Recently, I was witness to an online conversation about the upcoming release of a collection of poems by James Franco, that antsy dabbler of film and academe. Established writers were questioning why Graywolf Press, the publisher of Franco’s Directing Herbert White, would, with this title, willingly compromise its own reputation as a home for serious literary work. Is Franco’s the smug, new face of poetry? The Graywolf spring catalog includes this fragment from Franco’s “Nocturnal”:
I’m a nocturnal creature,
And I’m here to cheat time.
You can see time and exhaustion
Taking pay from my face
In fifty years
My sleep will be death,
I’ll go like the rest,
But I’ll have played
All the games and all the roles.
This awkward construction of paper thin sentiments would indeed seem like a potential liability, even an affront to the work being done by practicing poets today. The most galling aspect of this development to readers and writers of poetry alike is that—given the limited resources of poetry presses—Directing Herbert White almost certainly took up a slot that might have been occupied by a more worthy first book of poetry.
Graywolf’s decision to publish Directing Herbert White is undoubtedly a pragmatic business decision, but to what end? What are the chances that customers who buy this book—fans of Franco the actor, to be sure—will be tempted to buy other titles in the publisher’s catalog? Virtually nil. No, the publication of this book—like HarperCollins’s 1998 production of the singer Jewel’s A Night Without Armor—must be regarded as a side venture. If it results in subsidizing the publication of writing of greater literary value, then it may well represent a compromise worth making. Readers of poetry should not be overly concerned that poetry presses will make celebrity-author fans their primary customer demographic anytime soon…but the onus is on the publishers to use the easy money represented by titles such as Franco’s to open their catalog to riskier ventures.