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Interview

James Franco Talks Poetry

How the actor, director, Oscar host, performance artist, and PhD candidate became America’s most famous poetry geek.
James Franco as Hart Crane on the set of The Broken Tower. Photo copyright Jason Goodman.
Introduction
James Franco in The Broken TowerJames Franco as Hart Crane on the set of The Broken Tower. Photo copyright Jason Goodman.

A few days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Franco would be hosting this Sunday’s Oscars, he took time out of his (insane) schedule to talk on the phone with us about his upcoming biopic of Hart Crane, the cinematic lyric, and how he came to love poetry.

A few days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Franco would be hosting this Sunday’s Oscars, he took time out of his (insane) schedule to talk on the phone with us about his upcoming biopic of Hart Crane, the cinematic lyric, and how he came to love poetry.

* * *

Travis Nichols: You seem to read poetry that has a little more crunch to it than your standard “refrigerator door” poetry. I was wondering when you were able to make that leap—from historical, dorm room poetry like Neruda and Ginsberg to contemporary poets like Frank Bidart and Spencer Reece. Did you make the leap on your own?

James Franco: I came across Ginsberg and the Beats when I was in high school. And then I suppose my first intro to what I guess you’d call the opposite pole of the poetry world at the time—Lowell and Bishop and, in that tradition, Anthony Hecht—was when I went back to UCLA. I had a teacher named Jonathan Post who had been a student of Hecht, and so he taught a class that covered American poetry up until the ’60s or ’70s. But it really wasn’t until I went to Warren Wilson that I was exposed to contemporary poetry in a real expansive or in-depth way.

When I was at Columbia there were some great poets there, and I wanted to study with Richard Howard. I was in one of his lectures, but I wanted to take a poetry workshop with him, but they just said no [laughs]. You can cross over in the lectures and seminars, but fiction writers are not allowed to go to the poetry workshops. So I asked this guy named Ian R. Wilson, who taught me at UCLA Extension, what I should do. I had gone to UCLA when I was 18 to get my bachelor’s in English, and then I left after a year to act. I went back eight years later to finish, but before I re-enrolled, I took some classes through UCLA Extension. And I took a couple of writing classes with this guy named Ian R. Wilson.

It’s funny because the UCLA Extension writing classes have a great history—Michael Cunningham taught there, and John Rechy and Janet Fitch—so I took some classes there, and this guy Ian R. Wilson was my teacher. He wrote both fiction and poetry, and so when Columbia told me that I couldn’t take the poetry classes, I was pissed off. So I asked him, “Where should I go? I want a place so I can study poetry seriously.” Even though I am at Yale now, sure there are some classes on contemporary poetry, but not in the way that it’s studied at Warren Wilson.

At Yale, you study the Romantics, you study Whitman, but not contemporary poetry. Ian said, “For my money, Warren Wilson is the best poetry program in the country as far as the faculty goes and the way the program is run and the attention you get. You should go there.” And so I applied and they let me in. That’s where I was really exposed to everything. They have a wide range of features, but there is still a heavy emphasis on craft and less experimental kinds of poetry. It seems like maybe a place like Columbia—I don’t know, I didn’t get to take any of the classes, right?—but it seems like a place like Columbia would push more kind of experimental work or, I’m not quite certain, but maybe Chicago or Iowa might push more experimental stuff, more experimental than Warren Wilson. But Warren Wilson is very strong on contemporary poets.

TN: So is that where the idea of working on your film of Hart Crane came from?

JF: That’s a weird story. It actually didn’t come from classes there, although I did end up doing a lot of work on Crane while I was there. One of the things about Warren Wilson is that they put a strong emphasis on analytical work and craft analysis, which I appreciate. In the fiction programs I was in, you could get away with only doing creative work, which is fine, but it’s nice to have somebody who kind of kicks you in the ass to really figure out the nuts and bolts and the why of what you’re doing.

TN: Was that mostly Tony Hoagland, or was there another teacher there?

JF: You’re assigned a new teacher every semester. So I had Tony Hoagland the first semester, I had James Longenbach the second semester, Rick Barot and Alan Williamson. And now I have Ellen Bryant Voigt. You have to write a 40-page essay on some aspect of craft. I think it’s a lot easier to write a story that’s 40 pages long than it is to write 40 pages about craft, because craft almost becomes like mathematics. So I wrote about Crane’s poetry, comparing some of his early poems to some of his later poems. He did get much more dense there; consciously he made his work much more difficult. So that’s what I wrote about.

But I had been interested in Crane before I was at Warren Wilson and before I had even gone back to UCLA. I was doing a movie in New Orleans, a weird movie called Sonny, and I was reading a Harold Bloom book. I’m not quite sure which one, but he mentioned Hart Crane. And then I got Crane’s poems and Bloom wrote an introduction to the collection that I bought, and in that introduction he mentioned Paul Mariani’s book, The Broken Tower. So then I found that. I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh, this is a great character. I’d love to play this character.” Crane’s life was the life of the quintessential struggling artist. I mean, James Joyce, he’s a great writer, but it would be hard to make his life dramatic. You could, but it’s just not readily dramatic. I guess you could say, “Oh, well, he went to Paris and his daughter was kind of crazy and he hung out with Sylvia Beach, then the war came. . . .”

