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
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,
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
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 —
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
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.