Two Years With Franz

photo of Franz Wright

Intro from Jay Allison: What if you have a story that’s really complicated, and you have 546 tapes to listen to, and you get obsessed and don’t know where to stop? All of those things were true for “Two Years with Franz.” The “Two Years” refers to two years of tapes recorded by the Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright before his death, and then, the two years Bianca Giaever spent listening to them. Over the past few months, this timeline ended here in Woods Hole with Bianca and me huddled in a studio figuring out what to do. This is a story of art and love, of madness and beauty, of youth and age and death. We hope you listen and that you feel it was worth the time and effort.

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Photos by Jonno Rattman.

Poetry vs. Plot

In radio, we’re often taught to look for stories with a strong plot. But making poetic, non-linear, or character-based radio is much more difficult in my opinion. There’s no guidebook for how to do it.

For a long time, I was terrified to make a radio story about poetry. I wanted the story to be as bizarre and poetic as the audio recordings that I had, but I was worried about alienating the audience in this land of long and circuitous Franz tapes. Jay and I were constantly navigating this terrain, figuring out when to get lost in the tapes, and when narrative handholds were needed. Jay said a helpful thing recently: “The weirdness comes from within the tapes. We’re just helping you understand them.”

As for plot, the chronology of Franz’s life provided an obvious framework for the story. But I wasn’t interested in making a biopic. In order to avoid that, I felt like I had to grab the wheel of this story and wrench it in a different direction.

Goals

I wanted to weave together three different perspectives: Franz dying, Beth (his wife) grieving, and me listening. The final piece doesn’t move chronologically, which makes me very happy. I love when stories jump through time and into various perspectives. But this can be challenging in radio, because there aren’t any visual cues to orient you in time. It gets tiring to keep saying things like, “Remember that thing that happened? This was six years before that.”

I was also acting on a longtime desire to report on a death. I love obituaries, and I often thought of this piece as a very long obituary. I relished the opportunity to go deeply into one life and figure out what gave someone satisfaction. This also gave me the chance to explore some other strange tangents . . . more poetic ideas and feelings I was having. For example, my morbid tendency to imagine my partner’s death.

Lastly, I was interested in exploring anxiety; where it comes from, what it feels like on a daily basis, and the paradoxical way it simultaneously motivates and paralyzes.

Going Personal

I knew early on that I would need to look inward for this story to work, and that my own experience of listening to Franz’s tapes would ground the listener in the story. I was happy to do that, because I often think about the way we hear other people’s stories. We’re constantly projecting our own anxieties, fantasies, wishes, etc. onto their words.

I also wanted to document this strange period of my life, my late twenties. It feels like the final stage of a long adolescence, when people make decisions about how they want to live the rest of their life.

At the same time, I didn’t want the piece to become a solipsistic exploration of my own existential anxieties. Jay helped me find this balance. One day he sent me a long list of questions to help me write about myself:

Did Franz scare you? Was he worthy of obsession? Did you talk about it with other people in your life and what did you think? How did you feel about Beth?

Looking back on these questions now, I see how they shaped the piece. They all get answered, without too much time spent talking about myself.

At one point while I was working on this piece, Jay said “Good writing is just saying facts.” This was an incredible epiphany for me. I had been trying to fill the piece with my brilliant insights, all of which Jay kept cutting. Finally, I was like, all I need to do is say facts! I can do that! Facts!

To Film Or Not Film?

My original vision was to make a film out of this story. I actually have a script written for a feature length hybrid documentary about Franz. I had lots of ideas for re-creations, and I loved the way Franz’s apartment looked. With a film, I’d be able to trap people in a dark and quiet room to give their full attention to Franz’s tapes.

But I ran into some serious roadblocks with making a film. It’s expensive. Beth was moving out of their apartment very quickly. I would have to go back and film all my interviews with Franz’s poetry friends. And I didn’t have any visual ideas yet for Franz’s tapes.

Finally, I got impatient with the filmmaking process and decided to make a radio story. Once I made that decision, everything moved much more swiftly. I converted my film script into a radio script. I knew that Jay had the poetic soul necessary to produce this project, and I reached out to him. He listened to my selects of the tapes in his shed in a blizzard. Perfect.

To Mini Series Or Not To Mini Series

One of the challenges of this piece was its size. Here’s a list of themes the story touches, off the top of my head: addiction, abuse, mental illness, the creative process, redemption, love, deciding when to marry someone, grief, and death. In addition to this monstrosity, I had three major characters I needed to introduce, each with their own life stories.

I had so much material, that Jay and I talked a bit about jumping on the podcast mini series bandwagon. Honestly, I think I was interested in this idea because I had given two years of my life to this story and I wanted to feel like I was getting something “big” in return. But as a podcast listener I was feeling fatigued. I can’t remember the last mini series I made it through. (Actually it was S-town, but still . . . too many podcasts!)

