James Franco Speaks with Frank Bidart About Poetry
Outtakes from our forthcoming Fiction Issue.
James Franco: You grew up around LA in the 50s and so there are film references in your work. I saw in a review once that you used a movie reference – the thing it was referring to wasn’t the deepest movie – but the way that you used it in the poem, the reviewer was saying, gave it a new kind of weight.
Frank Bidart: That’s nice.
Do you remember what I’m talking about?
I don’t remember the review. But the quality I would very much like to have. I hope that’s true in the "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" poem, which is not a successful film exactly, it’s a fascinating film.
Tell me about the poem a little bit.
Well it’s called “He Is Ava Gardner,” but it talks about identifying with one of the characters in the Professor, who fixes pots, Greek pots, who restores Greek pots. And his attachment to the Ava Gardner character, how the Ava Gardner character, all the men in the film want to marry her, she’s quite skeptical about love, refuses all of them. One of them kills himself over her refusing. And the professor knows that there’s no point in being one more suitor. He does become her confessor. And, you know, keeping alive these fantasies of – of more. Then she meets the Dutchman and he’s this character who has been alive for centuries, who has to keep returning to his ship and sail the world seas. He committed the sin in relation to his wife centuries before and, until he finds a women who is willing to die for him, he can never rest and he can never die. And he wants to die; he wants to get off the wheel. She, rather than being terrified of this, is attracted to it.
So this – I’ve never seen the film – is a film version of this legend?
It is but what it does is add, I mean the women in the opera is called Senta and is not, is not like Pandora in the film. What it does is it joins the Pandora myth, you know Pandora’s Box, with the Flying Dutchman myth. And it’s this weird amalgam and some of the art direction is by Man Ray.
Do you know who directed it?
Albert Lewin. He’s the man who made Portrait of Dorian Grey. I mean he was somebody who was very – art. That kind of, you know, almost 40s and 50s art film that was a little stiff, very referential. And he would hire Man Ray, and they’re striking, beautiful images. But, it’s this kind of mash of things, mash of the Pandora legend, of the Flying Dutchman legend. But the poem is about having identified, because I found I did, identifies with one of these characters. And Pandora, rather than being turned off when she learns that whoever loves him, the Dutchman, will die with him and in fact that’s exactly what he wants. She’s turned on by it. And my line in the poem: ‘She who does not believe in love is going to perform an act of justifying, proving it’s existence." And she wants to throw her life away, you know she’s sick of her life. She’s sick of all these men that just want to marry her and make her you know an adjunct of their life. There’s a racecar driver who’s famous, there’s a poet. And she’s sick of the whole scene of men constantly buying her drinks. And so the professor figure has to watch her become attached to the Dutchman. And he says at one point, I mean he becomes the narrator of the poem, that watching this, you know "we who love the proximate and partial" or "attached to the proximate and partial, loath the hunger for the absolute".
That was originally going to be the title of the book?
Exactly, and that’s how it bears on the whole book being in some ways the opposite of so many of the poems that are full of the hunger for the absolute. It’s also about appall at watching people who are filled with the hunger for the absolute.
When and why change the title to Metaphysical Dog?
Well, there was a long period when, when I was writing under the idea that it was going to be called Hunger for the Absolute, and for me it was generative. But at a certain point, maybe six months before I finished the book, it wasn’t generating poems anymore. It felt like I’d gone as far with that theme directly as I could. As I looked through the book the only possible title I could find was Metaphysical Dog. I had that, the oldest poem in the book.
Talk about your life or talk about kind of own inner workings or whatever.
Absolutely. And I found when I was watching the film, I identified of course with this professor. I mean I wasn’t identifying with the Dutchman; I wasn’t identifying with Ava Gardner; I was identifying with finally this professor.
I would have assumed The Hunger for the Absolute was your own hunger?
Of course. But at the end of the poem, he says, “What she doesn’t realise is that I, I am the Dutchman. I look to her like this fuddy-duddy professor and she doesn’t ever think of me as a suitor, but in my mind I am this adventurer, you know, risk taker, that I’m not in her mind.”
In some ways you’re like the metaphysical dog because if anybody knows you, your life is, you know, lived among books and things and art.
But your inner life is very rich.
On the outside you’re the dog, on the inside you’re the Dutchman?
Absolutely. Inside I am this risk taker, but from the outside I don’t look that way at all. And, so, on the other hand, when I watch the film, you know it’s that peculiar thing I think many people have. I’m sure you’ve had it. Where you find your mind is taken up by some constellation of elements in a film that may not be a very good film.
That is interesting. What do you think of the film itself, probably dated?
Well the film is very arty; it’s sort of stiff and not satisfying. I think it’s characteristic of Ava Gardner that she would want to do such a film. And she got very unhappy with what MGM was offering her and she was very rebellious. It’s not exactly that she was a lover of art films, but she wanted something outside the norm. And, you know, I think she saw herself in that role.
But that being said, you still have actual readers, who read all of your stuff. You have certain friends that read all of your stuff. But maybe they only read it after a certain point after you’ve generated enough of it.
Absolutely. I only show people things that I think at least are passable. And sometimes the readers will say things: “This doesn’t work. This doesn’t work.” And then I will go back and read it and I will agree with them. And sometimes I don’t agree with them. I’ve published many poems, which people didn’t think were finished. I mean, you have to finally answer to your own internalised reader. I try very hard to read the thing as coldly as possible the next day, a week later, two weeks later and I think you have to train yourself to be both inside it and outside it. And to keep a sense in one’s head of your purposes, what you want it to be, those sounds and emotions that you want it to possess and measure that all the time against just what the words on the page, that you’re reading as coldly as you can, are doing. You’re constantly trying to get those two things together. I think that being a writer and being an artist is an incredibly weird thing. You can only generate it out of your inner life and vulnerability. At least, I can only generate it out of that. But you also have to have some sense of what you’ve made and whether you’ve really made something that corresponds to all those purposes and emotions you had. And made something that doesn’t need you and isn't tied to you as an umbilical cord.