James Franco Talks Poetry
How the actor, director, Oscar host, peformance artist, and PhD candidate became Americaâ€™s most famous poetry geek.
James Franco interviewed by Travis Nichols
A few days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Franco would be hosting this Sundayâ€™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.
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Travis Nichols: You seem to read poetry that has a little more crunch to it than your standard â€œrefrigerator doorâ€ poetry. I was wondering when you were able to make that leapâ€”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 youâ€™d call the opposite pole of the poetry world at the timeâ€”Lowell and Bishop and, in that tradition, Anthony Hechtâ€”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 â€™60s or â€™70s. But it really wasnâ€™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 bachelorâ€™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.
Itâ€™s funny because the UCLA Extension writing classes have a great historyâ€”Michael Cunningham taught there, and John Rechy and Janet Fitchâ€”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 couldnâ€™t take the poetry classes, I was pissed off. So I asked him, â€œWhere should I go? I want a place so I can study poetry seriously.â€ Even though I am at Yale now, sure there are some classes on contemporary poetry, but not in the way that itâ€™s studied at Warren Wilson.
At Yale, you study the Romantics, you study Whitman, but not contemporary poetry. Ian said, â€œFor 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.â€ And so I applied and they let me in. Thatâ€™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 Columbiaâ€”I donâ€™t know, I didnâ€™t get to take any of the classes, right?â€”but it seems like a place like Columbia would push more kind of experimental work or, Iâ€™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: Thatâ€™s a weird story. It actually didnâ€™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 itâ€™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 youâ€™re doing.
Read the entire interview here.
James Franco Talks Poetry