The Book Report: Amy Lawless on “Strongest of the Litter” by James Franco


The Book Report is a reading series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. August 13th marks the two year anniversary of the series! Join hosts Leigh Stein and Sasha Fletcher, with special guests Micaela Blei, Miracle Jones, Sam Starkweather, and more TBA, for an evening that will remind you of 3rd grade in the best possible way. 7pm, The Gallery at LPR, 158 Bleecker Street.

Strongest of the Litter by James Franco
(Book report by Amy Lawless)

I will start with a quote from Mary Ruefle to lower the blood pressures of the writers in the room who may already be irritated by the fact that I’m giving a book report on James Franco.

“Isn’t all art irreverent?  Is it irreverent to create that which doesn’t exist; the newly made thing flies in the face of the already created and as such is based on negation (what already exists is simply not enough!), but born also out of the greatest reverence for all that already is. When Borges, visiting the Sahara, picked up a little bit of sand, carried it in his hand and let it fall someplace else, he said, “I am modifying the Sahara,” and he wrote that this was the most significant memories of his stay. What Borges did is what we do when we write poems after millennia of poem writing. We aren’t saving the Sahara, we are modifying it, and you have to be irreverent to think you can modify the Sahara in the first place, and sincere in your attempt to do so”  (Ruefle 218).

Oh…and this chapbook was blurbed by Frank Bidart, who writes “Just when you think you know the range and procedures of James Franco’s first chapbook of poems, the next poem outruns them.  The poems reflect bottomless skepticism about ‘today’s celebrity age,” but also an overwhelming earnestness, the desire to not repeat conventions and dodges of making art.  The result is an utterly disabused but dominant sincerity.  This is a superb, touching debut.”

I chose to juxtapose these two quotations for a reason.  Despite how anyone might feel, this chapbook is (chuckle to self) art.  Despite being highly self-conscious, this is a whole new arrangement of letters and numbers on the page, and was written by a human being.  It was irreverent for James Franco to write a book of poems and to modify language, and yes he was completely sincere.  He’s not kidding.  Not even like 1% kidding.

James Franco is an American actor, director, filmmaker, and writer. He is probably best known for his roles as a “freak” in Freaks and Geeks or more recently playing himself in the comedy “This Is the End.”

James Franco is considered extremely irritating by many writers of all genres.  Perhaps because he has published a fair bit and has seemingly found no home genre leading him to be labeled a “polymath” or “renaissance man.”  However, he is no renaissance man.  This would require him to have “amassed a large quantity of knowledge” whereas this is just a guy “doing a lot of stuff.” He’s just making “really good use of his time.”  My other assertion is that he could have made a lot better use of his time by editing this chapbook further by spending more time on it or perhaps also having a good editor who doesn’t just want to fame-whore this work onto the mass-produced page.  Additionally, in order to be considered a polymath one must be a great thinker in more than one genre, and to date Franco, age 35, is not a great thinker in more than one genre.  Just one: film.

However, I am a huge fan of James Franco’s acting.  I’ve seen This Is the End twice – the second time just a few days ago.  I own Pineapple Express.  I am excited to see his adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which Franco directed which & debuts at Cannes this summer as I am not going to read that book ever.

So what’s the bug up my ass?  Well, sometimes I review poetry books and chapbooks, and because of this I am under the impression that I should sometimes not have to pay for books.  It slightly offsets the annoyance of not getting paid to write these reviews.  So, I received a review copy of this book, and reading it annoyed me.  And a month after this, I got an email from the publisher asking “What are your plans for the review of this book?”

Then something inside of me died.   I am a contrarian (American) and when someone asks me what my plans are in such a manner, my plans turn inside out from what they could have ever been.  My plans curl up on the floor and look at the sky.  What could have been a stoned HTMLGIANT review co-authored with the also stoned Ben Mirov we have …. this.


