James Franco Reads 6 Short Poems from His New Collection

James Fran­co, like Ethan Hawke before him, is one of those movie stars who gets bashed left and right for dar­ing to behave like any oth­er arty young man. How dare he think he can write a nov­el, or paint, or make short films? What a pre­ten­tious idiot, right?!

I would counter that these activ­i­ties out him as a pas­sion­ate read­er who cares deeply about art and movies.

His celebri­ty opens doors that are barred to your aver­age arty young men, but it also ensures that he’ll be scape­goat­ed with­out mer­cy. (An arty young man of my acquain­tance earned some nice pub­lic­i­ty for him­self per­form­ing a one-man show titled “Bring Me the Head of James Fran­co, That I May Pre­pare a Savory Goulash in the Nar­row and Mis­shapen Pot of His Skull.” )

I rarely feel sor­ry for celebs who tweet their wound­ed feel­ings, but I was rather moved by Franco’s poet­ic take on what it’s like to be on the receiv­ing end of all this vit­ri­ol. It’s the first of six poems he reads in the video above, when he shared the stage with his 74-year-old men­tor Frank Bidart, who no doubt enjoyed per­form­ing to a sold out crowd of 800. Franco’s debut poet­ry collection’s title, Direct­ing Her­bert White owes some­thing to Bidart. His poem, “Her­bert White,” is the inspi­ra­tion for a short film direct­ed by Fran­co.

Those who would con­sid­er all that just more evi­dence of Franco’s insup­port­able pre­ten­tious­ness should con­sid­er the oppos­ing view­point, cour­tesy of non-movie star poet Bidart, who told the Chica­go Tri­bune:

 “I’m almost 75. At some point you know the para­me­ters of your life. The ter­ri­fy­ing thing about get­ting old­er is the feel­ing that every­thing that hap­pens from now on will be a species of some­thing that has already hap­pened. Becom­ing friends with James changed that: I no longer feel I can antic­i­pate the future. Which is lib­er­at­ing.”

Per­haps all that fran­tic, cross-media cre­ative expres­sion can result in some­thing more than a snarky one-man show.


Because I played a knight,
And I 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.

But I nev­er met those girls,
I only heard about them.
The only peo­ple I saw were the ones who hat­ed me,
And there were so many of those peo­ple.
It was easy to for­get about the peo­ple who I heard
Like me, and shit, they were all fuck­ing four­teen-year-olds.

And I holed up in my place and read my life away,
I watched a mil­lion movies, twice,
And I didn’t under­stand them any bet­ter.

But because I played a knight,
Because I was hand­some,

This was the life I made for myself.

Years lat­er, I decid­ed to look at what I had made,
And I watched myself in all the old movies, and I hat­ed that guy I saw.

But he’s the one who stayed after I died.

You can see James Fran­co and Frank Bidart’s Chica­go Human­i­ties Fes­ti­val appear­ance in its entire­ty here. Find more poet­ry read­ings in the poet­ry sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of Free Audio Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Fran­co Reads a Dream­i­ly Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

James Fran­co Reads Short Sto­ry in Bed for The Paris Review

Lis­ten to James Fran­co Read from Jack Kerouac’s Influ­en­tial Beat Nov­el, On the Road

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is a  Freaks and Geek diehard who gets all her Lohan-relat­ed intel from the poet­ry of James Fran­co and  d‑listed. Fol­low her@AyunHalliday

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Comments (15)
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  • Robert says:


    I’m all for ques­tion­ing group­think and for applaud­ing actors — and any­one in any pro­fes­sion — for read­ing books and being gen­er­al­ly curi­ous about cul­ture (and sci­ence and pol­i­tics etc).

    But I take issue with your asser­tion that the quote from Frank Bidart amounts to an “oppos­ing view­point” to the claim that James Fran­co’s writ­ing endeav­ors are just “insup­port­able pre­ten­tious­ness.” (Is there such a thing as sup­port­able pre­ten­tious­ness?)

    In the quote, Bidart says that life’s expe­ri­ences tend to repeat, but “Becom­ing friends with James changed that: I no longer feel I can antic­i­pate the future.” So, Bidart says that his friend­ship brought some­thing new to his life. But he says noth­ing about whether Fran­co’s writ­ing is pre­ten­tious, friv­o­lous, gen­uine, sin­cere, good, bad — noth­ing.

    Fran­co might or might not be pre­ten­tious, his writ­ing might be good or lame (the poem above sug­gests the lat­ter), but you and this web­site have an oblig­a­tion to dis­cuss it intel­li­gent­ly.

  • Robert says:

    Also, look up scape­goat. It does not mean the tar­get of resent­ment.

    Are there any edi­tors on this web­site? Any writ­ers?

  • Robert, if noth­ing else, thank you for point­ing out an inad­ver­tent typo switcheroo… the oppos­ing view­point was actu­al­ly offered by Ian Belk­nap, a Chica­go-based writer and per­former. We’ll make sure that it gets changed.

    I stand by my mod­ern use of scape­goat, as opposed to what it meant in ancient Greece or in the book of Leviti­cus.