TN: Crane makes much more sense. I mean, he was just a kind of streak across the sky.

JF: Yeah. So I had that in my mind, but at that time I didn’t know how to actually turn a book into a movie or even how to get a movie made. I was still fairly early in my career, and so I just kind of let it sit. I told people about it, and then I just waited. Finally, after going to NYU, I had made some films on my own without looking to people with experience to help me. Everything turned out okay, but it could have been better. I mean I know I was learning, but I’ve learned since that it is a very good idea, at least for me, to get advice and to work with people who I admire and who can help me develop my ideas.

TN: So did you have that kind of support with this film version of The Broken Tower? Did you feel like you were finally able to kind of get that group together?

JF: Well, what happened is I went to NYU Film School. At NYU, the program requires you to make a series of short films. So the first short films—that’s a whole long story I can go into if you want—but the short version is I needed to come up with a subject, and I had read these Anthony Hecht poems when I was at UCLA, and there was one in particular, “The Feast of Stephen,” that for whatever reason struck me at that time as something that would be cinematic. And so when I was required to make a short film, that came back to me and I thought, “Yeah, why not make that now? This is my chance. “I wouldn’t have wanted to expand it into a feature film, but somebody was pushing me to make a short film, and this poem was perfect.”

So then that led to “Herbert White,” which was a Frank Bidart poem I had stumbled across at Warren Wilson. A poet named Gabrielle Calvocoressi brought it in to a seminar, and it just hit me full force and I thought, “Oh, that would also be very cinematic.” So then I made that film based on “Herbert White,” and then I made a film based on Spencer Reece’s poem “The Clerk’s Tale.” All of that got me thinking, “Well, of course now is the time to make The Broken Tower.” I thought, “I know how to do it now, and it will be the perfect next step after making these short films based on single poems. I can do the whole life of a poet and have multiple poems in the piece.” So that’s how that came around.

TN: “Herbert White” and “The Clerk’s Tale” are both character studies and in some ways dramatic monologues. But Crane is very much a lyric poet. I mean, you find a lot of lyric juxtaposition and parataxis and just great flights of language in Crane’s poetry. It seems actually like a pretty big leap to be able to go from doing the short films that are based on these kinds of character-driven pieces to something like Crane, who is very much the poet’s poet. Did you find that hard?

JF: Actually, my approach to poetry this semester under Ellen Bryant Voigt is going to be dealing with examining the difference between lyric poems and narrative poems through a cinematic framework. For me, like I said, I’ve only been studying contemporary poetry seriously for, I guess, two and a half years now, so I still feel like I’m just learning the lay of the land. I don’t know the extent of it yet. We’re using this kind of cinematic frame that I’m much more familiar with to approach poetry. And so you’re right: I’m doing something different with The Broken Tower. When we adapted the single poems, I ended up not using any of the text of the poems in the films. Originally with the Hecht, I couldn’t use any dialogue; it had to be all non-diegetic sounds, so you couldn’t use any sound that you recorded on location. I thought, “All right, I will shoot the images and then I’ll record the poem over the top of the images.” But then I realized that the movie had translated the poem. It existed on its own. It was its own thing, so it was almost like translating it into a different new language.

With the Crane poems, because they’re more lyrical, I’m not really trying to translate them in the same way. You actually get the text of the poems in The Broken Tower, at least four, maybe five of them, in different forms. It’s almost like the anti-Howl, meaning the movie Howl. I love that movie, but Jeffrey (Friedman) and Rob (Epstein) had a different approach than I used. They put the poem at the center. The movie is really about the poem, but they did everything they could to illuminate the poem, to make it more clear, at least on one level, mostly kind of a biographical level, or an autobiographical level. Each section helped the viewer approach the poem, so you get the first reading, you get Ginsberg talking about the poem, what inspired the poem, what certain sections meant to him, you get his contemporaries, some of his contemporaries’ responses to the poem in the courtroom, you get a visual interpretation with the animation. . . .

Crane wanted his poetry to be difficult. He wanted it to be read in a different way than people normally read. So when I started developing the movie, I thought, yes, it will be a biopic of sorts, but I wanted to have the texture of his poetry. He wrote this essay “General Aims and Theories” about his work because he knew it was difficult, and he talked about how the meaning of the poems could be found in a way that the metaphors played off each other, like the tenor of the metaphors were all resting on this upper level, relating to each other. And that was the meaning of the poems, rather than the meaning you might get on the surface level.

So I thought, okay, if there is some equivalent in cinematic language that I could achieve, that would be interesting because you’ll get some incidences from his life delivered through something that feels more like his poetry.

  • Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...

Interview

James Franco Talks Poetry

How the actor, director, Oscar host, performance artist, and PhD candidate became America’s most famous poetry geek.
  • Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...

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