Ian Belknap loves to hate James Franco.

I recently noted that James Franco was in town to read from his new book of poems.  Immediately I wondered, “Does Ian Belknap know about this?”

You see, Belknap is a sometime comedian, actor, writer, and recurring element in Chicago’s cultural milieu lately known for his one-man show, Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull. His involvement in such noteworthy goings-on as Write Club, Paper Machete, and Live Lit are now overshadowed by his Franco-fueled vitriol.

That’s Ian Belnknap. Look. Right there. It’s him.

I cannot blame Mr. Belknap. I watched this video and became nearly apoplectic. I didn’t make it all the way through Actors Anonymous and agreed with the reviewer who stated that it “would be best read as a work-in-progress in a creative writing class.” I am not sure, however, that I would have the boldness required to call for somebody’s head, much less threaten to use it as a cooking vessel, in a public forum. Bravo, Ian Belknap. Bravo.

For the record, Belknap knows what the hell he’s talking about when it comes to writing. I mean, the man can write. Here’s a recent passage from his blog I found particularly striking:

The surest fucking way to become exactly like the parent you hate is to make elaborate, repeated claims that you’ll never, ever, ever be anything like them – it is the perverse joke of the human heart, which may have greatness in it, but also can be a huge dumb-ass.

So when you are an alcoholic, and you remove the alcohol, you are left with the feelings. Which you must experience. In all their un-minimized fury.

Which, for a person like myself, is a fully horrifying prospect. Most of the time, I’d sooner pound a tent stake into my own thigh than feel the feelings. But this is not an option. The emotional life of an alcoholic without alcohol is a gunfight – either the smoke and fire and blood-letting, which at least has the a grisly kind of clarity – or the anguish of standing in the dusty street, twitching hands poised over your gun, waiting.

Ian Belknap has been writing a lot longer than I have, and I’ve accumulated enough rejection notices to wallpaper a small room. Many of us take them as a badge of honor. The rare occasions when my name makes it into print above something I created, I feel I’ve earned the fleeting pleasure it gives me through patiently undergoing the emotional turmoil of repeatedly being shot down as a writer, if not as a person. I don’t know how Belknap feels about his rejections, but I’m sure he has a few, whereas James Franco got published because he’s a famous actor. The time between his first short story collection and his second one (referred to often as his novel) was brief enough that many writers would not have had time to write and prepare a manuscript and have it back from an editor, let alone see it accepted and in print. Of this “Hollywood people can do anything they damn well please” phenomenon, Belknap says:

Franco is the biggest distillation of this tendency, because he is doing so any things simultaneously, then has the feverish insistence we pay attention to his every move. I just zeroed in on the worst practitioner. His “body of work” — air quotes so vigorous my knuckles are breaking — occupies this annoying place where he is making unimaginative work in every discipline even as he is insulating himself rhetorically from any criticism by saying he is “working in forms,” “not speaking literally” — all hollow art-speak justifications.

I think a lot of writers (and readers) are deeply annoyed by this aspect of James Franco’s writing career, regardless of however much they (or I) respect his acting or laughed riotously during Pineapple Express. Few of us, however, express that annoyance as well as Ian Belknap.


I love reading Pablo Neruda in Spanish.

I love reading him in English, too, especially since that’s my first (and only really fluent) language. I first appreciated the beauty of his words in the language they were originally written in because somebody gave me a copy of a Neruda book from Giron Books in Pilsen. They’re rock stars of Spanish-language lit, and they ship all over the US. Here is one of the first poems I remember grappling with en espanol however long ago it was. It’s the only reason I still remember the Spanish word for “artichoke.”

