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Search for the Real: Part 1

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I was in New York for a week and saw a few things and read a few things that got me thinking about the ways different art forms use fantasy and reality. As summer closes, I thought I'd write a few pieces about these different relationships.

Part One is just the reprinting of a letter I wrote to a writer friend:

Dear R______,

How are you? I am sitting poolside at the top of the SoHo House in New York. The weather is nice, things are going well, and I suppose I have a good life.

I am happy and proud to report that I sold my first collection of poems. Most of it consists of poems I wrote over the three years I spent in the low-residency poetry program at Warren Wilson College. During my time there, Alan Shapiro and Alan Williamson helped me reshape the manuscript a bit, and then Tony Hoagland and Frank Bidart did a lot of heavy editing with me after I got back to New York. Publishing is pretty exciting, but it also makes me feel amorphous. I am aware that I do a lot of things. I try to take all of these endeavors seriously, at least the ones I care about. But I am also known primarily as an actor -- or nowadays maybe I am known in some circles as someone that dabbles in everything -- so it feels as if any criticism I get on anything I do is always tied back to my acting. As the years go by and as I spend more and more time working on other things like writing, I think the emphasis of my career will gradually shift away from acting, both in my own eyes and in the eyes of others, but for now I am still figuring things out.

And when I look at the book of poems, it's a funny experience because it is now my first book of poems. It's so actual and final. It's similar to a person in his mid-20s or early 30s looking back on his life so far and realizing that everything he has done adds up to his actual life. The childhood time for imagining what a life might become or what a book might be is over, choices have been made, and themes and motifs have been laid down, both in life and in one's work. So I guess what I'm saying is, it's a funny experience to look on the kinds of things I've made and written thus far because they are the elements that define me as an artist. As a young artist you usually look up to other artists whom you like and think, "I want to be an artist like that," but then you realize that as a real artist you might be very influenced by other artists, but you will always add something of yourself to the mix. Always. Even in cases of direct appropriation, the act of selection and re-contextualization changes the original work. So what I'm saying is that it's funny to look at myself now and realize, "Oh, I'm that artist. That's what I do."

But it is also tricky for me because I want to be invested in all the work I do, while at the same time I like that I am relieved of needing to make a living off of anything but my acting. What I mean is that I don't necessarily need to be liked as a writer, or at least I don't depend on it as much as I depend on being liked as an actor. I have been acting for over sixteen years. It has taken me at least a decade to get to a place where I am respected as an actor; I can demand a high salary, and I can get artsy movies off the ground because of my involvement. Much of this is dependent on a mix of parts in both commercial and artsy independent features. Now I only do movies that I care about -- aside from the odd day's work on a friend's film as a favor -- but I am still aware in the back of my head that playing the Wizard in Oz makes it a lot easier to play a sinister drug-dealing rapper in Harmony Korine's dark indie, Spring Breakers; and that Oz makes it possible for me both to afford to direct a movie about a murdering necrophiliac (McCarthy's Child of God -- I paid for the whole thing) and to get backing for As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's swirling narrative about a family's burial of their matriarch, a book that has not been brought to the screen since its publication over 80 years ago.

What all this means is that if I am careful I can make work that is pure. Of course I always want to communicate to others -- that is one of the main reasons to make work -- but I don't have to define my criteria for success by how many people buy my work or buy tickets to it. I don't even need to worry about the critics because I am not really making the work for recognition either. I have had a lot of different kinds of success in films: I've been in huge blockbusters, and I've been in films that have won Oscars. In some kinds of movies I think commercial and critical success is important, especially if hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on them, like Oz. If Oz isn't a huge commercial success, I think it can safely be considered a "failure"; the money it cost to make sets the stakes.

But books or movies about Hart Crane from the get-go have a slim chance of attracting the same kind of mass interest that something like Spiderman had, and in addition they are made in such a way that the critics will jump on their abnormalities as if a "good" book or film has a prescribed, homogeneous form and any deviations are just fodder for critics trying to look like they are justifying their roles as the gatekeepers of standards. Anyway, I like critics -- at school all we do is criticize and analyze -- but I don't like superficial critics, and those tend to be the ones that my work attracts. I guess because I was in Spiderman.

I know you agree with all of this, but it's what was on my mind as I considered my poetry book.