“. . . why it is that artists who are vastly successful in one genre feel the need to dabble in another.”
— David Orr, NY Times Sunday Book Review
In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, David Orr posed this question. Orr is not the first nor will he be the last person to pose such a banal question and he doesn’t wholly hate on Franco, instead pointing out that there has been and could be a worse artist trying to cross-over into non-native territory, than Franco. But it’s just the act of asking this question, as if it were to hold in it, in any way, a legitimate value whatsoever — to me, is absurd.
I loathe this question, mainly because it’s so utterly arrogant that it’s ridiculous.
It’s what we do. Any artist or anyone who’s ever known anyone involved in any art form, knows that most artists (writers and poets included) have more than one outlet of expression. For that matter, anyone who has watched a small child for any length of time, as he or she is first exploring the world and learning to express themselves, will find the very same thing — the need to play in different realms. None of us is one-dimensional — artist or not — the need to explore more than one creative outlet is quite simply, human.
That’s why it’s so frustrating, this one-dimensional expectation people have of artists. Always wanting them to stay in just one lane of expression and to keep regurgitating that thing that first drew them to the artist. If an artist chooses to play in another genre or to grow beyond where their audience first found them — then they’re subject to punishment for their insolence, as Bob Dylan was when he decided to plug-in.
Franco was a poet before he became an actor, just as Kanye was an art major before he became a rapper. Joni Mitchell grew up doing art and dance and poetry before transitioning those experiences into music and as Orr notes, Steve Martin, though a talented comedian and actor, plays a mean banjo — (and I’ll add) he’s also a helluva playwright. These artists may have found their first fame elsewhere, but it doesn’t negate the fact that they have something more to say and that they feel a different medium may help them express it better.
Stay in your box
And yet, Orr’s question is not rare. To his credit, Orr is in fact, one of the kinder reviewers of Franco’s work and he points out some of what I’ve witnessed among writers I know — a kind of sour grapes that Franco’s published and they’re not. That Franco getting reviewed and they’re not. As if one had anything to do with the other.
For the under-appreciated poet, who may never be traditionally published or reviewed, it’s easy to cut Franco’s work down to that of overprivileged celebrity, “only being published because he’s famous.” But as Orr points out, if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t mean your book of poems would take his spot — it wouldn’t — not unless you could prove your salability to the publisher. (Which, BTW, you could do sans the celebrity, by taking care to cultivate your author platform and grow your following — as Franco has on Twitter — though maybe not to his level. But that’s a-whole-other post.) The truth is — poetry books don’t sell and the audience for poetry books is not large.
No, a poet, has to love it just for the sake of doing it — not for the dreams of grandeur, the hope of traditional publication, or the fantasy of hitting it big and making millions. This is NOT the dream of a poet, for we are all told, from a very young age, that there is no money in poetry.
Kicking down doors
So, if James Franco wants to express himself through poetry, who does it hurt? In reality — no one. As Orr points out, it may even expose a new audience to the likes of poetry. And though Orr, it seems, is not a fan of the modern-stream-of-consciousness style of poetry Franco employs (the kind that references the modern experience and isn’t wrapped in metaphor and dressed up in nature), I think that it is this very relatable form that will do exactly that — reach and possibly inspire the next generation of would-be poets.
To me the hallowed halls of poetry, literature and the New York Times, for that matter, are all old guard — mostly played out, with their elitist, classist past-their-best-by-date views. We live in a time where, like it or not, these old Titans are crumbling and artists now face both the loss of a dream of a potential foothold on being paid and marketed by the big boys for their work and the possibility (if they’ve got the hustle) of reaching a wider audience, directly, while retaining a more pure artistic vision.
Maybe Franco and Kanye represent this more than anything else — both prolific and famous, unsatisfied playing in just the one lane they’ve been given, they’ll chance your boos and overly harsh literati criticisms and ignore the advice of their publicists, on the chance to go artistically where they want to, to create and explore those things they want most — whether we all like it or not. To me, there is no truer artist than those who are unafraid to upset expectations, to anger their fans or to dare to go somewhere that’s considered taboo for them — to risk it all for their art.
It’s easy to put it on the line, when you have nothing — harder to buck the system when you’re comfortable. But also, if you can’t do it when you’re a nobody (because nobody cares) it has to be so disheartening to have made it and then be told you can’t do it now, either.
Are you talking to me?
I like James Franco’s book of poems, Directing Herbert White, not just because the poems feel raw and accessible and somehow representative of the kind of satisfied dissatisfaction most of this country seems to be feeling these days but also because Franco feels imperfect and at the same time acutely aware of those imperfections, he is self-deprecating and accessible in a way stars of the past have not been and the book itself reads as if it were constructed in such a laissez-faire way, that it ends up feeling genuinely, as if we are there with him at day’s end, as he is deconstructing the absurdity of his art, his life, his days, and his celebrity.
If you don’t like James Franco or his poetry or you feel some sort of issue with the fact he is writing and publishing poetry — then, I put to you that you should simply avoid reading it. But as with any artist, don’t waste our time questioning his right to do it.
Who are we to decide how an artist expresses him or herself? Who are we to ask, “How Dare James Franco be a Poet?”
James Franco’s writing poetry — what are you doing? Let me know in the comments below.