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Franny Choi


Franny Choi
Notes on the Existence of Ghosts

Leaves stained onto the sidewalk from yesterday's storm create gray-green watermarks on the pavement, like the negatives of pressed flowers, or the ghost of a letterpress still whispering up from the page. A sidewalk is a haunted thing.


I understand the gravity of a train from the empty space and afterbirth air I encounter when I run down to the platform twenty seconds too late. It is the same with all things of such weight - to know them best when you have just missed them.


Snow angels; the power of an outline to name an absence holy, a finger pointing to the inherent fiction of angels and therefore haunting.


If the stars have, as they say, been dead for millions of years by the time their light reaches us, then it follows that my retinas are a truer thing to call sky.


Dove collides into window, leaving a white imprint of its body.
A crime scene outline saying, Take this, the dust of me. Remember the way my body was round and would not move through glass.

The Well

One day, she wakes up
buried in a well.

The well is her heartbeat.
It rings the stones. The stones
are crumbling too slowly
for anyone to notice.
The sky is a distant moon,
a past life. She forgets
her own name. Her name
is Dark-Drinker. Bone-Wife.
She marries the dust.
The dust is a boy who fell.
A boy is like a memory
but heavier. Memories
crawl over her hands.
She has too many hands.
She is all open mouth
asking for night. The night
is asking her to stay.
She stays.


in my dream, i am galloping
on the winds of a violent revolution, stretching
straight letter I, a storm of churning
voices collected into a single
spine. i am radical rapid
turning, uprooting houses
blasting open government
offices, swarms of solid
atmosphere and salt-
water rising against the
pyramids rearing
on the horizon
blackening out
whole suns

                                   i've never seen
                                   the file cabinets emptied
                                   into the streets. only dreamt
                                   blurry photographs of
                                   swirling singularity.

                                   i hear most storms collapse
                                   back into sand and thin, whipping
                                   too fast around their own gravity.

                                   i stand on my steps and watch
                                   the leaves moving in the wind
                                   until one is lifted
                                   into the air and another
                                   carried briefly
                                              into its surge,
                                   dragonflies colliding and
                                   multiplying, sweet
                                                  turbine. and it is
                                   a hint;

                                   a fleeting tug
                                   at the corner of a mouth.


-from Floating, Brilliant, Gone, selected by Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Readings

Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014), which the Providence Phoenix called “a thin, muscular book crackling with energy.” She has received awards from the Poetry Foundation and the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference for her poems, which have been published (or are forthcoming) in Poetry Magazine, The Poetry Review, Indiana Review, The Journal, Margins, and others. Her work has been featured by the Huffington Post, PBS NewsHour, Feministing, and Angry Asian Man.

Franny is a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fellow and former Co-Director of the Providence Poetry Slam, one of the most highly-regarded spoken word poetry communities in the nation.  She has been a finalist in performance poetry competitions including the National Poetry Slam, the Individual World Poetry Slam, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam.  She has performed her work in schools, conferences, bars, theaters, and festivals across the country.  As a Project VOICE teaching artist, she has taught students of all ages and levels of experience, from first graders in New York City to high school English teachers in Western Pennsylvania.  A Kundiman Fellow and graduate of the VONA Workshop, she is also a founding member of the multidisciplinary artists of color collective Dark Noise. She is currently an MFA Candidate in the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program.


A Review of Franny Choi's Floating, Brilliant, Gone by Lindsay King-Miller, first published at Muzzle

Franny Choi’s debut poetry collection Floating, Brilliant, Gone skillfully addresses trauma, identity, memory, and grief, positioning the poet as both witness to and evidence of loss, daring the past to blink first. Jess X. Chen’s illustrations – birds and bones, trees and feathers – highlight the uneasy ethereality that runs through the collection. Together, the words and images evoke the relationship between absence and permanence, a haunted house with windows opening onto surprising moments of beauty and joy.

The first poem in the book, “Notes on the Existence of Ghosts,” provides a lens through which to view the rest of the collection. “I understand the gravity of a train from the empty space and afterbirth air I encounter when I run down to the platform twenty seconds too late. It is the same with all things of such weight – to know them best when you have just missed them,” Choi writes. Throughout Floating, Brilliant, Gone, this concept resonates and echoes: the memory or perception of something being more real than the thing itself.