  • Ian Belknap says:

    Hey Ayun and, to a less­er extent, Robert

    While I’m tick­led that any­one would pub­licly refer to me as “young,” and while I will argue till my last that Fran­co’s lit­er­ary and artis­tic out­put is slap­dash and sub­par, my show — which you kind­ly men­tion in the above piece — was an effort to lay bare the celebri­ty-sot­ted cul­tur­al mias­ma that per­mits this huck­ster to leapfrog both the gate­keep­ers, and thou­sands of more wor­thy and skilled artists and writ­ers (pub­lish­ing deals, gallery shows, admis­sion to grad pro­grams, Broad­way stage, Times op-eds, uni­ver­si­ty teach­ing gigs, etc).

    What my show endeav­ored to do was inter­ro­gate a sys­tem that per­mits a (in my view) vacant-eyed pret­ty boy to side­step all the usu­al mech­a­nisms of assess­ment to reap the ben­e­fits of all these unde­served oppor­tu­ni­ties. The para­dox with Fran­co is that I’ve come to con­clude that mon­ey or pres­tige or acclaim are not his quar­ry — it is sim­ple atten­tion. He is — in child­ish, ego-fired fash­ion — dri­ven by a fever­ish need for regard, and it is essen­tial­ly imma­te­r­i­al to him whether it’s pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive in tone. Wit­ness the furi­ous pace at which he doc­u­ments his every bit out out­put and process (his social media pres­ence is con­stant), and unfail­ing­ly swift response to his detrac­tors — the point is churn, at which Fran­co is an uncon­test­ed mas­ter.

    And the vil­lain of my piece — to the extent that there is one — was not Fran­co, whom I find to be a des­per­ate and hol­low fig­ure, but the pub­lish­ers, gal­leries, uni­ver­si­ties, and espe­cial­ly the uncrit­i­cal art-con­sum­ing pub­lic that per­mit his work — which occu­pies a spec­trum between half-assed and god-awful — to keep find­ing con­spic­u­ous pub­lic out­lets.

    So this — right here: your piece, my com­ments upon it — rep­re­sents anoth­er vic­to­ry in his unre­lent­ing cam­paign for our atten­tion.

  • Jake says:


    I appre­ci­ate your ire regard­ing the pub­lish­ing indus­try’s lack of vision and the peo­ple they employ to per­pet­u­ate their prof­it mar­gins to investors and share­hold­ers and rel­e­vance to the con­sum­ing and brand-sen­si­tive pub­lic, but I think you’re mak­ing the mis­take of con­flat­ing art with insti­tu­tion. I think the author of the post on this site is prob­a­bly doing the same thing — but I think that is anoth­er issue and regard­ing Open Cul­ture’s very pos­i­tive social goal it is not a prob­lem.

    If you hold any insti­tu­tion in high regard, mean­ing you attach your def­i­n­i­tions of seri­ous­ness or impor­tance or mean­ing to estab­lished orders or rules of what you find is worth­while or con­trib­u­to­ry to cul­ture or soci­ety, then you should at the same time at least rec­og­nize that you are implic­it­ly sub­mis­sive to those insti­tu­tions’ def­i­n­i­tions of wor­thi­ness. Your acknowl­edg­ment of James Fran­co, what­ev­er intel­lec­tu­al frame­work­ing you’re using to decon­struct his exis­tence, is reduced in most peo­ple’s minds to a mere cog in the machine of his ambigu­ous celebrity/art per­sona. You seem aware of this, but you don’t know what to do about it.

    To me your aim, with­out using psy­cho­log­i­cal non sequiturs to unpack it, is to reclaim what you think you know of as art. You regard these gate­keep­ers at insti­tu­tions and uni­ver­si­ties with some amount of esteem, but in the end they are man­agers, pro­fes­sion­als, and prof­it-seek­ers just as any high­ly paid per­son is at a well-financed and sto­ried company/university/brand.

    What will you have art be today? To many it’s some mix of pro­fes­sion and expres­sion, a media bereft of what we once thought of as mean­ing that its only con­tri­bu­tion to the world seems to be the aes­thet­ic — as the mes­sages with­in the texts of our most esteemed artists have become so triv­ial, con­sum­ma­ble, and instant­ly rec­og­niz­able in their sym­bol­o­gy that the con­clu­sion I’m draw­ing is that the only place one can real­ly be artis­tic is alone with­out an audi­ence and as such with­out out­side analy­sis. If this is the course that art must take then I think that is fine. Art as it is a pub­lic or social cur­ren­cy I believe in as a part of the cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem’s sur­vival through the upcom­ing years of cul­tur­al con­sol­i­da­tion. Art as some pre­cious, mean­ing­ful attempt at announc­ing our­selves, which is what James Fran­co is some­thing we can all do but not with­out con­se­quence. James Fran­co can do it with­out con­se­quence — but the only way peo­ple can behave as he does in future gen­er­a­tions — as a per­son with mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ties and ambigu­ous desires and moti­va­tions, doubts — I think Kanye West often does it bet­ter — is for peo­ple to stop tear­ing them down and rec­og­nize that there are peo­ple out there with equal pow­er and mon­ey who are attempt­ing to ren­der human­i­ty homo­ge­neous and effi­cient, and spir­i­tu­al­ly bro­ken under­neath the con­sis­tent motions of nev­er-end­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness. I will take the pre­var­i­cat­ing, child­ish, and gen­uine­ly disin­gen­u­ous James Fran­co over some pol­ished and func­tion-ser­vic­ing “artist” any day, because at least he is mak­ing peo­ple upset.

