Poetry to the editor: James Franco in Asheville

Editor’s note: Local resident Caroline Mann, a lecturer in psychology at UNCA, sent Xpress her response-in-verse to actor/director/writer/etc. James Franco’s much-ballyhooed poem, “Obama in Asheville,” which was commissioned by Yahoo! News to commemorate President Obama’s recent inauguration. Franco is enrolled in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, a “low-residency” program that convenes on campus twice yearly (most recently, as Franco describes, in January). Perhaps it was Franco’s near-prostrate, in-bed recitation that inspired a sudden interest in poetry, but the public’s abundant responses showed much passionate concern over meter, rhyme and structure.

Poetry lovers dissatisfied with Franco’s Frank O’Hara/Allen Ginsberg pastiche could turn to one of the four other works commissioned by Yahoo! for the same event. Pulitzer Prize winners James Tate and Paul Muldoon contributed, as did poets Brenda Shaughnessy and Kevin Young. Or, for an alternative very much closer to home, Caroline Mann’s:


I woke up and wondered

why someone would ask you to write a poem

when your words crack

in the mouth like saltines —

so bland a bath. I am thirsty

for something real: standards

at Colleges, cornbread

that is not Vegan, songs

with actual chords in them.

James Franco, I do not know you

from Spiderman, or any other things.

My undergraduates’ knockers never have occasion

to rub up against me.

But I once saw Apocalypse Now

at the Fine Arts cinema downtown,

the one that used to be a porn theatre,

Aunt Mariella said. And once I read

Heart of Darkness in high school.

I felt bad for the captain.

So I want to tell you—

the Asheville you write of

is only a set.

How flimsy the mountains fall,

how clumsy the cardboard cutouts

of men call from their onomatopoeia bubbles:

Bam! Pow! Yikes!

Don’t quit your day job,

they would caution you

if their mouths were not corrugated

of clichés.


I want to tell you—

there is a three-dimensional Asheville,

one where we wake with the covers tangled, rise

for 7 a.m. jobs, take car naps in December sun;

we fight with our lovers, feed the cat,

sweep dead leaves from the kitchen floor.

When the weather turns cold we change our clothes,

not our houses.

We enroll in one college at a time.


On good days we can name

every bump on the blue spine

of mountain that stretches out before us.

We love secret trails,

songs in three-quarter time,

well-built fires and unleashed dogs.

We are poets but can’t afford

to go to school for it,

and anyway I wouldn’t want to

if this is what Warren Wilson turns out.


Have you ever noticed

that the Asheville you write of

is populated entirely by people from someplace else?

Like extras in a movie,

they were brought in from New York,

L.A —

John Cage, F. Scott Fitzgerald,

the Black Mountain College boys —

all tourists of the old days.

The places you visit are the ones built

for the wealthy people just passing though —

The Biltmore Estate, Grove Park Inn,

the Hot Springs meant to cure presidents

and pretty women. So it is

we are known for tuberculosis

and mental hospital fires, neo-Dadaist

paintings of all white, alcoholics

of old and microbreweries newly named

for rivers we almost choked.


If I name-dropped in my poem,

I would list the names of people

actually of this place —

Samuel Davidson, who settled the Swannanoa Valley

you now get high in.

He was killed by the Cherokee,

who lured him into the woods

with a stolen cow bell jangling

like nerves.

Though he was my relative,

I do not blame them.


There is no nice way to say this:

I want you gone. I want you gone

the way the Chestnuts wanted the aphid

dead, the way the Cherokee wanted

Samuel. I want Thomas Wolfe

to rise up from his overvisited grave

and write something mean

and verbose, about how bad your poem was

and how cluttered this valley is becoming

with the props of over-indulgence —

disposable-camera visions

of the tragically hip, uppity gutter-punk galleries

afraid to show something simple

for fear of it touching something human.


I want to quote the names of the true poets

from these hills, the ones who are not afraid

of their language taking the shape of the river,

or anything that has come before.

They do not confuse novelty with art:

Michael McPhee, Gwenda Ledbetter, Doc Watson,

Wilma Dykeman and Joyce Kilmer.

