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 given the shit-tons of good poetry by non-names that goes uncelebrated, unpublished) I’d rather him try those things and disappoint us than not try.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

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


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

Response: Infinite Jest is Probably Not Science Fiction

Austin Duck

(Editor’s note: This may or may not be a response to a previous post here by someone else. It’s certainly at least related, so you may want to open the other one in a new tab.)

Before I begin, I think it necessary to make one thing absolutely clear: I wholeheartedly believe that science fiction can be literature. Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, these women write literature.

Reader, I think you’ve been misled. You were told that I’d be here to “throw down” with Andrew Findlay, that Infinite Jest (henceforth IJ) is a work of science fiction, that I have a heart of gold (if you read AF’s final footnote), and, unfortunately, none of this is true.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, right now, “how are you not going to argue with AF while fundamentally disagreeing (and claiming that you’ll address that disagreement),” and, honestly, that’s the predicament I’m finding myself in. You see, I don’t find any particular pleasure in launching what will inevitably be a pointless argument about a book that no one reads (though everyone owns a copy). However, I can’t help but talk because I find problems not with the claim that IJ engages sci-fi elements but with the way it has been presented to you as being sci-fi.

The truth of the matter is that, so far as I can tell, IJ is not a sci-fi novel given the criteria I use when I approach it. This criteria seems to differ from Findlay’s in a single, meaningful way. But, before I get to that, let’s revisit the criteria he laid out on Monday:

  • Takes place in the future
  • Strange changes in government, cartography, or the overall structure of the world
  • Extrapolated technologies
  • Thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology

All of this, very superficially, seems to create a sci-fi novel. I say superficially because, aside from the last criterion (which I’ll address below), none of these elements are inherently anything but set-dressing, asides, bits of information that require more willful suspension of disbelief but do not fundamentally alter anything in a text. If, for some reason that I don’t quite understand, we were to assume that realism were the only capital-L “Literature,” then yes, absolutely, this criteria would hold, but as we’ve seen in our postmodern literary landscape, that’s not quite the case. Do we inherently classify something as sci-fi because it engages these set-pieces? Is White Noise sci-fi? Or Gravity’s Rainbow? Does Haruki Murakami write fantasy novels? I just don’t think so.

To be completely honest, I don’t really have a full grasp on what’s changed since modernism that would allow Murakami to be regarded in the same vein as Faulkner or Atwood as with Stein or Cather, but one thing’s for certain: it happened. Sci-fi fans can disclaim the statements of “literary heavyweights” like Jonathan Franzen, but, ultimately, people like Franzen don’t influence literary tastes nearly so much as critics, intellectuals, and popular culture and, fuck, just look around. Sci-fi is everywhere, and everywhere in high regard. So fuck Jonathan Franzen. Seriously.

I think that what’s happened is the result of post-structural linguistics, post-colonial literatures, and politico-ideological theories of gender, race, and sexuality. I’m not going to get into why (because you’ll fall asleep) but, to give a profoundly abridged version, the prevalent critical consensus of the last 30 years at least (though you could easily trace it back 50) is that “Art” exists beyond a white, Latinate, logocentric (sorry) realism. It just does. There are too many experiences and too many minds for prescription of what creates art, experience, or meaning.

I know it seems like I’ve gone pretty far from IJ, but trust me, I haven’t. IJ, begun somewhere in the late 80s and published in 1996, is a direct inheritor of all of this literary/cultural upheaval. It occurs, it is composed, in a time where experimentation—of different forms, idioms, genres, voices, styles, etc.—makes it perfectly acceptable to cannibalize, to pull from the highest culture (the title refers, in addition to the film that Findlay discussed, to a line in Hamlet) and the lowest (the dime store fantasy or science fiction novel) to make something new, a device consistently utilized by Pynchon, whom Wallace developed a lot of chops imitating.

So does it mean that, to borrow elements of a genre makes a work itself of that genre? In some ways, yes, it does, in the sense that IJ could not exist, as it does, without the existence of the sci-fi genre. Just as I am of my father, so too is IJ of sci-fi. But is it actually a sci- fi novel?