  • Jake says:

    That all said I think it’s despi­ca­ble that James Fran­co sells any of his “art”. Kanye for that mat­ter too. They should be giv­ing all of this stuff away — on that mat­ter I’m com­plete­ly against this type of busi­ness.

  • Ian Belknap says:

    Wow. Jake.

    You have pro­ject­ed a great deal upon a piece of work which to my knowl­edge you have not seen, and upon my inten­tions, intel­lec­tu­al lim­i­ta­tions and predilec­tions, all while ascrib­ing to me a high degree of rev­er­ence for insti­tu­tions the pres­ence and influ­ence of which I am unable to detect.

    Which is a vari­a­tion of what I see going on with Fran­co — we project upon him and his meek­ly trans­gres­sive bull­shit what we wish to see.

  • Jake says:

    I just find it inter­est­ing that you’ve invest­ed so much of your time and work into a per­son you obvi­ous­ly so dis­like. I detect­ed a regard for the insti­tu­tions, not nec­es­sar­i­ly a rev­er­ence (and by the way I under­stand that you are deeply con­nect­ed to the insti­tu­tions so your rev­er­ence seems pro­fes­sion­al­ly linked) and I am ana­lyz­ing your inter­pre­ta­tion of work, not the work itself. I won’t begin to pos­tu­late on why you are obsessed with Fran­co, and I’m not fight­ing you on hav­ing that anger because I think there is cur­rent­ly a giant and pathet­ic hole where anger should exist in art and writ­ing, but I am chal­leng­ing your per­spec­tive with regards to trans­gres­sion.

    I’ll ask you a ques­tion instead of heed­less­ly pro­ject­ing onto you my assump­tions: Is there a part of you that sup­pos­es that your love and under­stand­ing of the arts, and with it your idea of what con­sti­tutes a trans­gres­sive work, is dis­tort­ing how you view James Fran­co? In oth­er words, isn’t it iron­ic that some­one you deem meek­ly trans­gres­sive and hol­low — which I agree with — is caus­ing you, a per­son who has I would assume a well-for­mu­lat­ed idea of what art is and is not, so much anguish? What about that is not trans­gres­sive to you?

    Sor­ry if the ques­tion is lead­ing but I did­n’t know how else to put it. And I am not try­ing to offend you, I’m actu­al­ly just real­ly curi­ous.

  • Blah says:

    That poem sucks. ‘Nuff said.

  • Blah says:

    And you folks com­ment­ing on this crap fest are pre­ten­tious boors. I can eas­i­ly envis­age the lot of you sit­ting round a per­fect­ly worn wood­en table, sweat­ing in your tweed jack­ets but refus­ing to remove them lest you ruin your care­ful­ly con­trived image, sip­ping the most pre­cious sher­ry (which you don’t real­ly enjoy) from the rarest crys­tal, with your pinkie pok­ing out. Of course, you’ll be sure to make as con­spic­u­ous as pos­si­ble that worn copy of Une sai­son en enfer, which you’ve nev­er real­ly under­stood or even enjoyed.

    Quit with the snooty shit, pick up some Bukows­ki, read a few good ones, and pull the stick out of your ass. It’d do you some good.

  • Smartish Pace says:

    I planned on not lik­ing this but plans fall through as so often they do. I don’t even know actors and nev­er seen this guy before, but “like.” Fun­ny though, for an actor he does­n’t have great stage pres­ence.

  • wpw says:

    The chief char­ac­ter­is­tic of these ram­blings is how very very very utter­ly, inter­minably DULL they are. No amount of art this and art that can alter that. Trans­gres­sive? Huh?

  • Sal ty says:

    Poet­ry is real. peo­ple who cri­tique it are not.

  • Kay says:

    Wow. What a lot of hate.
    You know, the thing about art is that it is meant to be open to per­cep­tion. Yes, peo­ple need to devolop a sense of crit­i­cism, too. But cre­ative-crit­i­cism. Noth­ing good comes out of call­ing some­one a “hol­low, vacant-eyed, pre­ten­tious, stu­pid fag”. (Just to mash some of the most notable child-tac­tic insults I’ve heard togeth­er) oth­er than show­ing your igno­rance.

    His art may not be for every­one but it is still “art”.
    And your per­son­al loss­es aside, there are MILLIONS of artists who go unno­ticed, die before they get a chance to real­ly live and are opressed more than they’re allowed to freely express what they feel.

    Woe is fuck­ing me.

  • Adspayer says:

    Maybe you could write next arti­cles refer­ring to
    this arti­cle. wish to read more things about

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