Directing Herbert White
by James Franco
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, MN 55401
2014, 96 pages, $12
Whenever I talk to my students about networking, I find myself giving a couple pieces of advice. First, there are already enough backstabbers and phonies out there; don’t be one of them. In other words, respect what Whitman called the powerful play. Whatever you’re writing, be sincere. If you don’t know what that means, change majors. Second, don’t write bad reviews if you can help it. Especially in the world of poetry, where silence is the prevailing sound, casting stones just makes your arm tired. Instead, focus on the positive. Look at the world with soft eyes. Carry a flashlight, not a hammer.
Well, today, I’m going to ignore my own advice.
But before we get to that, let me ask a question… OK, two questions. One: how many deserving poets out there would really benefit from a contract with Graywolf Press? Two: how many of these same poets have asked the likes of Tony Hoagland and Alan Shapiro for a blurb or a recommendation, and been turned down? Got a number? Are you one of them? If so, don’t feel bad. I am, too. But for now, let’s stick a pin in that and talk about the poetry of James Franco.
Now, I promised myself this wouldn’t be a hatchet job. I have nothing personal against Franco. Actually, even though I’m not a huge fan of Ginsberg, I like Franco’s adaptation of Howl and have probably showed it in my classes a dozen times. So let’s start positive. Despite what you may have heard, there’s some good stuff in this book, with the strongest poem being the very first one: Because.
Because I played a knight,
And was on a screen,
Because I made a million dollars,
Because I was handsome,
Because I had a nice car,
A bunch of girls seemed to like me.
This is followed by the narrator saying that he “never met those girls,” “the only people [he] saw were the ones who hated [him]…” and when he “watched [himself] in all the old movies,” he “hated that guy…”
Is this Franco talking? Probably. Either way, it’s smart to start with this poem because its humility counteracts our reflexive belief that celebrities lead lives of absolute joy and privilege by reminding us that regardless of one’s bank account, a human being is still subject to loneliness and self-loathing, and yes, it probably doesn’t help when you’re in a field where you receive countless hate-mails from total strangers.
Still, this is a poem that has lines like the following: “It was easy to forget about the people who I heard / Liked me, and shit, they were all fucking fourteen-year-olds.” OK, all you Intro to Creative Writing teachers, how would you handle this if it showed up in your class? I’d probably go with something like this: “OK, that’s not bad, and God knows I don’t have a problem with profanity, but you have an opportunity there that you’re wasting. Readers like visuals. Give us an image that will drive this home, instead of counting on the shock value of profanity to propel the lines.”
That’s my point, why I’m spending time on this review in the first place: yes, art is subjective, but there are still some things that can be taught, and it looks like Franco’s teachers (some of the most venerated, exclusive poets in America) somehow never got around to showing Franco how to bulk up his lines. They didn’t teach him the most basic elements of craft. Either that, or they tried to but he didn’t listen, then they handed him his degree, anyway.
If you want more proof, turn the page and read Film Festival, the second poem in the book. In this poem, the narrator talks about how he put on a film festival of “…some sick / Things that are not nice for people to see” such as “…a shot of my dick / And another one with some blood.”
Well, audience, are you shocked? Are you offended? Yeah, me neither. As it happens, I was just rereading a poem by Kent Johnson called “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz” that does more in terms of risk and shock value in one stanza—and for greater purpose—than this poem does in its entirety. And, again, it’s not that this Franco poem flat-out sucks. It’s just that it’s lazy. Take this stanza, for example:
All movies suck. Which ones are good?
The ones that are good, even they are no good.
You have to like no-good movies to like movies.
Really, is there anything good in that stanza? The repetition risks a lot without accomplishing anything. The humor doesn’t really earn more than a smirk by invoking the irony of an actor besmirching his own industry. Sure, any modern reader can relate to the feeling of not liking bad movies, but without any examples of bad movies—or, better yet, imagery from bad movies—we have nothing to sink our teeth into.
It’s like I tell my students: yes, you want to give readers room to use their imaginations, but you can’t expect them to fill in everything. That’s like going to a play where the actors ask the audience what to do and what costumes they’d like to see. What the hell did we pay you for?