While the Franzophiles would appreciate a mini series, I felt that an hour long piece would reach a broader audience. And I liked the challenge of being economical. A time constraint calls for strong, tight writing. There’s something satisfying about an hour long radio story that takes you on a complete journey.

Outline

Structure is always very hard for me. In a good radio story, it feels like every idea flows effortlessly into the next. But in reality, this is achieved through very careful structuring. Jay helped me break the piece into sections and give each section a title.

I love seeing transcripts and outlines to other people’s pieces, so I’ve included the transcript here and the outline below. More detailed chapter headings are in blue in the script. I’m probably delusional, but I swear the script looks different when you finally get the lines right . . . like it was meant to be that way. It’s a great feeling.

  • Introduction
  • The Tapes
  • Who is this guy?
  • Beth and Franz
  • Beth’s Grief
  • Franz is talking to me
  • Franz is Dying
  • Conclusion

Inspirations / References

There are a few personal radio stories that inspired me while making this piece:

Man Chaboum (I Am Good) by Sharon Mashihi

I really admire the work Sharon did not only in this radio story, but in her life in order to make it.

A 700-Foot Mountain of Whipped Cream by Clive Desmond

This story also works with found tapes, and the writing is very surprising. The story begins in the womb. The womb!

Why Oh Why Ep. 8: How Will I Know by Andrea Silenzi

Andrea’s writing in this episode is phenomenal, and the scene where her boyfriend moves out is a direct nod to her writing. When I first heard this, I went “ohhhhh.” Her details are so specific, and yet so relatable.

Other non-radio inspirations:

The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, Vermont created by Clare Dolan

I’m VERY inspired by museums (hopefully one day I will have a museum of my own). At one point, I wanted to make an audio or multimedia “museum” where you could visit the objects in Beth and Franz’s home, and hear about what these objects meant to them. Museums like this one helped me be able to write about the objects in their home, and include them in the radio story.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

One of my favorite books.

The Show About The Show by Caveh Zahedi

I admire the way Caveh talks about his own life, in a way that is very honest to say the least.

Lastly, radio producers Erica Heilman and Scott Carrier continue to inspire me by forging their own paths forward and sending dispatches from their communities.

More Franz

Here are the titles of some of Franz’s poems that were mentioned in the piece:

The Only Animal
Flight
Imago
Walking to Martha’s Vineyard
The Letter
Spell
Why is the Winterlight

Christopher Lydon did many interviews with Franz Wright on the WBUR show The Connection, produced by Mary McGrath, which we excerpted from. You can also listen to Scott Simon’s interview with Franz Wright, shortly after he won the Pulitzer.

You can read more of Franz Wright’s work on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You can also buy his Pulitzer winning book, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, here. All the other books are really good too.

Thank You

Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright, thank you so much for trusting me with this story and sharing these tapes with the world.

Jay Allison, thank you for taking on this story and for founding Transom.org — a home for stories like this one. And thank you for remembering the mission of public broadcasting, for chasing beauty, and fostering new voices in public radio. You are in the bone freezing diamond!

Sue Halpern was a guiding force throughout the early days of this story. She talked to me on the phone throughout the process and read drafts that would be very embarrassing if they ever saw the light of day. She also called it “the third act in a coming of age trilogy” very early on.

Jacob Blumberg read through many early drafts of this piece, gave notes, helped with structure, watched cuts, listened to tapes, and drove with me to the archives in Boston. For all of those things and more, I am very grateful.

Tate Sherman was my stringer into the poetry world. He listened through half of the tapes and gave me notes on them, which was hugely helpful. He also drove with me to Waltham twice, recited many Franz poems from memory to me, and helped me love Franz’s poetry.

Jonno Rattman took beautiful photos on very little sleep, without any idea what this project would be. You can find his other photography work here.

Zubin Hensler and I have been in band together since 6th grade. He made beautiful music for this piece. You can find his other music projects here.

Thank you to the people whose interviews were in the story: Sophie Cabot Black, Michael Dickman, Deborah Garrison, Alice Quinn, and Don Share.

Special Thanks: Daniel Ahearn, Mark Bramhill, Alex Green, Fady Joudah, Christopher Lydon, Joe Milford, Leah Menzer, and Scott Simon.

Music in the piece comes from:

Zubin Hensler
The Westerlies
Springtime Carnivore
Thomas Newman
Stellwagen Symphonette

Thank you so much to everyone at Transom who has known me since I was 21 years old: Samantha Broun, Sydney Lewis, and Viki Merrick. Extra thanks to Melissa Allison for her sharp editorial feedback.

Jay would like to thank Cathy FitzGerald for slowing him down.

And lastly, thank you to the National Endowment for the Arts for making this entire piece possible.

Additional support for this work provided by the
National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts logo

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