Franny Choi is a writer, performer, and teaching artist. She is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody, 2014) and the forthcoming chapbook Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press). She has been a finalist for multiple national poetry slams and has received fellowships from Kundiman and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Her work has been featured by the Huffington Post and PBS NewsHour, and her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Poetry Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is a Project VOICE teaching artist and a member of the Dark Noise Collective.
Floating, Brilliant, Gone is gorgeous, brilliant, here, and now. It is a book of gifts, of grace, and might as well be etched in stone, for this first collection of poems is a generous, timeless, necessary text. There is a wholeness and dreaminess to Floating, Brilliant, Gone that leaves the reader as “whirlwinded” as the speaker in “Unwords,” the molasses-like last poem of the book. Choi’s work illustrates what it means to be a poet writing today. As an activist, performer, and teacher, she leads from a place of truth—from the heart. Her work holds a heavy lightness that connects distances and braves a way.
Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to ask Choi questions about her approach to making art, contributing to the work of a collective, responsibility to community and humankind, and poetry as a vehicle for empathy. The interview below is a like a glimpse of lightning. You can’t not read Franny Choi. She’s lighting up the sky.
Has your perspective on making art shifted at all since the 2016 election? How have you responded, and what gives you hope and motivation going forward?
I think urgency is as important to me now as it ever was, but maybe there’s been a sort of recalibration, or a shift in understanding of the nature of that urgency. I feel more than ever that there’s no time for poems that aren’t invested in shaking something up; poems that have no stakes. I don’t think any poem can end capitalism (at least on its own), or make this place as safe or as humanizing of a world as we deserve. And these days, I’m not sure that every poem needs to attempt that. But I do believe in the power of poems to shift, rumble, or awaken something on an internal level, and maybe, on a large scale, that can lead to external shifts/rumbles/awakenings, as well. But certainly there’s no time to be boring; there’s no time not to attempt the impossible task of making us feel alive.
How does being part of the Dark Noise Collective propel and challenge you as an artist? Is the support of the collective (and vice versa) essential to your writing?
Dark Noise is, more than anything, an experiment in radical, intentional love among young artists of color in a (literary) world that values competition and whiteness. I’m super, ridiculously lucky; Fati, Danez, Nate, Aaron, and Jamila are both my family and my biggest heroes. The support of/in Dark Noise looks like a combination of pushing each other to dream more wildly and to work more responsibly. That and the safe spaces we carve out to work out our thorny contradictions, deep fears, joys both petty and profound, and of course the less romantic questions around navigating the literary world and beyond.
What interdependence or responsibility do you feel artists have to their communities and the collective of humanity?
Well, I definitely wish humanity operated as a collective (I just finished reading Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, in which there’s an alien species, the Oankali, that make community decisions by linking directly into the ship or town where they live and communicating collectively until they reach consensus. There’s a lot of things about the Oankali that I wish humans could do, but that might be the one I envy the most), but as things are structured right now, I guess it’s maybe most useful to consider who we in artists are in community with – who we’re accountable to, and who’s accountable to us. I think some of this has to do with representing the stories of our people in ways that don’t reinscribe or simply exploit the violence we’ve survived (are surviving). I think some of it has to do with understanding the privileges we carry (both individual privileges as a result of our social identities and the privilege of operating, as artists, as somewhat of an outsider to many of the communities of which we’re a part). Maybe in some ways it comes down to making sure to surround yourself with people who will let you know when you’re being a jerk.
On your website, you have created open access lesson plans for teachers and communities to use in classrooms and poetry groups. Identity and self-examination are themes explored in the “A New Species of Beautiful” workshop curriculum you created for reading Floating, Brilliant, Gone. How can reading and reflecting on poetry instill more awareness of and compassion for others (and ourselves)?
I think so much of engaging in poetry (and in all art, at least art that’s not terrible and designed to preserve structures of power and oppression) is an exercise in empathy. Maybe at its base, poetry is paying close attention and then putting intentional language to communicate to another person what you’ve observed. And maybe you can’t do that without understanding yourself and the imagined reader as both impossibly complex and undeniably human. That seems right, right?
Floating, Brilliant, Gone is available now to order through Powell’s or Amazon. Visit her website for news, including new poems she’s written and published, videos of poetry performances, tour dates, and open access lesson plans she’s developed for educators teaching her book of poetry to students. Follow her on Twitter @fannychoir.
Author photo by Tarfia Faizullah.