Ron Rash, Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith

And God I wish we could claim her—

Flannery Fucking O’Connor.


We are Appalachia, occupied.

First the nation only saw us

in photographs of the poor —

skinny children slumped like dogs across barn steps.

LBJ waged his war against their poverty.

The photographer told them not to smile.

Now we are no better, pinned up

In AARP brochures and, this week —

Internet news sites. Always someone else

talking for us. You are our new



Don’t smile, you seem to say.

Obama is good but Zelda died

in a fire,

untreated schizophrenia smoldering in her skull.

I am not afraid of tragedy,

but I fear your canon —

carefully chosen calamities of the past

outtalking our own. James Franco,

you may not meant it,

but you are in the way:


Your poem gets read.

My friend Jes’s does not.

Your picture appears in USA Today.

Max Cooper’s does not.

You pay sixty grand to get another degree.

My cousin writes poetry on his bed.

Next door, the neighbor racks his brain against hallucination,

the same disease-fingered demon dancing

Zelda’s waltz behind his eyes

without story.

You film Cold Mountain in Romania, love Barbara Kingsolver best

when she writes about Africa,

photograph Frying Pan Mountain

from inside the car.



I am sorry if I am bitter.

I don’t actually blame you, James Franco,

for the comic-book rendering of this town.

After all, you are only one man

in a string of famous thieves.

You are an innocent,

narcissistic but well-intentioned actor

playing at poetry. I am a savage

native, my bitterness betraying me

with every sideways glance.

The truth is: I do not want to leave.

I am afraid I will have to.


So what I said earlier,

I take that back.

I want you to stay. Stay, but try

to fit in; it’s the only kind thing to do

when you’re in another country.

I will invite you in, play

Knoxville Girl on banjo, feed you

biscuits — salty, not sweet.

My Uncle might take you

bushwhacking to the top, through mountain laurel

thickets, dense as a nest of baby snakes.

Seeing the patterned blue

laid out before you in rows,

you will feel three-dimensional

and small. We will descend, better

than we were.


In return, all I ask is this:

If you are going to write a poem

about our town — please —

mention something of it.

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16 thoughts on “Poetry to the editor: James Franco in Asheville

  1. Big Al

    There once was an actor, all the rage
    Who saw in himself a great Sage
    He created much drama
    Gushing over Obama
    Maybe he should just stick with the stage.

  2. Kate Lundquist

    As much as I enjoyed this response, and agree with most points made by the writer, I do have to make a plug for WWC. As much as Franco has now plagued us with a bad rep for the MFA, the program is actually one of the finest in the country. A writer myself, I attended most of the public lectures this past winter session. Franco sat in the back of the room on the floor, basically sleeping through the lectures. That is his own issue going on… and the poem he wrote… oy vey. I was pretty embarrassed to call WWC my alma mater for a moment. Almost. Until I remembered how amazing the lectures and readings were by the MFA staff. Asheville, please do not judge WWC and the MFA program based on Franco’s…er…incredibly bizarre poem. That is not the entirety of the program. Nor is it the majority, or even a portion, of what “WWC turns out.”

  3. R

    Wow. I appreciate the in-defense-of-Asheville sentiment behind Mann’s poem, but it comes across as pretty harsh. I think Franco’s poem was an honest attempt; it’s just easier to be unkind when the subject is a celebrity. One of my favorite things about Asheville is how friendly and accepting it is. I’d hate to think of someone reading this poem, and some of the comments on this page, and see Asheville as a bitter and unwelcoming (and dare I say snarky?) place.

    • D. Dial

      The point being, wax poetic about our town at you own peril, if you fail to capture it’s true essence. Outlanders gotta prove themselves worthy….just sayin.

  4. mtg

    I think a big point some are missing is that the Asheville most of us knew is dead and dying because of so many of the things mentioned in Mann’s response. It’s easy to see a place as friendly an accepting when for far too long we have allowed outsiders to come here and destroy our beloved mountains, pollute or rivers and streams, ruin our well water since it’s all being siphoned off to feed mostly empty housing developments that are making it too expensive for natives to live here any more, all while we watch those who are not from here buy up the land, raise prices and tear down all of our historic buildings and neighborhoods.