The Table of Contents of James Franco’s chapbook Strongest of the Litter is a list of 21 numbered poems.  The poems are:

  1. Elizabeth Taylor
  2. Montgomery Clift
  3. Seventh Grade
  4. When I Hit Thirty-Four
  5. Art School
  6. Historical
  7. Whales
  8. Fifth Grade
  9. Gay New York
  10. Theatre
  11. Double
  12. Florida Sex Scene
  13. Fake
  14. My name is Paterson
  15. Paterson History
  16. Marlon Brando
  17. Paterson Love
  18. De Niro
  19. Blue Being
  20. Animals
  21. Death
  22. Nocturnal
  23. Telephone

I didn’t even notice that the poem titles were numbered until I turned the page onto the first poem, Elizabeth Taylor.   And instead of just the poem title, on page 3 it reads “1. Elizabeth Taylor”  — you know as if the title of the poem is “One Elizabeth Taylor.” I’m not entirely sure of the point of this but it seems rather ill thought-out.  He probably thinks the reader will ignore the “1.,” but I’m a poet and words matter—in fact, each word matters. There shouldn’t be any extra words.  That is to say:  there is one extra word and he can take out the numbers from his poem titles.

There are only three kinds of poems in this chapbook:

  1. Poems about the famous actors and actresses and writers who became famous before James Franco was born.
  2. Poems about James Franco before he was famous and was negotiating his position in the world.
  3. Poems about James Franco after he became famous.

So you see, these poems are about James Franco finding his authorial voice despite the fact that James Franco is TEMPORAL, he had never existed before a certain place in time and someday he will no longer exist as a body in a room.  This is difficult for James Franco to negotiate. He will only exist as an artifact, and this is something that concerns James Franco on every page of this book.  It was easy for me to see this because I’m not close with James Franco personally. If I were his friend, to tell ya the truth, I might not have seen it.  For example, he writes:

“My father died in my Jesus year,

He was sixty three and I was thirty

Three.  He’d managed a few things

And so have I.  I drive a bus.”

A friend sent me this amazing essay by Fanny Howe called “Bewilderment” yesterday.  Howe writes: “In the Dictionary, to bewilder is ‘to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.’”

Howe suggests (using her words) that this is a good thing. This makes entering books possible, it makes you forget you’re on the subway smashed between two strangers.   It makes you forget you have forty cents until midnight Wednesday night.  One thing I love about literature is losing a sense of where I am.

Unfortunately, at no point in this chapbook does one lose one’s sense of where one is.  Here’s an example.  On page 17 there is a poem called “12.  Florida Sex Scene.

12. Florida Sex Scene

I’ve done fifteen years of movies.
I was once the young brooder,
The James Dean that made directors
Unhappy. I was more interested in me

Than in any movie I was in.
I didn’t know that I was part
Of a bigger thing than just my role,
But now I know.

I’m the experienced actor now,

I am a teacher.

When I acted in Spring Breakers

My character was the teacher


And the young Spring Breakers

Were the students from hell,

The materialistic demons

From today’s celebrity age.


The actresses were enthusiastic

And sweet, they were so happy

To be in a movie that critiqued

Their world, rather than added


One more layer of deadly bubble

Gum. When we did the ménage

À trois in the pool at midnight

The girls were drunk.


It was the sweetest thing.

They had taken shots in their trailer

Because it was their first sex scene.

In the pool we went at it.


And between takes, while they reset the lights

The beautiful blonde one—

A realization of someone’s dream—

Stayed in my arms and told me


Everything she loved about my work.


Mary Ruefle wrote “Jane Austin used to write ‘How TRUE” under poems she was not particularly fond of”  (Ruefle 48).  Ruefle also writes “What myths do you want to perpetuate?  What myths do you want to destroy?”

Here he engages in active myth making – that is self-mythologizing.

This poem also fulfills all three criteria of James Franco’s poetic (content-related) interests:

  1.   Famous actors and actresses and writers who became famous before James Franco was born  (via mention of James Dean).
  2.   James Franco before he was famous and was negotiating his position in the world.
  3. Poems about James Franco after he became famous.

However, is this even a poem?  It sounds like this famous Wall Street Douchebag email meme (Peter Chung, Carlyle Group). Note: “domes” is a slang term that douchebags use to mean “condoms.”

