James Franco and poet Frank Bidart draw a crowd

Poetry makes strange bedfellows

James Franco

James Franco and poet Frank Bidart (left) are interviewed by Robert Polito during Chicago Humanities Festival poetry event at Thorne Auditorium in Chicago. (Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune / February 19, 2014)

Just the other day, the day that James Franco visited the Poetry Foundation to speak with acclaimed poet and mentor Frank Bidart on stage before a sold-out crowd of 800, the following poetic events happened: About 5:40 p.m on Wednesday, outside Northwestern University's law school off Lake Shore Drive, a line of students waited. The event was scheduled for 8 p.m., but the weather was mild. Melting snow cast slushy puddles across the sidewalks. In the lobby beside the auditorium set aside for the reading, Matti Bunzl, artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival (which had partnered with the Poetry Foundation for the reading), said, with a wink: "You can't pull this crowd for a historian from University of Michigan, can you?"

The Poetry and Humanities staffs vibrated like loose molecules. Vi-bray-ted. Anne Marie Wilharm, Humanities marketing manager, spoke so quickly she caught her breath, adding, "But then I got excited once because I had dinner with Temple Grandin." They were expecting TV crews. Lights inexplicably went off in the lobby. Everyone looked up but nobody panicked because the lights came back on. A man outside tried to push his way in. Voices raised. Four trays of sandwiches, one bowl of fruit and one cheese plate arrived.

Outside, the slush slushed.

Inside, Northwestern security guards discussed the plan: Franco and Bidart would enter from the back of the stage; one guard would be stationed outside their green room, which was safely ensconced several floors above, far from the slush and fans and cheese plate. Lt. Kenneth Jones, as breathless as a 14-year-old girl, explained that someone had to be stationed near the stage throughout. He was excited, serious and had the kind of cool mustache that police pull off in the movies but that he pulled off in real life; he seemed underrated.

Boxes of books arrived and assistants stacked books for signing later. More books came. The lobby grew crowded with staff. So many staff. The crowd outside swelled in the slushy slush. At the back of the line, three people wore: black, black, brown. Inside, ushers were told to usher: Seat first in the front, then back.

Severe nods — got it, got it.

Franco and Bidart entered for their scheduled microphone check. Bidart wore loose black, Franco a checkered woodsman shirt. He sat on the lip of the stage, looked upward, closed his eyes and yawned widely. A Humanities person explained that the poets would have 75 minutes to conduct their conversation.

Bidart cringed, Franco squinted.

Maybe other way around?

"If the audience is entertained, they won't want it to be one hour and 15 minutes only," Bidart said. The Humanities person nodded but didn't agree, and Bidart could not understand what the problem was. He looked worried: "We're having a longish conversation here, it's going fine, then you stop us?" Franco nodded: "We could potentially talk a long time." The Humanities person held the face of a person watching her home slide into the ocean. "If time is the issue here, we could reduce the number of poems read," Franco said.

James: He mostly sat, though, and listened to negotiations, and kept a wary face. Bidart turned to a reporter and explained a few things: Several years ago, Franco wanted to adapt Bidart's poem "Herbert White" and contacted him and so they met and became good friends and Bidart had respect for Franco's willingness to dive into the poetry world ("It's real involvement, not cold-hearted") and loved him in "Spring Breakers" and:

"I'm almost 75. At some point you know the parameters of your life. The terrifying thing about getting older is the feeling that everything that happens from now on will be a species of something that has already happened. Becoming friends with James changed that: I no longer feel I can anticipate the future. Which is liberating."

An hour later, just before the event began — after high schoolers and college students and older people filed in clutching Franco's new poetry book ("Directing Herbert White") and Bidart, who is 74, slowly climbed up many flights to the green room, breathing heavily, then stood next to Franco, smiled and took pictures with the muckety mucks of Poetry and Humanities, then Franco and Bidart checked email and waited to be called, then walked back to the stage, passing someone who was working late (though actually cruising eBay) — Terry Hamilton, 24, explained his presence at the event: He liked Franco, he liked poetry and Franco is good on Instagram about announcing new ventures. He opened "Directing Herbert White" and read randomly:

"Dear James ... You were so great in 'Freaks and Geeks,' why don't you stick to that stuff ..."

Two rows behind, Ian Belknap, the Chicago author of a one-man play called "Bring me the Head of James Franco," sat curled into his small chair, taking notes, looking as though he would rather be shoveling slush.

The event began.

Franco spoke, but his microphone wasn't turned on, though when it turned on, he spoke for almost 20 minutes straight: He had been writing "secretly" for years and always wrote about things unrelated to his day job but, frustrated with Hollywood journalism and books that he felt were removed from the real meat, he decided to make his movie life his subject — "Why don't I combine my worlds?" He spoke for so long that a 13-year-old girl at the back of the auditorium whispered to her friend: "Oh my God! His voice is so annoying!"

Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation, asked Franco why he used the rock band The Smiths as the foundation of several of his poems, and the poet said that people like to say that Smiths' lyrics are like bad teenage poetry — so, a wink of sorts. Thirty-five minutes into the program, Bidart finally spoke: He spoke of Pound, Eisenstein and Welles. And then Franco spoke more, and announced he would now read six poems. He read poems that referenced Lohan, Belushi, Brando and his own alienation: "Years later, I decided to look at what I had made/And I watched myself in all the old movies, and I hated that guy I saw."

Then Bidart read.

The room was a tomb, gripped, leaning forward. Franco did not move. Even the 13-year-olds in back dared not fidget. Then Franco showed his "Herbert White" short. Then 50 people or so left. Then he read again. Then another 15 left. Franco and Bidart spoke for two hours, not 75 minutes. Afterward, Grace Clifford, 13, of Chicago, said that she appreciated the poetry, liked Bidart as well and admired Franco's desire to set the Hollywood record straight via a book of poetry. Her mother, Jane, thought James Franco, poet, was a total bore. Then about 300 people lined up to have Franco sign his book, while only 20 or so lined up for Bidart.

cborrelli@tribune.com

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