The Adolescent Charm of Bad Celebrity Poetry
Why Being Famous is Like Being a Teen Forever
Strange, sometimes, to think how utterly in thrall we are to a small and rarified group who have proven themselves to be, mostly, capricious and moody and immature; convinced that they have the answer to everything even when mounting evidence points to the contrary; glued to their smartphones; vain and liable to enter into ill-judged romantic alliances; prone to throwing tantrums; prone to talking about the very act of sex as if they invented it; great at parties and bad at menial labour; either reluctant to talk about politics, or far too eager and woefully underinformed.
I am talking, of course, about celebrities. Any similarities between celebrities and that other rarified, adored, and evergreen group, Teens, might best be put down to something resembling arrested development. Like teenagers, famous people are indulged and relatively gorgeous. They have so many options ahead of them. They survive on whims. They have other, smarter people on-hand to make all of their biggest decisions, which leaves them time to pursue their teen- or teen-adjacent interests, i.e. shopping, or screwing their castmates-cum-classmates, or using Proactiv. Like most teens, they sometimes make really bad, terribly serious art. Sometimes this bad art is bad poetry: as when, earlier this year, the actress Lindsay Lohan shared some verse she’d written on Instagram.
Like teenagers, famous people are indulged and relatively gorgeous.
Nobody seemed to have made this particular big decision for her. The poem is partly about ISIS, but mostly about Lindsay Lohan’s unrest and unease, and her feeling that her time would be better spent solving the problem. Like every famous person’s work that I’ve reproduced here, it appears [sic]:
Sometimes I hear the voice of the one I loved the most
but in this world we live in of terror
who I am to be the girl who is scared and hurt
when most things that happen I cannot explain
I try to understand
when I’m sitting in bed at 3am
so I can’t sleep, I roll over
I can’t think and my body becomes cold
I immediately feel older . . .
then I realise, at least I am in a bed
I am still alive
so what can really be said?
just go on to bed and close the blinds
still and so on, I cannot help but want to fix all of these idle isis minds
there has to be something I can figure out
rather than living in a world of fear and doubt
they now shoot, we used to shout
if only I can keep trying to fix it all
I would keep the world loving and small
I would share my smiles
and give too many kisses
“Celebrities—they’re just like us!” is sometimes true. They’re also sometimes just like we once were. Imagine thinking there was something you yourself could “figure out” through the medium of verse to end terror: then think about being 15. The two are not dissimilar exercises. “When you’re 17 you know everything,” Ray Bradbury writes in Dandelion Wine. “When you’re 27, if you still know everything, you’re still 17.” I keep up with pretty much everything that Lindsay Lohan does—if there were to be such a thing as a “Lindsayologist,” I would feel just in accepting the title—and so I’m aware that she’s long been planning to write a book. I was not aware that it might be a book of poetry. It’s difficult to be too critical, as there’s something so unspoiled about wanting to keep the world “loving and small,” and thinking that extremists are only extremists because their minds are idle.
Long before the world caught onto the idea that celebrities not sharing smiles à la Lindsay the poet did not necessarily mean being bored or ungrateful, Kristen Stewart, then of the Twilight Saga, shared her own poem with Marie Claire. The title was My Heart Is A Wiffle-Ball/Freedom Pole, which seems as good a title as any for something so baffling and written by the star of a teen vampire trilogy. It was introspective and moody, like Stewart. Like her, too, it had something indie and offbeat and syncopated about it, something still unformed. It also made little sense:
I reared digital moonlight
You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black
Kismetly . . . ubiquitously crest fallen
Thrown down to strafe your foothills
. . . I’ll suck the bones pretty.
Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps
Spray painted everything known to man
Stream rushed through and all out into
Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck
Through our windows boarded up
He hit your flint face and it sparked.
And I bellowed and you parked
We reached Marfa
One honest day up on this freedom pole
Devils not done digging
He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle
And this pining erosion is getting dust in
And I’m drunk on your morsels
And so I look down the line
Your every twitch hand drum salute
Maybe having a wiffle-ball for a heart (I looked it up—it’s a “perforated ball used in a type of baseball,” though maybe you already knew that) is better than having one that made out of regular muscle, or out of metaphorical stone. A muscle doesn’t soar the way that a baseball does. A muscle doesn’t define itself through play; though the heart itself occasionally tries to score—to win. Stewart, at the time she wrote this poem, had recently found herself cast as The Girl Who Cheated On Robert Pattinson; she did not have much luck on the field. But poetry, in the minds of some adults and intellectuals, is—unlike the pursuit of celebrity, sex or, occasionally, love—not considered a game. It isn’t for amateurs; or at least it isn’t for everyone.This seems odd, as everyone I know wrote bad adolescent poems.
Stewart’s is a bad, adolescent poem in most places. But in a few others it has something interesting to it. “I’ll suck the bones pretty” isn’t great, but isn’t terrible either—furthermore, it brings to mind my favorite opening lines of any poem, which are those of Anthony Madrid’s I Too Have Been To Candyland (“I too have been to Candyland, but I found myself missing the death cult / I missed the spectacle of the wounded bones being opened and instrumented”). “The crackling stare-down sun” is almost good.