So I’ve been in Korea for about a week and a half now and what can I say, LIFE IS GOOD…. I’ve got a spanking brand new 2000 sq. foot 3 bedroom apt. with a 200 sq. foot terrace running the entire length of my apartment with a view overlooking Korea’s main river and nightline……Why do I need 3 bedrooms? Good question,…. the main bedroom is for my queen size bed,…where CHUNG is going to fuck every hot chick in Korea over the next 2 years (5 down, 1,000,000,000 left to go)…. the second bedroom is for my harem of chickies, and the third bedroom is for all of you fuckers when you come out to visit my ass in Korea. I go out to Korea’s finest clubs, bars and lounges pretty much every other night on the weekdays and everyday on the weekends to (I think in about 2 months, after I learn a little bit of the buyside business I’ll probably go out every night on the weekdays). I know I was a stud in NYC but I pretty much get about, on average, 5-8 phone numbers a night and at least 3 hot chicks that say that they want to go home with me every night I go out. I love the buyside,…. I have bankers calling me everyday with opportunties and they pretty much cater to my every whim – you know (golfing events, lavish dinners, a night out clubbing). The guys I work with are also all chilll – I live in the same apt building as my VP and he drives me around in his Porsche (1 of 3 in all of Korea) to work and when we go out. What can I say,…. live is good,… CHUNG is KING of his domain here in Seoul…..

So,…. all of you fuckers better keep in touch and start making plans to come out and visit my ass ASAP, I’ll show you guys an unbelievable time….My contact info is below…. Oh, by the way,… someone’s gotta start fedexing me boxes of domes,…I brought out about 40 but I think I’ll run out of them by Saturday…..


Peter Chung
The Carlyle Group
Suite 1009, CCMM Bldg.
12, Yoido-dong, Youngdeungpo-ku
Seoul 150-010, Korea
Tel: (822) 2004-8412
Fax: (822) 2004-8440

Fanny Howe also writes: “Increasingly my stories joined my poems in their methods of sequencing and counting. I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?”  (emphasis mine)

These last words provide me some small comfort when reading the poems of James Franco.  His concerns are selfish; they are his own. The subject of his own poems is JAMES FRANCO.  Howe discusses how beauty and randomness is this special thing that is always changing and sparkling and allows us to enjoy literature.

At no point in Strongest of the Litter do we lose our places.  In fact I always know EXACTLY WHERE I AM. I am sitting in my apartment reading a James Franco book. Time ticks by like an unsure and crippled ant. That is to say: Franco uses his fame as his subject.  He does not want it any other way.  This is his choice. Patti Smith does this too in her book Just Kids.  It’s no new thing. However, Patti Smith is not hiding behind the machismo and preconceived notions of fame.  She made lapses, learns from them, or at least writes it LIKE she’s learned something from her youthful meanderings.

Mary Ruefle, in her essay “On Fear,” writes that “Fear is the greatest motivator of all time.”   I believe this is the only reason why the following poem, the one poem in the chapbook that deserved to be published was successful.  It is called “3. Seventh Grade” Page 6-7.

3. Seventh Grade


A new school with cement all around

With wires that you can’t see but feel,

And there are faces that break in at you,

And fill you with such pressure.

And you run away but the faces are always there,

Huge black ones that you never saw before,

On guys that are like grown men

That have dicks so big they could kill you.


But your dad says not to worry

Because if someone picks on you

You can handle anyone at that school, he says,

But he hasn’t seen some of these guys

Because he himself wouldn’t be able to handle them.

Gemal and Shaka and Ramone and Ruben,

They are different kinds of people than you have ever known.


The halls are full of these people and talk about pussy and guns

And a girl named Yvon that sucked Shaka’s dick.

You try to picture it, and swallow that image whole, because it is new too,

But that world is unwieldy and can hurt you.

Instead, you have a bunch of mice at home.

That had started as two, but they fucked,

Then there were twenty little pink mice in the cage.

It smelled, and you sprayed it with Right Guard,

You separated the dad from the mom, so that it wouldn’t happen again

But then the mom’s belly got big again with more pink things

Because one of the babies fucked her.


Think of that son,

Half her size, with barely any hair,

Riding her from behind,

Not knowing why,

But doing it because he was the strongest of the litter.

This poem has one strong image: that of the youthful mouse fucking its mommy from behind, and thus impregnating her.  Here Franco compares/negotiates “huge black ones” (other 7th grade boys) who are getting plenty of blowjobs and pussy to the small mice who are also sexually active.

This is a James-Franco-2 poem (James Franco before he was famous and was negotiating his position in the world.)

