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This review is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

Keep Coming for the Slam james franco, Directing Herbert White (Graywolf) US$15.00
patricia lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin) US$20.00

For Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Yahoo! News commissioned poems, among them ‘Obama in Asheville’ by the actor James Franco. The response was not glowing: it seems appropriate to ask if Franco’s celebrity explained not his publication, but the derision he encountered. Franco has since played the Wizard of Oz, making the (decent) poem’s suggestion that he play Obama somewhat prophetic, especially as, although he didn’t ‘win the Academy Award’, ‘Oscar’ was his character’s name; now a full collection invites a search behind the curtain of his fame.

Directing Herbert White demands no witch hunt. It is not embarrassingly awful or a vanity project; if Franco is disqualifiable through his job’s inclination towards cynical careerism and the churning out of marketable product, then those poets employed in literary academia should watch their backs. Nor is the book’s obsession with Hollywood intrinsically problematic. ‘Sal Mineo’ (‘Stabbed near his heart / In the heart of Hollywood’) is affecting in its alternately delicate and caustic portrayal of a life gone wrong; the title piece intrigues in being both a love poem to Frank Bidart and a lament for the artist as sequestered eavesdropper.

The problem is that Franco does not distinguish between writing what he knows and writing analytically about that store of knowledge. ‘Acting Tips’, when not sounding like it’s been copied and pasted from IMDb, behaves like this:

I knew the audience
Would have an experience
Because I wouldn’t be telling
Them how I feel, I’d be feeling.

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