The Poet and the Movie Star: An Evening with Frank Bidart and James Franco

February 28, 2014 | 3 books mentioned 6 4 min read

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The first time James Franco and Frank Bidart met, they stayed at dinner talking for eight hours, the restaurant closing around them and leaving a waiter behind to lock up. They both told the story at their joint reading in Chicago (last Wednesday), plus it’s recounted in Franco’s new book of poems. Before that fateful dinner, Franco was simultaneously pursuing an MFA in poetry at Warren Wilson in North Carolina and an MFA in film studies at NYU. He was introduced to Bidart’s poem “Herbert White” at the former and decided to adapt it for an assignment at the latter. His poetry professors put him in touch with Bidart so he could ask permission.

coverBidart wanted to have dinner with Franco first, so that he could explain his intentions in writing “Herbert White” (which is written in the first-person character of a necrophiliac murderer), plus, he said, “Of course I wanted to have dinner with James Franco! He was brilliant in Pineapple Express!”

Bidart, 74, is one of the pre-eminent American poets of the 20th century — friends with both Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, and now James Franco. After their Before Sunrise-style meet-cute the two stayed in touch, sometimes trading new poems they had written. Franco completed his adaptation of “Herbert White,” and after reading Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West,” which Bidart wrote about himself writing an earlier poem, “Ellen West,” Franco responded with “Directing Herbert White,” written in the same style.

coverAll of which lead to Frank Bidart and James Franco coming to Chicago to promote Franco’s new book of poetry, of which “Directing Herbert White” is the title poem, and none of us knowing what to make of it. The sold-out auditorium was partially filled by excited young women taking lots of camera photos and giggling a little too readily at everything Franco said, and partially by members of either of the event’s sponsors — The Chicago Humanities Festival and The Poetry Foundation — regular arts patrons who are accustomed to far fewer screaming girls in their midst. This clash of the fawning and the cynical made for a weird vibe, navigated by those of us who were conveying with our body language that we were sort of there ironically. (It had been a big joke at the bar earlier, that I was leaving to go see James Franco read poetry.)

But perhaps I’m underestimating my fellow attendees by generalizing them. The arts patrons, after all, didn’t have to come when they found out a Hollywood star would be reading, and I had certainly dressed a little bit nicer than usual and took more than one photo with my iPhone. More likely, most of us were of two minds about it — pretty sure the evening wasn’t going to be intellectually dazzling, but more than a little excited to see Franco, who it can’t be denied was great in Pineapple Express.

What I wasn’t expecting was how unironically enjoyable and inspiring the evening would be. The venerable poet and the handsome young celebrity are too fond of each other, too unabashedly excited to be working closely with someone they greatly admire, to roll my eyes at. Bidart recounted that watching Franco adapt his poem into a film was “thrilling,” a word he peppered throughout his account. When you get to be his age, he explained, you “think you know the parameters of your life,” and most experiences are repetition. Franco, he says, continually “astonishes the guardians of category” with his art and poetry and film and prose, and Bidart is — as he so often repeated — thrilled to be his friend and de facto mentor.

The common line on Franco is that he’s good at the Hollywood stuff and that’s what he should stick to — leave the poetry and film to those who devote themselves to it more exclusively. Many of the poems in Directing Herbert White are about Hollywood, and they reveal how uncomfortable Franco is with being tied or beholden to a place that “devours its young” (Bidart’s words). There are poems that feature Lindsay Lohan, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, and Brad Renfro (a lesser-known actor friend of Franco’s who died of a drug overdose, after which Franco had the name “Brad” carved into his arm).

It’s easy to see why an actor who became famous very young might be captivated by others who were brought down by the same young fame. It’s easy to see why he might seek so much outside of Hollywood (the man now has five MFAs) even as he’s constantly told it’s where he belongs, and it gets harder to think he should stop. In this way, finding Bidart must have been like finding an angel — someone who supports and even champions his multifold pursuits.

