In Conversation with Franny Choi
by Amanda Volel
FRANNY CHOI is a poet, performer, editor, and playwright. She is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone and the chapbook Death by Sex Machine. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman Fellow, Senior News Editor for Hyphen, co-host of the Poetry Foundation's podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective. A current Zell Postgraduate Fellow at the University of Michigan, she is currently based near Detroit, MI.
Her second collection, Soft Science, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in April 2018. Amanda Volel reached out to discuss Choi’s latest work in further detail.
Amanda Volel: How does the "Glossary of Terms" poem inform or prepare readers for the rest of the collection?
Franny Choi: That poem came about as a result of thinking about four of the words that I used over and over in my work: ”star,” “ghost,” “mouth,” “sea.” Usually when a word is overused the solution is to go through and cut out as many instances of that word as you can. But my teacher, Tung-Hui Hu, told me about a time that he’d gone against his editor’s advice and instead packed all his “overused” words into one poem. So, I thought about other ways I might engage with these concepts—which I was stuck on precisely because I wasn’t done thinking about them!—besides simply removing them. I also wrote that poem as a sort of bridge between my last book (which had lots of stars and ghosts in it) and this one (which keeps moving back and forth, I think, between the mouth, the machine, and the ocean) as a way of thinking about how the two projects were intertwined. It was just luck, maybe, that the object that exercise produced ended up being one I wanted to show others.
As far as what that does for the reader’s experience—I would be so curious to know! But I hope that it gives them a heads up that weird stuff is ahead! And maybe a hint that concepts that might seem diametrically opposed (organic/inorganic, empowering/disempowering, self/environment) are going to be made muddy.
AV: What is your relationship to your titles? Are they descriptors of the poems or are they doing other work?
FC: It totally depends on the title, but I generally feel more inclined to make titles that work less as summarizing descriptors and more like windows into the poem or inciting incidents, or jokes. I like feeling that the relationship between the title and the poem is a dynamic one and one where the poem isn’t necessarily subservient to the title as a kind of categorizing label. I also like to use them as ways to set the scene, to make some things very clear so that the rest of the poem has room to play out. That’s partly off of advice that Ilya Kaminsky once gave me and partly something I learned from slam—the idea of making the premise clear so the audience can follow along with any innovations you’re making from that point on.
AV: Can you talk about the sections in the book? How did you decide the collection would be arranged this way?
FC: My partner and I joked about how both of my books are organized according to the structure, “I’m wounded / I’m angry / I’m gay.” I think this is actually pretty accurate.
What I originally wanted was for the sections to be less discrete, more porous—more like phases that were marked by the Turing Tests as pivot points, rather than section headers. This ended up being a little hard to figure out how to signify in the book’s physical form (and also: what’s the difference between that and sections, really?). But in any case, I know I appreciate breaks when reading books of poems, as well as [having] some sort of map to follow through them, so I wanted to make sure people got that rest and guidance if they wanted it as well.
AV: What is your relationship to science and how does it exist in your poetry? Did the construction of these poems require research?
FC: My father is a physiologist and my mother’s a nurse practitioner—so, there was a lot of science talk in my household. I remember once at the dinner table someone said, “Do you know why they say blood is thicker than water?” and we started talking about red blood cells and plasma. There was this one time when I was maybe seven that my father, unprovoked, said, “What if Jesus was an alien and heaven is another planet?” So, I was raised with a deep appreciation for science, with a fascination about the world, and also with a spirit of delighting in language and imagination.
I think, more than actual incorporation of scientific material, this sense of curiosity is what I bring to the poems—the idea that this work requires striving to ask better and better questions. Which is also to say: I’m not a programmer (I took three months of an intro to computer science class) and not a scientist. But I love talking to my father about his research, to my siblings about their lives in gaming and chemical engineering, to my mother about processes of healing. I watch a lot of BBC Earth documentaries. And I read a bunch of posthumanist theory in the process of working on this book. But of course, the most useful research of all is probably to maintain a rigorous fascination in regard to my own feelings.
AV: Some writers talk about realizing a sense of unapologetic-ness or bravery through their later work. Can you talk about this collection in reflection of your previous work, what occurs here that hasn't occurred before?
FC: Oh, that sounds great—I can’t wait to get to bravery! You know, in some ways this feels almost like my first book. My actual first book was sort of an anthology of all the best stuff I’d made up until that point—or at least all of the questions I was asking at the time. This one is a little closer to asking one main question and tracking it through different terrains and timelines. And I guess the cyborg thing makes it more of a “project.” But it’s really all the same concerns as the last book. As I said: I’m wounded / I’m angry / I’m gay.
AV: How important is your community to your editing and generative process? How do you utilize them in your creative process, or do you create mostly in seclusion?
FC: Can you imagine creating outside of community? Maybe part of my cyborg poetics is the acknowledgment that the poetry world is a big, interconnected, interdependent ecosystem—and so anything I make is necessarily formed by, and forming, the poems and poets around me. Only humans can conceive of a blank, white vacuum field with one isolated gray box, touching nothing, just being gray on its own.
I send poems (or read them out loud) to Cameron and Sam and Fati and Danez and Safia and Hieu and Nate and Jam and Aaron and Devin and Nadine and Laura. I think about what Angel and Shira and Hanif and Kaveh and VyVy and Casey and Nandi and Brittany and Muggs and Chrysanthemum and Charlotte might think about them. I picture reading them out loud to my students in Detroit, or to APIA students at colleges, or to ProvSlam on a Thursday night. I wonder what feedback Linda and Van and Hui-Hui and Jamaal and Tarfia might give, what Ilya or Don Mee or Patricia might say. I think about what might excite, or confuse, or sadden, or comfort my parents, my siblings. I imagine what the 16 or 60-year-old version of myself would feel, reading them.
AV: What advice do you have for writers still finding their "chosen kin"?
FC: Fati said: “Community isn’t something you find, it’s something you build.”
And years before I became a Kundiman fellow, someone else said: “When you get here, you’ll realize we’ve been waiting for you.”
Amanda Volel is a teaching artist, currently working with the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York. She was a featured reader in the 2018 NYC Poetry Festival and the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. This May, she graduates from Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA in Creative Writing. Queens, NY is her hometown. Find her on Twitter @amandavolel.