Poetry News

'I am very interested in masks and ventriloquism': An Interview with James Franco

By Harriet Staff

James Franco, author, most recently of the chapbook Strongest of the Litter, took part in this LA Review of Books interview.

A sample:

GB: At the onset of The Broken Tower, a title card quotes Crane’s ars poetica of sorts:

The motivation of the poem must be derived from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and the terms of the expression employed are often selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associational meanings. Language has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.

How close does that come to your own understanding of what a poem or poetry should do? Was that epigraph closer to the intent of the film rather than this chapbook?

JF: Very good, yes, the epigraph is a way to establish my approach to Crane and his work in filmic form. I wanted the film to reflect Crane’s work, in both content and form. I knew that Crane got very little critical acclaim when he was alive and was in fact criticized in print by some of his close friends, like Alan Tate and Yvor Winters. He got it from all sides. I developed the film as my thesis at NYU and during the whole process I was told that I needed a more conventional structure. But I resisted that. I wanted the film to have the episodic, rough-surfaced construction that his poetry has.

I used Paul Mariani’s book The Broken Tower as a guide; but instead of trying to show the motivations behind Crane’s actions in a clear way, I wanted to line up the most important moments of his life and let them work off each other by juxtaposition rather than fluid ascent and descent. The sections in my film should work off each other in the way that Crane hoped his metaphors did. I knew that I would not get tons of commercial success with such an approach (or subject) nor would I get much critical success because film reviewers are generally stupid about poetry and want such subjects spoon-fed to them through lucid narrative. I also knew that the people who understood Cane the best were probably poets and scholars and they would want a film that told Crane’s life, as they understood it. I have been in movies that have broken box office records and I have been in films that have won academy awards, and I didn’t make this film for critical or commercial reasons. I was loyal to only one thing in my approach: Crane and how I saw and read his work.

My chapbook, Strongest of the Litter, is written in a much different way than most of Crane’s work. I use a lot of plain speech and also personae. I try to use personae to evoke rhythms of contemporary speech and to find the poetry in that. I am very interested in masks and ventriloquism. I have made my living as an actor for a decade and a half so I am used to trying on different roles; the poetry often works in a similar way.

Your book’s title, Strongest of the Litter: Jack London or Charles Darwin? How did you come to selecting the book’s title?

JF: The title comes from the last line of the poem in the book called “Seventh Grade.” In that context it is ironic because it describes a baby mouse that fucks his own mother because he dominated all the other baby mice and because he had an instinctual drive to procreate. It is a way to show the sometime mindless processes we follow, the violence and sexuality at our core. It is an image that is juxtaposed with images of violence and fear in a junior high school as a way to show that the time of life when a young boy comes of age often pushes him to extremes because he is just trying to survive. I grew up in a very nice city, Palo Alto, so I’m not trying to say that I had to survive hardships that many have in their every day lives, but it is a way to talk about the emotional and psychic pressures one undergoes just by living amongst other humans. The title is also ironic because the mouse that is the strongest gets a sour prize; sex with his own mother (a violent act itself), a way to show the often pointless striving for dominance we all feel at times.

The cover photo is of me as the character Alien, from the yet to be released Harmony Korine film, Spring Breakers. Alien is a manifestation of the extremes of contemporary culture. He is a metaphor himself: the ugly rise to the top of capitalist culture through methods of competition, dominance and materialism. He wants to acquire and destroy and consume; he is a demon of unrestrained greed and violence. But he is also strangely charming and mystical; he is the soul of an age. But he is also a character I played, and because he is such an extreme character, it is a way to show how I am trying to use persona in the poems. Like Frank Bidart used the character of a necrophiliac-slash-serial killer in his poem, “Herbert White” as a way to show his anti-self, but also to show that the more autobiographical poems are also constructions of art and not non-fiction. This title stuck as soon as I knew the image I wanted to use.

Full interview here.

Originally Published: December 13th, 2012