Both men are operating outside of the expected parameters of their life and it was invigorating to see how much they’re enjoying it. It may not compare to the joy of hearing Seamus Heaney read or the awe at hearing Marilynne Robinson, but I’ll remember that Frank Bidart and James Franco made me want to be bolder. Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West” ends with the line: “One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough.” I think we could all admit a little more freely that we don’t know enough, that we’re just trying new things, and lucky to find friends along the way.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. So. I was present at the same location as Ms. Potter on the evening in question. But we did not see the same thing by any stretch.

    Out of the audience of a thousand, I would approximate the breakdown approximately like this: 65% full-on star-fuckers with zero interest in poetry or literature, or with discussions of craft or process; maybe 15% morbid curiosity-seekers who wondered what this Franken-mashup of an evening might hold; 10% of the regular Humanities and Poetry Foundation set, a bit befuddled (and tittilated) by all the squealing in which they they were clearly unaccustomed to being nested within; 5% boyfriends who’d been dragged there, 4% police presence, scanning the crowd between eyerolls; and 2% people like myself who wished to see the whole th

  2. ing erupt in a fireball.

    Bidart’s work stands up to scrutiny, and as you point out, his musings on this new arena of experience and possibility represented by his bromance with a a movie star were of interest. He is clearly a thoughtful guy intent on rooting out meaning wherever he can find it.

    Franco, on the other hand, is a slack and slipshod writer – a writer whose name we would never know if we did not see it on marquees and posters. He consistently offers up phoned-in first drafts of sub-par work either because he is incapable of anything better, or his famously divided attentions do not permit the kind of sustained thought that real writing demands. We are complicit in the farcical beat-offery he foists upon us, of course, in our consistent failure to demand more of him. His stories are flabby, wan exercises in navel-gazing; his memoir (which contains not fewer than three pieces published as fiction elsewhere) is a shoddily constructed temple erected to the greater glory of an eventless life; and his poetry is the most aggressive and sustained campaign of dipshit-ification it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.

    He is a callow and name-checking chunk of beefcake who ladles the same under-imagined hog slop from the same shallow trough over and over again – this is no crime, obviously, as it is the inalienable right of every artist to suck at what they do – what is depressing is that we keep lapping it up.

    The evening in question, setting aside the worthy and gripping work which Mr. Bidart read (prompting bored wriggling among the extras from Glee who had to sit through the ramblings of a non-movie star) was largely a pissing contest between sizable egos. What should have been a 70-minute reading and brief discussion was a bloated yammer-off between two men convinced of their own infinite capacity to fascinate, unchecked by a fawning moderator who seemed as smitten as any 13-year old girl in there.

    Franco often hides behind the justification that he’s using his conspicuous public role to highlight literary and artistic work that his massive following might not otherwise encounter. Which, in very isolated instances, may in fact be happening. I think it is more accurate to say that Mr. Franco is abusing his celebrity – hopping the turnstiles of access to ride the rails of publication and gallery exhibition, of advanced degree programs and museum interest – without anything like the level of craft or care or skill that anyone else would need in order to demonstrate.

    I suspect he is a simpleton – I don’t know. But I know for certain he is more pretentious than the leotard-wearingest mime. Which, again, is his right. Where we fail ourselves and the culture is in granting him our attention. Which we do – too readily, too consistently. I for one would urge us to stop.

  3. If James Franco was a woman, you might find his poetry on the shelf at Barnes & Noble alongside Jewel and Amber Tamblyn. But he’s a handsome man, so he gets five MFAs and a handie from Gary Shteyngart–all because he’s just smart enough to pretend to be smart, and not honest enough to admit that he isn’t.

  4. Your harsh criticisms of James Franco make me very happy inside. And here I was, thinking I was the only one.

  5. This discussion reminds of something I read somewhere about the writing of literature now being “outsourced” to people who are famous for other reasons.

    Still, I have to give James Franco credit for trying new things.

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