Interview with Franny Choi
Franny Choi is the author of several books including The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On (Ecco Books 2022), Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014), and a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She was a 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow and has received awards from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and Princeton University’s Lewis Center. Her poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Atlantic, Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is currently a member of the faculty in Literature at Bennington College. Franny Choi will be reading for the Katonah Poetry Series on March 26, 2023 at 4PM. This edited conversation with KPS interviewer, Ann van Buren, took place via Zoom.
Ann van Buren: Hello! How are you? Where are you?
Franny Choi: I live in Greenfield, Massachusetts and am on the faculty at Bennington, that weird and wonderful place.
AvB: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with Katonah Poetry about your work. I’m wondering if you can talk about the title poem of your most recent book, The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. Can you talk about the paradox in this poem? You tell us that “By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already ended” and also quote Grace M. Cho, author and sociologist who says “This sense of impending catastrophe is an illusion, however, because the trauma never quite arrives. It never arrives because it has already happened.”
Franny Choi: The title of the book came from a conversation I had with my partner, Cameron. It was 2017, and between the turmoil of Donald Trump’s election and the US leaving the Paris Agreement there was the sense of imminent threat that everybody around me was feeling. It seemed inevitable that the world was ending. But in that moment of despair my partner reminded me that the apocalypse happened a long time ago. As is the case for many Black thinkers writing in the aftermath of chattel slavery and its legacy, when Cameron uses the word apocalypse, it’s not a metaphor. So when I write about apocalypse in this poem, I’m not writing about the future, but about the present and the past, the precursor for our lives.
AvB: So many of your poems have a chant like quality that gives the sense that the poem writes itself. Do you hear the music of a poem before you hear its meaning or do the words only materialize when they strike a chord? Talk about your writing process and the use of repetition. I’m thinking of “Science Fiction Poetry” where you repeat the phrase “Dystopia of…” and “Process Note” that repeats phrase” Depending on…”
Franny Choi: I think sound is a really important part of my writing process. It’s impossible to forget that poetry is part of the oral tradition. Spoken word spaces, in particular, which are present-day manifestations of that oral tradition, are where I have found community and made my life as a writer in many ways. It is hard to say whether the sounds come first, but I think that it’s one of the material components of the art form that resonates most with me. Poetry is such a concrete way of working language and so, of all the different ways that it is concrete and it lives in our bodies, sound is one of the ones that really gets me going. For this project I was a little bit more interested in musicality than in my last work. I think in Soft Science I was really interested in making sounds that would kind of crunch and fight with each other and be thorny and hard to get through in a different way. For this project I was a little more interested in the incantatory quality of things. Maybe that has something to do with thinking about the rallying power of musical language.
AvB: Yes, at times the poems remind me of being at a demonstration.
Franny Choi: Yeah! A great chant means lots of different things and is also easy to follow along and pick up right away. I don’t think that was really conscious but I love that.
AvB: Do you listen to music when you write? I’ve been pondering the difference between what we listen to and what we say while we’re listening to music.
Franny Choi: I sometimes listen to music when I write but it’s mostly when I’m trying to get out of my own way. I put it on as a distraction from the part of my brain that is the judgmental, editor part of my brain. Having loud music and helps me work against that a little. But I don’t use music specifically as way to inject more musicality into my work. That comes from my own body.
AvB: I get that. There’s a difference between the music that comes from the language within vs. what we are hearing outside of ourselves.
In your poem “Science Fiction Poetry” you chant the many dystopian elements of our world. You reference “Dystopia of houseless people and boarded-up houses on the same city block” and “Dystopia of paying money for water.” This poem interrogates reality, gets us to ask if such horrors could possibly be true. It is philosophical and begs other questions as well. For example: If Utopia is an imaginary place that doesn’t exist, does that mean that Dystopia can’t be real? Or can we say that since Dystopia is possible then the opposite must also be true?
Franny Choi: I don’t know if I would ever argue that Utopia isn’t possible. I think that there are many pockets of Utopia that we experience in the course of a day. Just the safety of being in our homes, if our homes are safe, is a utopia. That brief window during the early months of the pandemic when mutual aid had moved from an operation on the fringes of society to the thing that everybody was participating in, and then the continuance of mutual aid networks— these are utopias that are very real even if they’re microcosms. There’s a poem that didn’t make it into the book that was on this very topic, all about micro-utopias happening everywhere.
AvB: Here’s to the micro utopia’s getting bigger and working towards a macro utopia!
Franny Choi: Yeah, but maybe that’s where things do fall apart. I think this is the reason that people are scared of utopian projects. It’s like in science fiction when Utopia becomes macro then the utopia for some becomes a dystopia for others. I’m thinking about The Stepford Wives or something. That can be a utopia for some and also a horror story. And if we think about upper middle class life within capitalism- the utopia of one is dependent on the dystopia of another. I’m curious about what the small utopias, specifically of the underclass look like and what they mean when they’re built from the ground up.
AvB: I love the poem, “Grief Is a Thing with Tense Issues.” In my mind it conjures the feeling of fear when you ask “What’s the point of grieving in the future tense?” and again “What happened?/Did it happened?” The poem alludes to loss; it is a tender spot within us even as we only anticipate that loss. Can you talk about this?