Now, every once in a while, you do come across a poem (or, at least, a line) that honestly ain’t half-bad. I’m not saying they’re as good as America’s long-suffering poetry-readers deserve, but take these lines from There is a Light that Never Goes Out:
The Mustang rolled up in the low black water,
Growling softly, then it stopped and purred.
Dark green paint like a deep flavor,
Like hard, sour-apple candy catching in my throat
Admit it: that’s decent. If Tony Hoagland had written it, we’d feel better, but it’s still decent. The problem is that for every poem like that, you have one like Ask, that (if I’m feeling generous) might start out from a place of social commentary or self-deprecation but ends up a garbled, unedited train-wreck.
Just push and it gets there.
As soon as you hit puberty, go.
Take what comes, ugly is okay too.
Um, what? Oh, ok, he’s poking fun at male sexuality and runaway libido, right?
Gentle, but you weren’t.
Love came—like viscosity filling a tube—
And you killed it with a bunch of thrusts.
Right in the middle she had to leave.
The second time she was better. Boring.
Well, ignoring the fact that viscosity filling a tube is pretty damn awful, I suppose you could say that, yeah, he’s just bluntly, honestly portraying a selfish, sex-obsessed teenage boy doing his thing. But then, the poem has a section break and this final stanza, in italics.
In the bathroom I sat naked on the floor.
—Science and fiction.
This is the rite of passage.
I am the vessel.
He is the instrument.
I think we can safely assume the italicized stanza is the girl talking. That’s an ambitious narrative turn—which I applaud—but it begs some questions. Is the girl menstruating, or is she bleeding after sex? If the latter, after which encounter is this taking place? We don’t know, nor do we have enough information or imagery to even hazard a guess. And here’s the problem: I don’t think the author does, either. And not one of his teachers managed to impress upon him the dangers of slowing down your reader’s comprehension of your poem with a needlessly ambiguous chronology.
Back to the positive. Seventh Grade might not be perfect but it does manage to pretty aptly capture the dizzying anxiety of adolescence by juxtaposing imagery of “A new school with cement all around / With wires you can’t see but feel…” with “…a bunch of mice at home” that are breeding like crazy inside a reeking cage. Another poem, Reel around the Fountain, does a fine job portraying adolescence, as well. I imagine those poems would have done well in an MFA workshop (had Franco bothered to attend one), though a little honest critique could have made them better.
Then you have Acting Tips, which is just that, and comes across as utterly two dimensional and self-congratulating as a Hallmark card. And don’t forget James Dean on Havenhurst, which talks about Franco getting his break, but includes the failed acting careers of his roommates in such a ham-handed way that by the end, it feels like the author forgot about the roommates altogether and is just dwelling on his sassy comparison of James Franco to James Dean. Seems like kind of a chilly way to treat your subjects, which is one of the biggest problem I have with these poems: Franco’s characters aren’t characters; they’re caricatures. The only real character in this book is Franco himself—or, more accurately, Franco’s ego. Take this poem, printed in its entirety:
There is a fake version of me
And he’s the one that writes
He has an attitude and a swagger
That I don’t have.
But on the page, this fake me
Is the me that speaks.
And this fake me is louder
Than the real me, and he
Is the one that everyone knows.
He’s become the real me
Because everyone treats me
Like I’m the fake me.
Remember that scene in Howl when it’s the defense’s turn to cross-examine a particularly idiotic witness, and the defense simply says “Step down?” Yeah, step down. This one isn’t worth my time.
Instead, let’s take a look at the opening stanza of Second Grade:
Mrs. D. was Mrs. Donnelly and I
Know that that means nothing to you
But to me it is a round woman
With a white bob and sharp nose
Like poultry parts.
And she was strict.
OK, ignoring the no-no of using “that that” in poetry (didn’t anyone teach this guy?), as well as the passivity of “is” found everywhere throughout this book, plus the heretofore unmentioned aggravation of every line being capitalized, the “poultry parts” thing is actually kind of funny (or, at the very least, visceral). But the line about Mrs. Donnelly being strict is utterly pointless because, like many lines throughout this book, it’s abandoned as soon as it’s cast. The rest of Second Grade is about the narrator’s first kiss with a girl named Jenny and it’s not until the very end that we find out the teacher died. There’s also a mention of the spider dying in Charlotte’s Web and this final line: “I’m a sensitive pig, rooting in shit.”
