We are excited to present Franny Choi as our Featured Artist of June! Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014). Her work has been anthologized in Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry, and The Courage Anthology: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls, and appeared in journals such as Poetry Magazine, PANK, and Fringe, among others. She is a VONA Fellow, a Project VOICE teaching artist, and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Choi is also a recipient of the Frederick Bock Prize, and has been a finalist at the National Poetry Slam and the Women of the World Poetry Slam.
See examples of her work on our homepage, or watch one of her stunning performances here. Below, see her interview with our editor-in-chief...
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Tyler Tsay: I guess we’ll start at the beginning. What drew you to writing?
Franny Choi: I think the reason I’ve written has changed over the years. Originally, I started writing when I was really young—in elementary school. I really liked the game of putting words together. I liked the way the words sounded next to each other. And then in middle school and high school, like many adolescents, I started to rely on poetry as a means of processing my own experiences, my own emotions, almost to have a friend in the creative process, to guide me through times of difficult emotional upheaval.
And then in college, I joined a spoken word poetry group on campus, and that was when I really started to use poetry in order to connect with other people. Because in high school, my writing poetry was a very private thing. I showed my poems to a few friends here and there, but mostly it was a little bit of a weird secret. And in college, I really started to use it as part of being a member of community, and in order to connect with other people. So I think the reason I started writing isn’t necessarily the best reason or something—I mean all those are all reasons that I write: as a game of putting words together, writing in order to process my own experiences, and writing and performing in order to connect to other people.
T: On that point, for high school kids who are trying to submit to magazines, especially young writers, would you encourage them to go out there and start submitting to magazines and sharing their work? I’ve felt strange about that, just because most writing for high school kids is more private.
F: The literary world is very vast. The world of poetry is huge, and extremely varied. So I think one of the first, important jobs of a writer who’s beginning their journey is to find kin. And one thing that’s really great about submitting to literary journals is that it’s an easy way to see the breadth of work that’s out there, and to learn whose work your poems may be in conversation with. When I first started writing, I didn’t realize how many people’s work was in dialogue with my work, and how many people’s work was not. But even more than submitting to places, I think it’s important for young writers to read a lot of poetry, and that’s something that submitting helps open a window into.
But in order to break out of this private world of writing, I would say that finding other writers—whether in your own school community or outside of that, whether they’re young writers or older—finding other writers is the biggest key to breaking out of the poetry-writing closet. But I do think that submitting to journals is really important and can be very helpful.
T: Would you say that you’ve a preference between spoken word or written? Or is it pretty much just anything?
F: No, I don’t think I have a preference. I love both very fiercely for different reasons. I love being able to connect with people with very directly face to face. I do love performing. I used to hate performing and now I really love it. And I love being able to connect with young people, particularly. I think that poetry on the page presents some obstacles for young people if they’re not already very invested in reading a particular poem or in reading poetry in general. But in performance – first of all, there’s no way to escape when you’re sitting in an auditorium and there’s a performance. Spoken word poetry has the power to move people in a very immediate, visceral way. I never want to lose that. I sometimes worry that I’m going to “graduate” sometime from being a performance poet to being a poet on the page, and as my writing develops, I sometimes find it getting more obscure—more written with an audience of a certain literary education in mind. But then I often swing dramatically back in the other direction, because I don’t want to lose legibility. I don’t want to lose the ability to connect with a theater full of high school students who are like, maybe a little bit into poetry. But while I do love spoken word, I also love that the page allows me to ask the reader to do a little more work. It’s exciting to feel that my poetry in that realm is also developing.
T: Would you say that because spoken word poems deal with more direct, and heavier topics, do you find that sometimes it’s emotionally harder to be performing poems? Since you’re touring and you’re performing all over, do you find it hard to relive those stories over and over?
F: Yeah, that’s a great question. For a poem that I’m going to read over and over, especially a poem I’m going to read in front of a large audience in a high-stakes setting, I really try not to perform those poems that are still so raw I’m getting hurt when I read them. And those poems exist, but I think the work that I read for large audiences that are looking for a good, polished show, is work where I’m at a certain point in the healing process. So that it’s not a re-traumatization, but a way to speak about it without living it while I’m on stage.
T: I’d love to talk to you a little more how you got involved with Project VOICE.
F: The very simple answer is that Phil, Sarah and I all went to school together; we all went to Brown. They graduated a year before I did, and so they started to really build Project VOICE while they were still at school. They’d both been teaching workshops in different setting. Sarah was teaching at a local high school, Phil was teaching poetry in the prison in Rhode Island, and they joined forces and decided to travel to other schools outside of the local schools in Providence to perform and teach workshops. That was how this iteration of Project VOICE started. So after I left school, I worked in a few different settings in local Providence organizations, and there was a point in my life where I was ready to leave that work, and dedicate a lot more of my time to my own craft and artistry, and also to traveling and touring and performing. At that point, Phil and Sarah and I all had a conversation, and they were looking to expand to another poet, and so it just worked out. I’ve known them for a long time, had had some teaching experience and experience mentoring young people, so it was just a good fit.