  5. Anna

    As much as I appreciate this poem, I find ms. Mann to be woefully hypocritical. YOU are the tourist, the thief that you speak of ms. Mann. But only trough the eyes of those whose histories you choose to brush past- the Cherokee people.

  6. invisiblefriend

    It must be hard being famous. I wouldn’t want to be. Once you get famous, im sure it is hard to be normal and do normal things without people breathing down your neck and scroutinizing your every move. I listened to the poem from James Franco. I hardly know who he is. But I saw a guy that was expressing something that he had the honor of being asked to do, which was write a poem. It is art. It is in the eye, or in this case the ear, of the beholder. I didn’t hear anything negative about Asheville in the poem. I actually saw a guy that wrote something that he meant, and he seemed very humble. I didn’t feel like he was trying to label Asheville in any way. I saw a guy who is trying to lead a normal life and is cool enough to realize Asheville is a special place. I saw a guy who is passionate enough to go to poetry school here when he could be sipping martinis on an exotic island snapping at the wait staff. He is not a professional poet. That is why he is in SCHOOL. Give the guy a break. Don’t punish him for being rich enough to afford poetry school. Don’t punish him for writing what you consider a bad poem. Would you go down to the River arts district and see a painting you don’t like and write a letter or paint a painting yourself that makes fun of it? He might be famous, but he has feelings too. I consider this rebuttle poem vandalism and it seems to come from some sort of jealous bitter resentment from the fact that he is famous and not from here. I encourage everyone to really listen to James Francos poem again and consider it to be a form of interpretational art that comes from the heart. God I would hate to be famous.

  7. Big Al

    The last four lines of Ms. Mann’s poem says it all.

    Better to remain silent and appear a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

    Or at least read your work out loud once to yoursekf, or to a sympathetic ear, before you spew it on YouTube or similar outlets.

    Franco’s “honesty” does not make up for a result that is both poorly constructed and sounds simultaneously self-serving and syncophantic.

  8. Gwenda LedBetter

    Caroline, i love the passion for the mountains in your poem. Like Your Aunt Mariella and Jean. I expect that’s what brought Sam DAvidson up here before it was legal.Beautiful writing.

  9. J.M

    Yeah I think Mann captures it well… She’s not saying no one is welcome y’all… She’s sayin come. And RESPECT. All these gated mansions by the parkway ain’t doin it. But the national press always prefers to portray us incorrectly. News isn’t news anymore, why we expect art to be art? It’s all a show now and Franco is a prime example of that. Cheers to mrs Mann for expressing a defferent view and cheers to the express– as usual– for giving it voice

  10. J Fevre

    The part where she said “disposable-camera visions” is rather accurate.

    I was at the Thirsty Monk on Patton Ave some time last year I believe and Franco was wandering the streets with a little entourage following him around. He was just quickly zipping by different spots (bars, etc) snapping thoughtless photos of things and people with none other than a disposable camera. It seemed kind of shallow.

  11. Caroline Mann

    Thanks Gwenda! Keep up the good works!
    Btw: a word about wwc for those who might misunderstand: this “fake poem” is not about wwc. Likewise, I don’t intend to speak against all of wwc’s mfa students’ skills. I have generally regarded wwc’s mfa program to be of high caliber and have seen the poetic talent they can facilitate. Rather, this poem is meant to be about how Franco’s verse hit a chord in terms of the false representation of this region too prevalent in the media. I have no illusions that James Franco represents all wwc mfa grads. It’s merely a line in a poem about something else. In sum, I have not intended to downgrade wwc’s mfa program. Rather, I fear wwc has downgraded itself by admitting Franco for what I can only assume is monetary or political reasons, and I wish– beyond all wishing– that the money and effort spent on these falsities could instead go toward some folks who aren’t enrolled in 4 colleges at once and who take their poetry seriously. Likewise, I wish (while we’re on impossible wishes) that the media would pay attention to regular poets and publish poetry that wasn’t either by a famous person or, alternately, a topical rant attached to the hoopla of a famous person. -Caroline M.

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