James Franco, Directing Herbert White, Graywolf, 2014

Reviewed by Lauren Hilger

[Review Guidelines]

Now I am watching my little film festival.
And I'm my biggest fan ("Film Festival")

Directing Herbert White, James Franco's first full length collection of poetry, reads as a study of the self, an autology. In its strongest moments, this book explores vanity with a keen sense of discernment and revels in its narcissism. It trusts, reasonably, the reader is arriving with a full working knowledge of James Franco.

Herein lies the problem of fame for Franco. The poem, "Because," necessitates knowledge of Franco films. "Acting Tips" assumes the reader covets his lifestyle, and in writing this poem, he is graciously letting you in on a secret. Where we could be reading through a philosophical lens of fame, we get instead the synecdoche of Franco-film-scenes we're expected to already know. Can we even read this book as New Critics, and not as Structuralists with access to Franco's IMDB page? Were we to not have a prior understanding of Franco's placement in culture, were we to remain ignorant—do these poems make any sense?

Some do. James Dean, the chosen spiritual twin of James Franco, appears throughout providing the epigraph, guide, and model of conflicted male beauty. To believe oneself to be James Dean is a fascinating prospect. In the poem, "James Dean on Havenhurst," Franco writes,

He too had dropped out of UCLA.
We were the same person.
Except, he couldn't stop being Dean,
And I could.

As bold as these lines read, this collection counters this confidence and dilutes the focus by also including, for instance, the author's dishy and defensive thoughts on Chateau Marmont.

In the poem, "Chateau Dreams," featuring a graphically maligned Lindsay Lohan, Franco divulges Lohan's whereabouts in 2006. This poem ends on the lines:

Every night Lindsay looked for me and I hid.

Out the window was Hollywood.

Here, Lohan, the succubus, is not to be trusted. The reader learns she is one from whom the narrator is different. And this is important. This collection is intent on portraying what it's like to stare into James Franco's reflection and image.

James Franco cites his name often. To this reader, there's something compelling about including one's name in a poem, be it through allusion or just the assured act of branding one's poem, like a thirteenth century Persian signing his name in a ghazal. After all, when poems of the self are done well, the voice becomes radiant with pride and the courage of exposure.

Franco's voice is strong at times, when it's not discussing what's vapid about Hollywood. In particular, the narrator's remembered, inchoate desire while on a school trip comes through in "Fifth Grade," where Franco writes:

Everyone sleeping below deck, in hammocks:
If I could just sneak over to Amy Kush in the dark,
Then everything would be okay.

This poem expands outward to considering sailors of the 19th century at sea for months. He writes:

There must be books on it.
And also many books that were never written,
Think of all the stuff that could have been written in all those books
About what happened on all those ships.

Another highlight is the film sonnet sequence. Though their titles are uninspired, they reveal the collection's tightest lyricism:

Wonderful whore, Deneuve, to flow                                                
From the Polanski madness to Umbrellas to the housewife
With a penchant for sex. ("Film Sonnet 4")

Stylistically, Franco is interested in that brand of crass, unapologetic writing where one decides to call a woman a "pouty bitch." It is not unpleasant or strenuous to be in the company of this voice; language is kept at the level of most casual speech (e.g. "A bunch of girls seemed to like me") and the poetic impulse is clear narrative, if epiphanic. There's a sweet earnestness, though, in lines like "I love Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy" perhaps because those who love film do love them. The poem, "When I Hit Thirty-Four," opens:

I looked around for love
And I knew by then
That love wasn't worship,
That love was ease.

Perhaps this poem would fully resonate were it just four lines, but Franco continues to inform the reader, "(Love is of man, he sets the rules)." Regardless of this assertion, this book fidgets with insecurity.

"I run through books / And hike through films / And write like a sprinter"—Franco oft admits in various iterations, as if to earn his place here. Likewise, in "Ledger" Franco reveals a prior attempt to write this poem, however, that version was "coded and unclear."

He describes meeting the late actor,

Around the time of all the award shows
When you were nominated for everything
For Brokeback Mountain.
And you were with your woman, Michelle;

Franco recalls seeing and mourning Heath Ledger, but holds him against his own career as well, "There had been a time / When we were up for the same roles, / 10 Things I Hate about You," This comparison touches on the interchangeability of Hollywood, the commodity of the actor, and how strange to know oneself as he who almost had someone else's roles. To acknowledge that an actor must assert and reassert himself against and amongst others, from auditions onward, is humanizing.

This book's eponymous poem, "Directing Herbert White," after Frank Bidart's masterful poem "Herbert White," is a basket of shiny fragments: lines of Bidart's poem, some explication, annotation, observation, some background on Franco's relationship with Bidart, and directorial involvement. This poem feels confident in its own odd shape, happy with all the room it's taking up; Franco seems to have absorbed as many angles as needed in order to give the reader an honest look at his connection to "Herbert White." He writes of Bidart,

Frank isn't married. He lives alone among stacks of books and DVDs and
CDs. The stacks are so large and numerous they have become his walls.


Sometimes, I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world.

This poem reveals the heart of this book, curious about itself and others, and moreover curious about itself as if it were another, strange and unknowable. Franco may not be able to have us read Directing Herbert White as if we don't know anything about him. It's only fair we consider, as he surely has, the problem this presents.