And now we’ve just expanded our team to two more, Robbie Q. Telfer is a great poet and longtime educator out of Chicago. He’s just starting to join us for some visits this spring, which is really exciting. And in the next year, Jamila Woods, also out of Chicago, will be joining us as well! Jamila’s a great educator and musician. Shameless plug: you can catch her in Chance the Rapper’s music video for “Sunday Candy”!
T: How does a Project VOICE visit usually work? How many schools have you toured around? Are there any favorite memories you have from Project VOICE?
F: It’s different at each school, but we usually try to do both a performance and at least one workshop at each school that we visit. We’re able to both reach a lot of students at once with a performance, which I think is a fun and high-energy entry point into spoken word, and to spread some excitement around poetry—and then the allows us to work hands-on with a smaller group of students. So that’s sort of how that works. It’s sort of hard to say how many I’ve done. I could estimate, maybe, 25 or something, but I’m bad at estimating numbers, so I don’t really know.
As for a favorite memory… Well, we recently did a show at an art school in Maryland. They kept telling us that the creative writing department has always been seen as the least cool of the kids, and all the creative writers were like, everyone else was asking “What do you guys do? Do you just take English classes?” They felt like the underdogs. And when we went and performed, it was a great underdog success moment, I think, for the creative writing kids, and they were super excited to have us there. Anytime I get to rally a squad of nerds, I’m happy. That’s the one I can think of off the top of my head.
T: Do you ever feel lonely as an Asian-American writer?
F: Ah, yeah, that's a great question. Yes, for sure. I think sometimes I struggle to find, well, maybe less who my community of Asian-American writers is, but sort of my lineage as an Asian-American poet, specifically. I think, maybe similarly to the way a lot of immigrant Asian-American folks feel cut off from their actual lineage, through war and diaspora and silences in our families—similarly, many of us feel like we don’t know where we come from in the literary tradition, too. That sort of snipping of the roots can be difficult sometimes, because I think the question is, Who are my ancestors? I think that’s difficult. But I’ve been lucky enough to have a good number of peers who are Asian-American poets. Just by working together and by sharing our work with each other, it helps to fill that loneliness a bit. But there are also fantastic organizations that are dedicated to making it less lonely, to building a family of Asian-American writers. Kundiman a great example of one of those.
T: Why, for the title of your book, Floating, Brilliant, Gone?
F: It’s a line from one of the poems; the poem is called “How to Win an Argument,” and the line is, “Be a spark in the wind/floating and brilliant and gone.” The first, most boring reason is that it’s what my publisher and I could agree on as a title. I had some suggestions that he didn’t like, and he had some ideas I hated, so that’s what we could agree on.
But on a more serious note, the book begins and ends with talking about a former partner of mine who died when we were both twenty. A lot of the book is about a brilliant, bright, young life that’s extinguished too soon, and how life begins and flares and then is gone, in twenty years. It points at the structure of the book, as well, moving from personal and reflective, to political and rageful, and then into contemplative work, and eventually negating itself.
T: On that second one—what role do you think spoken word poetry or poetry in general has in the social justice movement? With everything that’s going on in Baltimore, it’s excruciating to watch. How can writing help?
F: This is a question I’m constantly trying to answer and a lot of my work is trying to answer. I think the intersection of the potential power of art, and utility in social justice, and the potential for making the greatest change, that intersection is where I’m consistently moving toward. So I don’t have a really easy answer, but one of the many ways it’s possible to answer that question, I think, is in framing. Poetry has the power to speak very succinctly and get directly at the feeling of something, to distill the logical argument and get directly at the feeling of a message. And I think that as organizers, as people who are fighting in a grassroots setting from the ground up in order to create real change and shift power to the hands of those who are most oppressed—in that setting, it’s very important to have very clear, logical messaging. To have the kind of messaging that’s talking about policy change and specific campaign goals in response to the dominant narrative about race, about the body, about power. So I think what art can do, in that setting, is to take all of that messaging that needs to happen and to really distill it, and bring all of that back to feeling human and honoring the humans at the center of those fights. Sometimes that means very radically reframing a conversation. Sometimes it just means giving access to, giving words to, a feeling, or to an emotional or psychic state that’s present in a movement for social justice, in order to reconnect us to the humanity that’s driving of all the work.
F: And I also think sometimes, it’s just to give peace to the people may be so exhausted from fighting so much, from constantly fighting. To give peace, and to give a moment of joy to them, too.
T: I think it’s harder to find a better way to put that. That’s all I have for you; thank you for speaking with me!