Of Findlay’s above-mentioned criteria, I think no, IJ is not a sci-fi novel. Yes, it is sort of set in the future (or really, for us, the now), and yes, there is a differently arranged America, giant bugs, and advanced technologies, but none of this, and I mean none. of. it. has any actual bearing on the novel itself. Of the approximately 1,000,000,000 plots engaged in IJ, the two most prevalent are of tennis prodigy and aspiring drug addict Hal Incandenza and former junky and street criminal Don Gately. Engagement with these characters (or something closely related to them (the tennis school that Hal attends or the halfway house that Gately oversees)) occupies approximately 75% of the book (that’s over 750 pages to you and me) and the sci-fi elements of the plot occupy exactly none of these pages. Neither Hal nor Don ever hear anything concerning the more fantastic elements of the film Infinite Jest, nor do they ever encounter giant insects or interact meaningfully with the reconfigured United States (neither character leaves Boston during the entire novel).

Instead, both characters (each in their own ways) are obsessed with drugs, with doing them or not doing them, and with the material conditions of living in a world that encourages escape—through drugs, through Netflix (which Wallace calls the Interlace viewer with streaming and cartridge capabilities), through work and family and games—while hiding the consequences of quitting—the psychosis, the inability to relate to other people, the inability to function in a way that makes the world less lonely. And, as a result, that’s what the book hovers over, brings forward as the theme, as to what is truly important. The world then, with its years having been named by companies (for example, instead of 2002, the year is officially called The Year of the Whopper) and its giant insects created by a former-actor-and-ultimately-incompetent-president as the result of turning the upper Northeast into a giant trash bin, does not drive the plot(s). Instead, these set pieces exist as hyperbole, they exist to make larger statements about a culture at large. Ultimately, they exist to be metaphorically, hyperbolically similar to those real plots of Incandenza and Gately, to explode them, rendering them generalizable (i.e. evident in other aspects of the culture) without making them generalities.

And I think this is an important distinction: IJ is not a book about characters. Yes, there are characters, loads of them, some of whom you’ll get very attached to, who will show you yourself and your world in very uncomfortable ways. But really, truly, IJ is an analysis of the culture, a hard look at a culture of escapism, of shirking responsibility, of letting go toward achieving pure, individuated pleasure, and is invested in showing the material outcomes. Sure there are big bugs, but they’re the effects. They don’t matter, they don’t really do anything except exist, and, in their existence, they remind us of the realities beneath the stories being told to us, the stories we’ve invested and of which we are not likely to escape.

Which brings us finally to Findlay’s fourth claim—that thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology—and its relationship to the film Infinite Jest (which, for those of you just tuning in, is a film created by Hal’s optical-physicist-gone-auteur-filmmaker-father that is so entertaining anyone who views it never stops watching and dies.) I do agree that there is something to this film’s presence in the text that goes pretty far beyond what I’ve discussed above in terms of adding a serious sci-fi element to the text. The story of the film’s effects does come across as being the third most important plot in IJ (right behind Don and Hal, though occupying much less actual page-space) and its existence is pervasive, showing up directly in nearly every minor-character arc in the book.

Despite this, I’m still not convinced that this element makes the book sci-fi; yes, IJ definitely makes a strongly sci-fi move, but not, it seems to a sci-fi effect. Let me try that again. Here are three reasons why I don’t think that the film Infinite Jest makes the book Infinite Jest sci-fi :

1) while this film is a technology that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t seem to be the effects of radically advanced science that make the difference as it does the effects of experimental art (much more in line with the structure of the book, the meta-textual, self-conscious foot-noting, etc.),

2) that, rather than a specific material/technological aspect that makes the film “addictive,” it seems that IJ (the movie) stands in for a Platonic idea of entertainment (i.e. something completely, purely entertaining) as a means for hyperbolizing the novel’s themes (as mentioned above), and

3) (most importantly) that, to me that what makes a piece of literature quintessentially sci-fi is not the engagement of specific science-materials in a text, but an in-depth study of what, logically, could come of the use of those materials and their effects on humanity. IJ ultimately isn’t speculative because it’s not concerned with what the effects of Netflix or the film’s particular technology will be; it’s concerned with what’s already here and uses these sci-fi pieces to hyperbolize and generalize, to exemplify cultural patterns in these objects that affect multiple lives.

It’s undeniable that Infinite Jest contains sci-fi elements. However, rather than calling it sci-fi (which is not derogatory; it’s just not accurate), let’s just call it what it is: an enormous, important, genre-bending book that cuts to the core of the contemporary American experience of pleasure and addiction. It’s simple to read, nearly impossible to think about, and you are truly at a loss if you don’t read it just because it weighs like 20 pounds or because you’d rather watch Girls.