Franny Choi is a poet, a performer, a teaching artist, a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship finalist, and the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone, published by Write Bloody Publishing (2014). Her accomplishments include being a finalist at several national poetry slams, and her play Mask Dances has been staged at Brown University’sWriting is Life Festival. Check out Spit Journal’s conversation with the lovely Franny Choi.
SPIT JOURNAL: How did poetry find you? And how did performance make its way into your life as a writer?
FRANNY CHOI: Great question. I was first exposed to poetry in the third or fourth grade. I think what I liked about it then was the game of putting words together. As I got older, I started to rely more on poetry to understand my own experiences. The creative process became a life long friend, but sort of a secret friend; I would share poems with a few people I trusted, but no one else. Then, in my high school English class, we read some Beat poetry and I was like, “oh, shit!” Allen Ginsberg in particular excited me so much; it felt so raw, new, dangerous, and sort of risky. I read “Howl” by Ginsberg, which was clearly meant to be read out loud, and that led to seeking out an open mic, where I saw spoken word for the first time. Then, in college, I joined a spoken word poetry group called WORD!, which was an intentional space for poets of color, queer folks, and other marginalized voices. That space ended up becoming a huge place for me to grow politically, socially, and artistically.
SJ: When you approached an open mic for the first time, what was your poem about and what was it like performing?
CHOI: I wrote my own version of Ginsberg’s “Howl” for my generation (which for me were kids trying and failing to live vibrant, meaningful lives in the suburbs). Performing was something that didn’t come naturally to me at first. I’ve always loved to play with sounds, but performing definitely wasn’t my strong suit. But I found myself in a community of performers, and eventually (through a lot of trust-building and trial-and-error) became much more comfortable with the performance aspect.
SJ: Who are your influences either aesthetically or thematically?
CHOI: Every poet that I’ve read, every piece of art that I’ve come in contact with, has had an influence on my work. But to be specific: I learned a lot about enjambment from Robert Creeley. Rachel McKibbens taught me about magic realism and uses of the grotesque. I think aspects of my voice come from prose poets I read in school; Rosemarie Waldrop and Mei-Mei Bergenbrusse come to mind. Mostly, though, I learned from my peers, the poets around me. Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury” is my bible. I return to it over and over again, and I always find something new and necessary.
SJ: Do you believe in the terms “stage poetry” and “page poetry,” and if so how do you define these terms?
CHOI: There’s this dichotomy people create in reference to “stage poems” versus “page poems.” It feels weird to me, to make that distinction so clearly. I try to bridge those realms as often as I can. For example, I’ve been reading out of my book while I’ve been on tour and many of those poems are very much written for the page. But I think that having a background in performance poetry has given me a sensibility about rhythm and sound that sneaks into my poetry no matter what. And things I’ve learned in my “formal” poetry education certainly inform the work I call my spoken word pieces. I think it works more like gender – like a spectrum from “paginess” to “staginess.” If my poems have elements that hit different points on the spectrum, then it gets all gender fucked. I think the most surprising and interesting poems harness tools from different parts of the spectrum. My poem “Pussy Monster” was essentially a “page poem” that really only came alive after I put it in stage drag.
SJ: What intrigued you to write and experiment with Lil Wayne’s song “Pussy Monster”?
CHOI: I’d written a few different Lil Wayne poems, just as experiments. I did a few transcription things where I would listen to a Lil Wayne song and write down every word that I could catch. I did some magnetic poetry where I was scrambling around lyrics. And I found I couldn’t stop watching the “Pussy Monster” video. (If you think the poem is ridiculous, you should hear the song.) The poem was essentially a study to try to answer the question, “why am I obsessed with this song?” And I had to experiment a bit with performing it before I figure out how to read it without boring or horrifying the audience.
SJ: Why is poetry important to any community? And to yourself?
CHOI: I don’t remember who said it, but I read a quote recently about how, in times of war, we turn to the poets. I think the best poems strike something in us, and, even if we don’t fully understand it, we feel more alive. That is no small thing. In a capitalist, imperialist society with so many forces that are designed to make people feel less alive and less human, the ability to come in touch with your own humanity for a moment is priceless. Once I was able to get my foot into the creative process, it’s become something that’s helped me to survive, to heal, to catch the briefest glimpses of freedom. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
SJ: What are the next goals and future accomplishments for Franny Choi?
CHOI: These days, I’m most excited about using the skills I’ve learned as an organizer and mentor here in Providence. The book was a somewhat draining process, so I’m slowly beginning to create new work again. The work I’ve been producing recently has been more experimental and dealing with family, childhood, and memory. I also joined poets Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay in Project VOICE, an organization that brings spoken word into classrooms all over the world. And I’m continuing to build with the Dark Noise collective. Just lots of exciting stuff with some of the best humans I know.