I want to believe in James Franco.
For those readers who are new to the figure of Franco the artist, the actor-cum-poet has been part of the literary conversation since his collection of short stories, “Palo Alto,” was published by Scribner in 2010. Much of this conversation has been skepticism, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call some of it outright ridicule.
Despite the consistent scorn and accusations that the “Freaks and Geeks” actor is a mere celebrity dabbling in real art, I would like to believe that he is at least earnest in his drive to create something more than a mythology of Franco. Yet there is something about the idea of a Hollywood actor moving into the realm of “high art” that rubs folks, other artists in particular, the wrong way. Whether it is a new novel, an advanced degree, or another collection of poems, little seems to sway Franco detractors who (perhaps rightfully) point out how his access as a celebrity opens doors that remain closed for other artists.
Franco has put in work, though. You would be hard pressed to call the 37-year-old a struggling artist, but his bona fides come from a commitment to his formal education in the arts. Somewhere between “Spider-Man” and this Christmas’ “The Night Before,” Franco collected five different Master of Fine Arts degrees, and he is well into his Ph.D. at Yale. As far as one can tell, James Franco wants the public to take him seriously as a poet and artist.
Franco’s most recent attempt comes in the form of a chapbook of poems “Straight James/Gay James” which feels less like a miniature release than a concept album. Yet the problem with any concept album is when the art fails to rise to the occasion of the concept. In this case, Franco wants to use verse to explore a double identity as a queer straight man. “I’m gay in my art,” Franco states in an interview by and with himself that interrupts the poetry of the collection. “Or, I should say, queer in my art.”
If you just rolled your eyes reading that, I doubt that you are alone. From the concept of the interview between his straight self and his gay selves, to his ham-handed attempt to discuss queer heterosexuality, Franco comes across as a novice queer theorist who is talking through interesting, yet ultimately incomplete, ideas. Neither Franco’s fascination with gay poets nor his vote for same-sex marriage (to which he actually points in the interview) is a convincing argument for how he fits into this postmodern identity. Yet Franco does occasionally make some very queer moves in this collection. To start, he explores the fringes of performative identity, both in the aforementioned interview and in a number of the poems. In ‘Mask,’ Franco abuses the Paul Laurence Dunbar conceit of the performative mask in an attempt to show how both Francos, Straight James and Gay James, are performances of constructed identities:
There is a face,
And it’s mine.
It is a mask I wear,
And money comes.
White, young, lusty, Sym-
Metrical, dark browed;
This mask is the face
of Gucci, officially.
You may recall your English professor reminding you not to conflate the poet with the speaker of a poem, and perhaps this is true of Franco’s work, but I find it more likely that the poet is aiming to blur the distinction between the two. Who is poet? Who is speaker? Who is the real Franco? That’s sort of the extent of the artistic movement in the chapbook. The poet wants to use sex and desire as the Trojan horse for discussing the theatrical elements in which we construct our identities. Yet poems like ‘Hello Woman’ demonstrate his inability to yet do so with any sense of eloquence. Here the speaker discusses wanting to reject his “man body” in favor of being a woman. This might come across as queer if it didn’t operate in overly simplistic (and occasionally fetishizing and cis-normative) concepts of “woman”:
I love the shapely soft parts,
I love the vagina lips, no cock,
I love the butt swoop, and the clean
Butthole in the middle.
It’s poems like this—supposedly queer poems that operate with a boring, straight male gaze—that make it difficult to take serious the poet’s claim that his work is really about “making queer art that destabilizes ingrained ways of being, art that challenges hegemonic thinking.”
Yet if there is an authentically queer element of this book, for me, it is the way Franco queers notions of what serious art should be. Like many contemporary poets responding to and working with the detritus of popular culture, Franco’s poetry asks readers to question whether or not he is fucking with them. He acknowledges this with the dedication to, and epigraph from, vocalist Lana Del Rey, which are echoed later in the two poems he writes about her. He also does it in ‘Fake,’ the penultimate poem appearing in the collection, when he writes:
There is a fake version of me,
And he’s the one that writes
So how seriously should readers even take these poems? As serious as one takes any artistic endeavor, I suppose. Even if the collection falls short as a queer artistic endeavor, even if the concept is stronger than the actual work, “Straight James/Gay James” demands attention, which may just be the book’s, and Franco’s, ultimate—and only—aim.
James Franco’s “Straight James/Gay James,” published by the Hansen Publishing Group is out now.