Oda a la Alcachofa

La alcachofa
de tierno corazón
se vistió de guerrero,
erecta, construyó
una pequeña cúpula,
se mantuvo
sus escamas,
a su lado
los vegetales locos
se encresparon,
se hicieron
zarcillos, espadañas,
bulbos conmovedores,
en el subsuelo
durmió la zanahoria
de bigotes rojos,
la viña
resecó los sarmientos
por donde sube el vino,
la col
se dedicó
a probarse faldas,
el orégano
a perfumar el mundo,
y la dulce
allí en el huerto,
vestida de guerrero,
como una granada,
y un día
una con otra
en grandes cestos
de mimbre, caminó
por el mercado
a realizar su sueño:
la milicia.

En hileras
nunca fue tan marcial
como en la feria,
los hombres
entre las legumbres
con sus camisas blancas
de las alcachofas,
las filas apretadas,
las voces de comando,
y la detonación
de una caja que cae,
con su cesto,
una alcachofa,
no le teme,
la examina, la observa
contra la luz como si fuera un huevo,
la compra,
la confunde
en su bolsa
con un par de zapatos,
con un repollo y una
de vinagre
que entrando a la cocina
la sumerge en la olla.

Así termina
en paz
esta carrera
del vegetal armado
que se llama alcachofa,
escama por escama
la delicia
y comemos
la pacífica pasta
de su corazón verde.

(You can read it in English here. )

Can you think of another poem that applies personification to a vegetable so well? I can’t.

I love Sandburg’s Chicago Poems.

Everybody knows the famous “city of the big shoulders” poem. What you may not know is that Carl Sandburg wrote not just a poem, but an entire book of poems, about this city. A defining work of the Chicago Renaissance, the book is a perfect example of what literary scholars now call modern poetry. Concerned with the people and places he saw every day rather than mythology and other classical topics, Sandburg and other poets of the Chicago Renaissance wrote about the particular scenery, dialects, smells, and characters they encountered on the city streets. Chicago Poems is more than a pleasure to read as a book of poetry; it is a document of what Chicago was like in 1916. The poems have a delightfully populist bent to them, and some are even political, but there are also poems that are just plain fun.

Rather than overrun this blog with poetry, I’ll just post two that I think are often overlooked and that are particular favorites of mine.

The first, “To Beachey, 1912,” describes a flight of Lincoln Beachey, widely considered America’s first great stunt pilot. Beachey set an altitude record in Grant Park during August of 1911, according to The Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year Book. About 75,000 people sat in bleachers along the lakeshore to watch him (and others) at the  1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet, and Sandburg may have been among them. Sandburg may have also watched Beachey fly at the 1912 International Aviation Meet, where Beachey dressed in comical drag and performed numerous stunts as “Madam Lavasseur.”

Source: aerodacious.com

Enough exposition! Here is the poem:

RIDING against the east,
A veering, steady shadow
Purrs the motor-call
Of the man-bird
Ready with the death-laughter
In his throat
And in his heart always
The love of the big blue beyond.

Only a man,
A far fleck of shadow on the east
Sitting at ease
With his hands on a wheel
And around him the large gray wings.
Hold him, great soft wings,
Keep and deal kindly, O wings,
With the cool, calm shadow at the wheel.

The other poem is “Clark Street Bridge.” In it, Sandburg describes the site of the  Eastland disaster. Beautiful and haunting, its lyricism is as striking as its imagery. Interestingly, the bridge Sandburg would have crossed while going from River North to the Loop was the second bridge at this location–the bridge there today was completed in 1929, and the first one saw Chicago’s first civil disturbance, a beer riot, unfold. Still, I think these evocative words can yet catch in the hearts of those walking through the city on a misty, lonesome night.

DUST of the feet
And dust of the wheels,
Wagons and people going,
All day feet and wheels.

Now. . .
. . Only stars and mist
A lonely policeman,
Two cabaret dancers,
Stars and mist again,
No more feet or wheels,
No more dust and wagons.

     Voices of dollars
And drops of blood
. . . . .
Voices of broken hearts,
. . Voices singing, singing,
. . Silver voices, singing,
Softer than the stars,
Softer than the mist.

You can read the rest of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems right here, if you like.