Wait, that’s the final turn? That’s what I’m supposed to take with me? Honestly, I’m not sure there was any line in this book that I found so offensive—not for the profanity, or the ham-handed transition, but because it disrespects the poet’s subjects and, in so doing, it disrespects poetry. Let me see if I can explain why.
During my thesis defense, one of the poems in my manuscript was about a real story involving miners trapped in a cave-in. The story had been in the news weeks earlier and I’d written about it, but to be honest, it wasn’t really something that affected me that deeply. What was supposed to be my thesis had just won a first book contest, I’d decided at the last minute to write a second, new thesis, and I needed filler. So I’d included that poem without really working on it. Judy Jordan, one of the members of my thesis committee, picked up on this and she called me out on it. She called it a “vulture poem” and to be honest, she was right. I hadn’t demonstrated that I gave a damn about those miners; it was just a good story that I was trying to exploit because, poetry.
That’s what’s going on here. Franco starts with a nod to a teacher who was apparently so influential and important that she gets six lines, but then, she’s forgotten. Jenny seems important but we never really get to see or know her, either. Then, when it comes time for the last word, Franco puts himself in the spotlight, tosses in a token bit of self-deprecation, and calls it a day. In short, Franco makes himself the hero of his own poem. And woe, woe, woe to any of Franco’s dozen or so MFA teachers with their impressive CVs and fat paychecks who didn’t have the guts to tell an actor who bought his way into their workshop that, yeah, that shit won’t fly here.
So let’s pull that pin out now.
It takes neither a genius nor a conspiracy theorist to see why the mighty Graywolf gave this guy a book deal. Hell, if I were in their shoes, I might have done the same thing. Financially, it makes sense. Sure, it hurts their artistic credibility. Sure, it makes them the butt of jokes in coffee shops and in the mailrooms of English Departments, but maybe it will help fill their coffers so they can publish more good books, right?
Well, not necessarily. I mean, how many people are going to buy a book of poems even if it has James Franco’s name on the cover? Oh, he’ll probably sell more in a week than all my poetry books have sold in their lifetimes—and yes, I admit it, that pisses me off—but how many copies are we really talking about? A few thousand? Let’s say this book sells as well as the latest books by Billy Collins or Mary Oliver. Is that really a game-changer? Is Graywolf suddenly going to jump from being one of the top-selling poetry publishers to being… well, one of the top-selling poetry publishers?
And speaking of Graywolf, what about Tony Hoagland, who is (or was) one of Franco’s teachers and happens to be Graywolf’s crown jewel as far as poetry goes? I happen to like Hoagland’s poetry. I’ve taught his books in my classes and one poem in particular, Suicide Song, remains one of my all-time favorites. And I’m fine with different people having different tastes. But this goes way beyond that. Surely, it’s no coincidence that Franco ended up at Graywolf, where usually ultra-discriminating editors somehow found it within themselves to buy a stack of poems that any poetry-loving, self-respecting MFA workshop would have thrashed.
So, yeah, Franco’s not the problem here. Are these great poems? No. Honestly, they’re not putrid, either. I’ve definitely read worse. But I can’t recall the last time I read a book from Graywolf (or any major, well-established publisher) that was so sloppy, so obviously unfit. Let’s look at another example that never, ever should have made it out the gates:
Girlfriend in a Coma
Megan McKenna had a skinhead boyfriend,
He crashed his car into a pole.
The paramedics lifted her out of the crumpled car,
And laid her on the cement. They cut away her jeans.
Sterling and I fought all the time,
Driving around in his rotten green Mustang.
I was the sweetest sixteen,
And when we hit the other car
Darkness met me at the windshield.
My father kept Sterling from the room.
I was plastered and sutured and puffed up.
When I go to heaven,
I’ll think of Sterling.
I’ll think that I loved him.
I’ll think that he was human.
That he was a poor little brain in a dangerous body.
