Before his poetry reading Wednesday night, James Franco, who has been in town rehearsing for his Broadway debut in "Of Mice and Men" with director (and Steppenwolf ensemble member) Anna Shapiro, spoke to the Tribune about his side job as a poet, his friendship with the Pulitzer-nominated 74-year-old poet Frank Bidart and Franco's new book of poems, "Directing Herbert White," a kind of tribute to his mentor.
This is a much shorter version of a longer conversation:
Q: How did a guy who makes movies run across a celebrated poet?
A: Actually, it's a funny sequence of little experiences. I was at graduate programs several years ago — actually, I was in a few. The ones that are important were New York University and Warren Wilson College (in North Carolina). 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. I got those impulses reading Frank, and I wanted to engage it more. So I wanted to adapt it. It was perfect. I liked the idea of adapting a narrative poem rather than a story because it might push me in unexpected directions. And strangely, by coincidence, when I went back to my room, and when I looked up Frank's other work and details about him, my film professor at NYU had done a short documentary for PBS about him. So he sent me Frank's contact, and I wrote Frank, who wrote back that of course I could adapt him, and that he had seen "Milk" and "Pineapple Express." He really loved "Pineapple."
Q: "Pineapple Express"?
A: Yeah, and he had interesting things to say about it! And soon after we got together in Cambridge (Mass.), and at our first dinner, we ended up sitting in a restaurant for literally eight hours. They closed it down around us because they knew Frank, because he eats there every week with his friend (and celebrated poet) Louise Gluck. We had so many common interests. I told him about movies, and he told me about poets, about knowing Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. He had grown up in Bakersfield (Calif.), and it wasn't easy. Film was a way of getting away for him. But film schools in the 1950s were more like trade schools.
Q: "Herbert White," which you wrote a poem about, and made a short film of (with Michael Shannon; it debuted at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival), is not obvious adaptation material.
A: No, but the first time I read it, it was like hearing a performance going on. There was this monster at the center, but certain parts are written in a way that character could never articulate, like a poet figure was peeking out from behind some mask. Even in class, when I read it, classmates were reacting to the murder, to the necrophilia, but as the teacher pointed out, no, no, there is more going on here. It is a portrait in some ways of someone trying to make sense of his world. Frank is not that character in the poem; but you can read into the alienation that Frank had felt growing up, being a gay man in the 1950s. He was considering going into the clergy. Frank gives the character some of himself: The character in the poem has this whole other life. But (the character's) secret is pretty big. In fact, what is a bigger secret than leaving your family in a car, walking into the woods and performing necrophilia? There are support groups for everything but that.
Q: This is your first big book of poetry. Was it written after reading Frank?
A: Not all. A lot of the poems were written in a four-year period. But I proudly acknowledge his influence. He's served as a kind of model of how to be a poet, I guess. A lot of what I know about poetry he taught me.
Q: A lot of your poems read almost like brief essays, on Hollywood, Heath Ledger, film editing.
A: Maybe. I went to school for different kinds of writing, but a lot of that work came out of poetry programs. The way I view it, accessibility is a way to have people grasp what is going on, a torque that acts as a through-line to ideas. A lot of contemporary poetry is consciously obtuse and does not make an effort to pull you in. Fine, those poets are doing different things. But I was taught to grab a reader, not push them away.