Last night, the New World Center was packed, more girls than
boys, a younger vibe than older, not a lot of color, but a great mix of
couture. This was a big night. Everyone needed to look dapper. Put on
your best threads, those new shoes, that pretty party dress, girl--James
Franco's in-the-hiz-house. Well, sort of.
The event, Poetry and
Persona, was part of O, Miami, a month-long poetry festival, which has been
successfully inundating Miami with literary arts all through April.
Last night's event featured James Franco
reading poetry along with his teacher and mentor, Tony Hoagland, while
moderated by Campbell McGrath, a local king of prose.
The problem: James
Franco missed the event. O' WELL. Yes. James Franco missed the event, sort of, but we'll get to that in a bit. The show must go on, and indeed it did.
Dave Landsberger opened up the night, as if there is such a thing as an opening act at a poetry reading, but apparently there is in the surreal world of O, Miami. Landsberger, a capable and playful Chicago based poet (also former scribbler for Miami New Times), delighted the crowd with a few charming poems, setting the tone for what would be a special night.
As Landsberger exited, the dashing P. Scott Cunningham walked onto the stage, which was occupied by three empty chairs. Cunningham, the face of O, Miami, the virtual master-mind, along with Pete Borrebach, behind all of which is O, Miami, began to explain the aesthetics and mission statement of the month-long poetry festival.
In a charming and concise manner, Cunningham thanked the numerous partners and arts groups that helped bring O, Miami to fruition. He joked about the name of the festival, sharing some of the ideas they kicked around. Ink /Jet. The Condo Poetry Festival. Ultra South. New Craft. Our favorite: Verse City. And perhaps the funniest: The Foot Festival.
Around this time we had heard Franco wasn't in the building. Cunningham smoothly admitted it. He could have stalled, kept us in suspense, but to his credit he didn't. He explained the problem with Franco's plane, complications due to the president's visit, and the weather, but Franco was on the way. No biggie.
Campbell McGrath and Tony Hoagland, undeniably two of the best contemporary poets in the country, came out and occupied two of the three chairs on stage. One chair, one lonely chair with a seat cushion promised the best ass that would ever sit in it, would get its heart broken. C'est la vei, as the French would say. "Who cares," someone whispered in the mezzanine.
Indeed, for Campbell McGrath and Tony Hoagland were in the house. Some would say, if you cut through the glare of fame, this night was not about James Franco, it was about the professional poets, not the amateur.
And so Campbell McGrath stepped up and introduced Tony Hoagland as "a unique mix of compassion and confrontation." To which he is...
O' TONY THE TIGER
One could form an exploratory committee into the nature of Tony Hoagland. He's so simple, yet complicated. He's a curious sage. An honest politician. A teacher that's a student. He's peacefully tormented. A hater filled with love. Wounded, but charming. An introverted extrovert. A writer's writer's writer. He's arguably the best poet in the country. No big deal though, really. No one anywhere is that big of a deal, except the president. And the night went on. Tony stepped up, dressed in black on black, and read for a good 30 minutes.
He read from "Dickhead":
To whomever taught me the word dickhead,
I owe a debt of thanks.
It gave me a way of being in the world of men
when I most needed one,
He read from "Poor Britney Spears":
Oh my adorable little monkey, prancing for your candy;
With one of my voices I shout, Jump, Jump, you little whore!
He read and read and no one was disappointed.
"Should I read the race poem, or the sex poem?" he asked.
"Both," the crowd responded.
"I'm not reading the sex poem."
There is hardly a more honest, straightforward, accessible, empirical writer than Tony Hoagland. However, as far as observational writers go, there is one just as good, maybe better, and his name is Campbell McGrath.
Creative writers are taught to follow their mistakes. As it became apparent Franco was not in the building, Campbell McGrath took it upon himself to improvise. Trying to buy some time, he capably read from his own work. He read "Lincoln Road" and "The Leatherback," two observational poems about Miami. He triumphantly read from "Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition." Tony Hoagland, and this was worth the price of admission, looked absolutely enamored watching Campbell read.
But alas, the bad news. O, Miami co-creator Pete Borrebach took it upon himself to come on stage and break the story: James Franco's plane, due to Obama being in town and weather, was detoured to Orlando, and it didn't look good. He might Skype the reading in. He might make it down to sign books. No one knew. Just hang tight.
Of course many people immediately walked out upon that news. But many didn't. In fact a couple of hundred people hung around when everyone learned Franco would make it down, just to sign books, not to read.
With all due respect to Mr. Franco, and this is fair criticism, if he didn't have his paws in 50 different pots, things like this wouldn't happen. Tony Hoagland flew in the day before. Franco was flying in at five o'clock, on a commercial plane, friday night, rush hour, a day the president was in town, the start of rainy season.
This was supposed to be an intimate night with one of the most celebrated, hard-working, interesting figures of his generation. This was a chance to perhaps deconstruct the mystery, perhaps view the dark side of the moon. And that was taken away. O' Snap. Shit happens.
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To his credit, Franco showed up, he didn't have to, not flying in on some Spider-Man Green Goblin doohickey, not spiraling down from the chandelier as some pre-teens actually were looking for, seriously. He showed up tired, about four hours late, a little disheveled.
He signed his short story collection Palo Alto. He gave out an autographed comic strip he created. It was cool. It had a McSweeny's vibe and made for a neat souvenir. Don't get us wrong, James Franco is definitely cool. It is impossible not to respect his ambition and reach and talent. Nothing but love for the dude.
The 200 or so people who hung around were absolutely happy. In fact, if one could've harnessed the giggles of some of these pre-teen girls, they could've powered the city grid for a day. The whole night is probably best summed up by an innocent anonymous 15-year-old girl walking out the door. "Ok, like, oh-my-god," she said, after getting her book signed. "That was like the best two seconds of my life."