As a James-Franco-2 poem, we must consider that James puts himself somewhere in this poem:  He is intimidated by large black cock, so he rests in the comfort of something seemingly safe: pet mice.  However, the mice are also throwing down some serious bone.  And they’re also sexualized early.

Ohhh, the white boy before reaching sexual maturity is faced with sexuality from all corners, and on both sides, multiple positions, many “bases” passed. This sexuality is frightening in its inappropriateness.  AWWWW! It’s so hard to be a white man!   (Fake sob to audience.)

So here his job is to negotiate his place among this chaos.

“ Gemal, and Shaka and Ramone and Ruben

They are different types of people than you have ever known


The halls are full of these people and talk about pussy and guns

And a girl named Yvon that sucked Shaka’s dick

You try to picture it and swallow that image whole, because it’s new too,

But that world is unwieldy and can hurt you.”

I have gone back and forth about whether the black classmates are the the stand-in/shadow of the mice (sexual active), or whether Franco himself is the stand-in for the mouse fucking its own mother.  I think  that the mouse is Franco’s spirit animal.  The manchild (small, white) identifies with the immature mouse as a sexual force capable of impregnating a female. He yearns to find some power in the world he is in (despite his size).

As of this writing, Franco has no known biological children, but he does have a chapbook of poems, a novel, a collection of short stories, many film credits, a book, five M.F.A.s in creative writing, and is on his way to a PH.D.

The poem ends:

Not knowing why,

But doing it because he was the strongest of the litter.

Not knowing why, Franco creates poems, but not because he’s the strongest, but because –well, Mary Ruefle here quoting Kafka: “Two tasks at the beginning of your life: to narrow your orbit more and more, and ever and again to check whether you are not in hiding somewhere out of your orbit.”

The sun, the mother of our universe, has lost its pull on the Franco James whose orbit has widened and widened and widened…..while he might do well to narrow it a bit.

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  1. Huh. I kind of liked his short story collection, but these poems seem not so likable. In fact, these poems seem to read, as the author of this review cites, to just be James Franco taking notes on how to be James Franco.

  2. I left this in response to your post on a variety of pages: “And, why? Your reviewer knows nothing of Hollywood history, and the subterranean homophobia that permeates Hollywood stardom. For instance, she might want to do some research (why she didn’t do so? fame envy?) on “Elizabeth Taylor” and “Montgomery Clift,” which leads to one of the most transgressive melodramas ever made (my favorite 50s film): “A Place in the Sun”. Which leads the reader to FLA and eventually to “Florida Sex Scene” (a double entendre, if you’ve ever read Wallace Stevens). I mean, why do his poems have to create a frickin’ narrative? Then, read about Truman Capote’s interview with Marlon Brando (Capote outed Brando) during a sunny vacation, betraying Brando’s confidence (one artist against another). Brando never gave an interview again. And, then, has no one ever read frickin’ William Carlos William’s “Paterson”? The long poem about a town in New Jersey that alludes to being an epic poem but chooses to be about a single place where he/Williams is from, a harbinger of local historicist criticism on the level of poetry. My reading is that Franco is melding Williams with the (maybe crappy) confessional poetry that he is probably reading right now. And, by the way, FRANCO IS A MOVIE STAR, so why not write about them/him in a confessional vein? Or, this is just a mock “melodrama” given the narrative arc, using confessional poetry to mimic the arc of “a melodrama”? I think it’s kind of a smart series of poems as seen as a series of poems.”

    1. And, ultimately, I see this as a satire. Most poets have forgotten satire. This is Franco’s invention. That said, he had some fun, but go back to non/fiction.

      1. And, it’s always easier to critique a text than actually dealing with the text in its context — why do you delete so many lines of any given poem? Why not actually present the whole poem(s)? Who’s the speaker of any given poem? You never determine the speaker given your gingerly citation. If it’s a white, male speaker (not sure, given that you assume all narrators/speakers are Franco, like an undergraduate who assumes the writer is the narrator/speaker) by a white, male poet then it’s kind of transgressive to stage a sex scene, like the last poetic citation, in which the speaker is the passive observer, as a 7th-grader, observing so-called “others,” creating a distanciation for readers/observers. It makes readers uncomfortable, any reader uncomfortable. And that’s worth noting. Reading that last poetic citation, I think the speaker is a white woman, from what I can gather (which is less than you can note). I just want better readers out of poetry, in general. Geebus.