OK, let’s start by assuming these two stories are connected. The only way we can do that is if we assume that Megan McKenna’s skinhead boyfriend’s car is the same car that Sterling crashed into. In other words, a car hits a pole, cops and paramedics arrive with lights flashing, and then Sterling drives up and crashes into the very same crashed car! But that’s ridiculous, right? So is Franco talking about two separate accidents? That sounds more plausible, but if that’s the case, why the ambiguity? Why the lack of closure about the girl? What about the third car, if it existed? What about those passengers? Beyond that, it looks like Franco is comparing himself to Megan McKenna and his buddy to the skinhead, right? Seriously, on closer inspective, this narrative has gaps through which you could drive a fleet of rotten green Mustangs.
Again, though, Franco’s not the problem. If I wrote a bad book and Graywolf offered to publish it, I’d like to think I’d insist on time to refine the poems out of simple respect for the craft; probably, though, I’d sign so fast the pen would travel back in time and poke me in the eye. As for Hoagland, he’s a human being. Maybe he just got star-struck. Fair enough. But Graywolf should be better. We’ve given them our respect and our money (often when we didn’t have much to spare). I’m not saying they should stand for something; I’m saying they do stand for something, and goddammit, this isn’t it.
Pondering the unlikely marriage of Franco and Graywolf, I find myself thinking another unlikely coupling. In 2002, the infamous International Library of Poetry (aka Poetry.com) somehow hired Robert Pinksy and the late W. D. Snodgrass to headline one of their conferences, thus grafting the legitimacy of great American poets onto a pyramid scheme that prints brownie recipes. I haven’t read anything on how Pinsky and Snodgrass felt afterwards; maybe they thought they’d change the organization from the inside. Maybe they didn’t really know what Poetry.com was. Maybe they just thought a gig was a gig. But I remember that when I was younger, I drafted an essay called “Why I Stopped Reading Robert Pinsky,” specifically because of his affiliation with Poetry.com. I eventually scrapped the essay because… well, because I like Pinsky’s poetry, and because the older I get, the more willing I am to forgive smart people for doing dumb things.
I guess now, I have to forgive Tony Hoagland and the folks at Graywolf.
And what about the others who have blurbed/endorsed James Franco’s work? Anne Waldman has a strong affiliation with the Beats, and that’s kind of what Franco is trying to channel, so fair enough. Alan Shapiro’s endorsement seems unlikely, though I’m not sure what else to say about it. Frank Bidart, I can forgive more easily. Franco did a short film based on one of Bidart’s poems, Herbert White (which this book also honors with the title) and anyway, I don’t think writing a blurb is as bad as greasing a guy through his classes and maybe helping him get a book deal he doesn’t deserve –or isn’t ready for.
Let’s consider that last point for a second, especially in light of Franco’s infamously thin skin when it comes to criticism. Case in point: a while back, he went on Instagram calling New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley “a little bitch” in response to what was really a pretty even-handed review written by a guy who actually does like Franco’s work (as, often, do I). Now, I don’t know what’s happened since then. Maybe Franco just popped off and felt bad about it later. Buddha knows I’m not always as thick-skinned as I’d like to be, either. But anybody who legitimately passed through as many MFA programs as he did, who brags about how many credit hours he took while making movies (many of which are supposed to contain blunt critiques), should have nerves like adamantium.
After all, part of defining one’s own aesthetic, and challenging the establishment, has its roots in criticism and debate. In other words, it’s OK to be picky about what you love. It’s like what Pinsky himself said in a wonderful interview with Smartish Pace: that poets must read “the way a cook eats or a filmmaker watches movies.”
I’m not trying to be persnickety; sure, I’m jealous (who wouldn’t be?) but ultimately, what bugs me about Directing Herbert White is that, as someone who subsists on poetry, I want it to be good. No, fuck that—I want it to be great. I want to read it and think, My God, look at the work they put into this! I want to behold something that’s so well-crafted, all I can do is stare at the words and read them then read them again. I want poetry that burns its own shadow on the wall.
What I don’t want is to sit down at the best, most exclusive restaurant in town and have the waiter bring me a McDouble.