Teens and celebrities, both, are fans of getting high, and both like nothing more than getting high on themselves. Fame is a hell of a drug: to say nothing of, I don’t know, cocaine. Stewart, describing her poetic process and prowess, gets sweetly tweaked on her own supply of Kristen Stewart, but I can’t help but find it endearing. ”I like being able to hit on something, like, ‘There it is,’” she explained to Marie Claire. “I don’t want to sound so f**king utterly pretentious but after I write something, I go, ‘Holy f**k, that’s crazy.””
It is “f**king utterly pretentious,” but also: it’s kind of delightful. Stewart was not so far from teenhood when she wrote this, at 23 years old—the kind of age where you can invent a word (“kismetly”) and just assume it’ll work out. A risk-taking age. Even more important was its mode of delivery: Stewart chose to read this poem aloud to a journalist, a thought which makes me feel like screaming bloody murder. How naked is this, and how fearless? How like a thing that most of us are now too old and calculated and afraid to do; how like a thing that many of us wish we’d done and never will at 30, 40, 50, just as most of us would never have the courage to come out live on SNL by telling the President of the United States we were “super gay, dude.”
It does not seem to me like total coincidence that James Franco—Hollywood’s loudest scholar—gave us his best and most certain performance in the resolutely teenaged film, Spring Breakers. Being famous is the same thing as “Spring Break forever.” It also helps to look good in your swimwear. Cute enough to convince as an affable stoner, but deep enough to convincingly earn an Oscar nomination, it follows that Franco often behaves like the smartest jock in his high school; an interview at The Poetry Foundation calls him “America’s most famous poetry geek” with, as far as I know, zero irony. High school, he says, is where he “came across Ginsberg and the Beats . . . but it really wasn’t until I went to Warren Wilson that I was exposed to contemporary poetry in a real expansive or in-depth way.”
None of Franco’s real-life literature has ever quite lived up to the standard of seeing him deliver Harmony Korine’s near-genius riff on Gatsby’s shirts in Breakers (“This is the fuckin’ American dream. This is my fuckin’ dream, y’all! All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit! I got . . . I got SHORTS! Every fuckin’ color. I got designer T-shirts!”), and none of his real-life charm has ever quite transmogrified itself fully or fleshily onto the page. Consider—speaking, as we indirectly were, of Fitzgerald—Franco’s weird commencement poem for Barack Obama in 2012, called Obama in Asheville, which mentions F. Scott “attempt[ing] suicide” there. He “couldn’t shoot his own head, drunk, I guess,” shrugs Franco:
Asheville is the place where the Black Mountain College once stood
And helped birth Rauschenberg, Twombly and Johns,
Cage and Cunningham; now I think it’s a Young Men’s Christian Association.
On the wall of the Grove Park, they have pictures of the famous guests;
I’m not up there, but Obama is. I was asked to write something
For the inauguration of his second term, but what could I write?
I was in Asheville, studying writing, but not the political sort;
I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing.
I wrote my friend Frank about what I could do, but he was unresponsive.
I went to class and then the little burrito place where they know me,
And finally at night I got Frank’s email on my phone and pulled over
On the side of Warren Wilson Road, past the school barn with the WWC–
Much like Frank, this poem leaves me unresponsive. I can say with certainty that I could go, now, for a burrito; but I could not say with any certainty that this text is a poem, whatever its line-breaks may indicate. Franco reads it on video—it’s a little better to see it in this way, because you can see that he looks like James Franco—but this did not make detractors any kinder.
Beyond his fame, James Franco is also a perpetual teenager in the way that he is obsessed with schooling, with study, with college. I’ve always thought that the media’s problem with him isn’t, necessarily, that his art or his writing is bad: it’s that he represents the unpopular idea that a person can be an A-List actor with looks to model for Gucci and still want something else. He dares to make the proposition that a life of the mind is a greater life than that of the film star. This is not what is generally thought to be at the heart of “the fuckin’ American dream, y’all,” but in itself—in its optimism, its need to assert itself and say, sure, here I am, at the little burrito place where they know me; I don’t care if you think I’m pretentious, because I care about deep stuff—it’s also deeply adolescent. It is, although I hate saying it, pure.
I said, earlier that “everyone I know wrote bad adolescent poems.” Reader, I was one of those people—before I learned that I was one of those people who should not be writing bad-or-any poetry, which is the same thing as saying “before I grew up.” The very best line of celebrity poetry I’ve ever found is by Amber Tamblyn, star of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and of Joan of Arcadia, and thus among the teen-est of grown women: “When I vacuum I think of Ingmar Bergman / fucking me from behind.” “A child star actress,” she writes elsewhere—in a poem a little different from child star actress Lindsay’s—“is a double-edged dildo.” It’s a meditation on being a former celebrity, which makes it a meditation on the end of that strange adolescence. How fitting, then, that it’s bleak as well as mature. Adulthood, just like being unfamous, can make one feel hopeless. As Lindsay would say: “I immediately feel older.”