, the that-which-must-be-named-and-in-naming-must-be-acknowledged-as-exigent. But what is it about a college-age girl writing a poem is exigent? Nothing. So, instead of telling us what they saw—which they didn’t because it was either a) uninteresting [as an event] or b) unintelligible [as a poem]—what we are given are reactions, judgments, “fan-annotations” as something to snark about (because, let’s be real, we’re a snarky bunch). But the worst part, and I do mean the worst, is not that we are laughing at a girl who attempted to make something and failed, but that we are accustomed to, expect, even rely on arbiters of “spectacle authority” to tell us that publicly sharing a poem is “embarrassing,” that the poem is “bad,” to point upward and react so that we know we should.

Obviously, I know that I’m not saying anything new about celebrity journalism, the divide between the celebrity and the non, or about what it means to “produce” or to “be produced by” news (and, to some extent, language itself measuring the world [sorry, I know I’m being a jackass here]); that’s not my aim. Instead, I want to talk about the profound sadness that comes with being in the department store, with not having access to the spectacle, with not really knowing whether the spectacle exists. I don’t mean this to demean, nor do I mean it to be ironic. What I’m talking about is the kind of sadness that comes from hearing an ex-lover singing in the shower just after you’ve emotionally (though not physically) separated, the song so far off that you can’t make it out, but you know she’s singing because, every once in a while, a note comes through, and you dream of the time when you could lay at her feet, stand next to her, and hear the singing, and though it didn’t matter, maybe even the song was bad, there was something spectacular about the moment. Even though you didn’t get to choose the song—maybe you didn’t even like it—you chose the spectacular; you weren’t locked out of the world quite yet, and sincerity wasn’t completely lost on you. You wanted to tell her she was beautiful, that her song and the water and the chill of the air was enough; you were reacting. And all you want now is the right to react, to be included in the song of a life you don’t have access to twice over—first because you never really know who someone else is and second, because now there’s something, spoken or otherwise, mediating your experience.

So our snark, then, becomes the boot that kicks the lever that sends the cage falling down onto the mouse in the mediated mousetrap of our experience of celebrity, specifically K-Stew and this rotten poem, but more generally with whatever else. And it’s easy to kick the lever without the context that comes with the actual creation of spectacle (as in subjectively spectacular rather than, as I’ve come to think of it, watching the gleam off another’s glasses and using that flash of light, that bit of the song, that obfuscated poem to determine how we react, what we say, what we participate in); we’re fighting for human engagement, to be part of a community, to be like girl, that’s not a great poem but what’s going on in your life and are, instead, moved farther and farther from where we started. That’s the sadness of watching in culture, what we are moving through, even K-Stew… even James Fucking Franco.

Image source: Us Weekly