Franny Choi: In that poem I was thinking about the ways that grief and loss mess up the sense of time as it is manifested in our language. It makes the tenses strange, and in that strangeness it makes our language and maybe our experience of time richer, more complex and interesting, and that’s one of the side effects of experiencing loss. We come out of the other side of it with a different understanding of time. Diasporic loss, the loss attendant in migration— especially forceful migration—has created some of the most fascinating and rich contributions to American literature. I’m thinking about Teresa Hak Kyung Cha in Dictee. I’m thinking about the writers of color who have taken the ways that historical trauma makes our sense of language strange and put that toward creating these brilliant works of literature.
AvB:. Thank you for bringing the topic of Korean history into poetry and contemporary literature.
AvB: I’m wondering how speculative poetry aligns with persona poetry and where the two converge.
Franny Choi: I recently heard a talk by poet Sally Wen Mao about the speculative persona poem—which I found really fascinating. Both this book and the last book of mine are engaged in speculative work pretty heavily. In my last project the speculative work that I was doing was more closely tied to persona and more about trying to inhabit the inner lives of fictional characters— specifically robot and cyborg characters and nonhuman characters, non-human figures— to try to understand something about my own life and to create a kinship between us. If this book is reaching towards anything it’s reaching toward trying to imagine a life other than this one. There’s that quote by Fredric Jameson “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” I took that to heart and said “Okay, well, maybe what we need to do is just practice.” So the last part of the project of my book is to try to imagine alternate ways of being, because it doesn’t come easy; we’re incentivized to find it really difficult. But I don’t think it does us any good to languish in the feeling of impossibility—like that Thatcher quote, “There is no alternative.” No. That’s not true. There’s always an alternative. There are a million alternatives and they’re being been built every day.
AvB: Well you do a good job of not glossing over the problems even as you present hope.
Franny Choi: I think that part of the challenge is to imagine alternatives that might be just as weird and complicated as this life and not simply like, “Here’s an alternate universe where everyone is happy!” I don’t think that that does any good.
AvB: I also enjoyed reading your book Floating, Brilliant, Gone. Can you talk about the lesson plans you developed around this book and that you offer on your website?
Franny Choi: Yeah! I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve spent much of my adult life working as a teaching artist and working closely with teachers both in traditional K-12 classrooms and alternative spaces— the afterschool, the poetry club, youth organizing collectives. I hoped to imagine that book living in those spaces, among students. I haven’t done anything like that for my most recent book yet but I’m hoping to. I would like to imagine it living in rooms where young people are learning about poetry and learning about themselves.
AvB: It’s funny when you talk about young people when you’re so young yourself!
Franny Choi: Oh! I appreciate that. Every year I get into my 30s I feel less and less young!AvB: You’re doing really well! You are young!
I love the honesty in your poems and the references to the body. I’m thinking of the poems in Floating Brilliant, Gone “Ode to My Armpit Hairs” and also “Packing Instructions.” Also the poem “Gentrifier” where you take a hard look at all of the conflict young people feel as they move into neighborhoods that they can afford but also gentrify those neighborhoods. I guess this is not really a question, but I wanted to say that I appreciate the subjects of your book and that you open up a place to discuss these things. Your experience matters and I think a lot of people can relate to it. It can be very alienating to be a person in your thirties and trying to figure out where you belong. I’m sure that your work is appreciated by many at Bennington as well.
Franny Choi: Yeah, I’m trying to figure out how to make my home there and to make a home for others there.
AvB: What is the Brew & Forge and the Witches and Warriors Retreat?
Franny Choi: Brew & Forge is a project that I started in 2016 with the goal of bringing together two halves of my heart—the writer part and the activist/organizer part. I rallied the writers that I knew—mostly poets at the time—to support grassroots organizers that were working in crisis mode in the wake of the election, who I understood were going to be heavily targeted and were also the ones that I trusted to lead us forward and to build that world that we were dreaming of. Brew & Forge started as an online book fair where authors donate their books to be put up for sale. When they donate, they vote on a slate of five organizations that we know about. Then the organization that gets the most votes gets all the proceeds from the book sales. In our first year we had 60 authors who each donated one book, which we sold through an online store. That year all of the proceeds went to an organization called Assata’s Daughters, in Chicago. The authors sign their book, put it in the mail, and you get a nice book from somebody while knowing that your 20 dollars is going to another person who is really doing something on the ground to free us all. In the years since 2016 we’ve grown to a small organization, and last summer we put together a retreat with six poets and six activists—all from the Northeast— to hang out for three days at The Watershed Center in upstate NY. We wrote together and dreamed together and talked about the state of activist art in this country. We worked with two amazing faculty, Cynthia Dewi Oka and Alexis Pauline Gumbs. We got to learn from each other and go swimming and hiking. All the participants were people of color and in addition to all that work, it was really a place for folks to rest and rejuvenate and to be among our community.
AvB: Will it happen again?
Franny Choi: Every two years is our plan. The next one will be in 2024.
AvB: Well, thank you for all this! We look forward to hearing you read you poetry in Katonah!
Join us on March 26, 2023 at 4pm at the Katonah Village Library, 26 Bedford Rd., Katonah, NY 10536. The library is within walking distance from Metro North. Recommended donation: $15. No charge for students. Masks encouraged. For more info>>