Straight James/Gay James by James Franco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This collective work falls in line with poetic performance art pieces more than it does a poetry chapbook as James Franco explores many aspects of persona. The poetics by itself is passable but never sublime. However, the teasing and toying of personal versus public persona and the concept of a person as a series of situational masks work together to elevate this collection into something greater than the sum of its parts.
James Franco is famous. He knows it, as does his reader. So rather than shirk the mantle, he embraces it through caricatures of himself, not unlike his self-portrayal in This is the End. His open awareness of putting a collection out there as a celebrity is enough to assign the entire speaker voice to character-public persona. Meanwhile, one must assume that the closest he gets to being away from the celebrity persona is with his own family which makes many appearances throughout the collection.
The second poem in the collection, “Mask,” shows his stance when he describes himself as “White, young, lusty, Sym- / Metrical, dark browed; / This mask is the face / Of Gucci, officially.” This is not the voice of someone convinced of his own importance. And yet it is a role he gladly fills “back to wherever the cameras need me,” he notes in “Custom Hotel.” Aside from the masks of actor, poet and celebrity, James hints at his masks as brother and son. Also present are masks that he ascribes to devils and serial killers. There is a darkness waiting to be understood. In “Black Death”, James considers the persona of LA serial killer Richard Ramirez, preying on James’ chosen town. He also draws connections to his process of exploring masks, with the process employed by poet mentor, Frank Bidart, and other artists he admires, Lana Del Rey and James Dean.
While many poems cite specific moments or jobs in Franco’s life, a cluster of 3 in the middle speak of and to his brothers. Throughout them, one gets the sense that James both sees himself more clearly and loses himself in them. From “Brother One:”
Sometimes two brothers split.
Their looks are so similar
They could be twins,
But inside, one takes the dark
Road, and one takes the light.
Tom followed my father
Yet more confusion and potentially jealousy surface in “Brother Two” about James’ youngest brother, Dave, who followed him into Hollywood. “There are probably myriad little things we both do, handed down through DNA, and from proximity to the love of the same parents. / I try not to look for these things, because I’ll think that they’re mine, and that he has stolen them.”
Inescapable is the blatantly queer title to the collection shared with a fictional interview at the end of the collection in which two personae discuss James’ sexuality. Sexuality is yet another mask for James, but gender is not. An earlier poem, “Hello Woman,” laments:
If I ever got high, it would be to be
The woman. If I ever did porn,
I’d want to be the woman.
I don’t want to be the man in woman
I just want to be woman.
But I will never be woman.
I am man, trapped in man.
I have no escape from this body.
In the interview “Straight James / Gay James” which originally appeared in a magazine, the two characters discuss what it means to knowingly have fame and a public persona. Ironically, Straight James plays more coy, while Gay James plays it more, er, straight:
GJ: But my question is, who is the real James, and who is the mask?
SJ: . . . I like my queer persona. I like that it’s so hard to define me and that people always have to guess about me. . . Not that I do what I do to confuse people, but as long as they are confused, I get to play.
SJ: . . . It’s not like I call the paparazzi on myself or anything like that; I’m just having a conversation with the public. If you don’t want to be part of the convo, check out.
GJ: Is this interview a nonfictional statement about who you are?
SJ: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I am as James Franco, but no in the sense that it is a public statement in an entertainment magazine, which means that it is part of my public persona and not my private veridical self.
This collection is no place to look for real personal insight about Franco, but it does master the craft of persona in many little ways. It’s also honest in its dishonesty. And not without humor:
GJ: Okay, let’s kiss in the mirror again.
SJ: You got it, baby.
I received my copy of this collection through NetGalley.
[Check out my other reviews here.]