This is not, however, to say that Choi’s poems are primarily cerebral or abstract. She goes on to write, “If the stars have, as they say, been dead for millions of years by the time their light reaches us, then it follows that my retinas are a truer thing to call sky.” In these poems, a body is the story of everything that has happened to it, everything it has experienced. Memory itself is physical. In “The Well,” Choi writes, “She marries the dust. / The dust is a boy who fell. / A boy is like a memory / but heavier.” There is little difference here between an object and the residue it leaves – the reader can feel the weight, the texture of the dust. Loss is tangible and ongoing, constantly present in the body.

The specific loss that permeates Floating, Brilliant, Gone is named in “Halloween, 2009”:

          When my boyfriend’s mother
          called to tell me
          he was dead
          I called her a liar

However, Choi makes the bold choice to write about the death of a lover while seldom directly discussing love. Emotion, like death, is best understood by the traces it leaves behind. Neither does the collection deal explicitly with the grieving process. Instead, the poet focuses on moments and images, objects that create ripples far beyond themselves. In “Annie Mason’s Collie,” she writes:

          I’ve never seen death
          streak across the sky
          of a loved one’s face –
          just mapped out the craters it leaves

In a collection about loss and embodiment, the physical body of the poet is always necessarily present, like the ghosts Choi summons so eloquently. The body is not an abstraction; Choi’s identity as a Korean-American woman informs many of the pieces in Floating, Brilliant, Gone. As with ghosts and memories, the body here stands for something larger than itself: race, identity, lineage, sex, touch. In “To the Man who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” the speaker fights back against the commodification, the implied consumption, of her body, imagining herself as edible but vicious, “squirming alive / in your mouth / strangling you quiet / from the inside out.” The painful knowledge of racism and misogyny is an undercurrent throughout the collection, another kind of remnant – the shadow an objectifying culture leaves on its survivors. “Be lined / with teeth – anything / but soft,” Choi writes in “How to Get Home Safely.” This fear is also a ghost, a mark on the body left by dire possibility.

Although formal innovation is not a driving force in Floating, Brilliant, Gone, largely taking a backseat to narrative and image, there are moments throughout the collection where Choi experiments with form to powerful effect. The handwritten flow-chart shape of “Never Here,” which provides multiple paths to the same final stanza, is one of the most memorable pieces in the book, as is the erasure poem “Native Language,” where Choi writes “broken fossil / story / I inherited / jumbled / text” between blocks of blacked-out and unknowable words. Here, the negative space defining what it reveals, present as a concept throughout the entirety of the book, is physically present on the page.

Throughout, Choi’s language is sparse while still managing to surprise with neat twists and unexpected juxtapositions. The last lines of a poem are often the most important – they’re where the truth of the poem is revealed, or something unexpected happens, or simply the lines that ring the longest in the reader’s ears – and Choi’s endings shine, summing up the intention of the poem without being too obvious or pedantic. In “Bird Watching,” Choi writes about damage and trauma, another extension of the interplay between loss and body – the physical scars, and the fetishization of a woman’s suffering. She ends here:

          Everyone wants
          a broken-glass girl,
          bought secondhand.
          Look. The damage
          was already there.

Choi concludes poems like a gymnast sticking a difficult move, with force as well as flourish. In “Too Many Truths,” Choi articulates what could be the moral of the whole collection, a history of a body interacting with other bodies, of breaking things and losing things, ending with “Body spills all the light. Body / all the light. Body only dark / when it wants to be.” Depending on the reader’s mood, this could be a daily affirmation or a battle cry. Either way, it’s lovely.

Unlike many poetry collections dealing with trauma and sorrow, Floating, Brilliant, Gone is not an anthem to overcoming. In “How to Win an Argument,” the speaker describes not debating but leaving: “When he laughs at the texture of your sadness, / turn away from his mouth, no matter how soft.” There is no victory here, only escape. This is a book about carrying impossible weight, and Choi does not pretend it’s easy, or even possible, to shrug off that weight and keep moving. The optimism in these poems is fragile and quiet. “My lover who is here / is here,” she writes. “And / that’s the first       and last reason.”

        A review of Floating, Brilliant, Gone, at Pank


An Interview with Franny Choi by Stevie Edwards, first published at Ploughshares

Stevie Edwards: How do you see the relationship between poetry and activism in your work? For instance, does one hold a higher importance to you or are they on an equal playing field? Does one feed the other or are they more symbiotic?

Franny Choi: I used to think of my poetry as activism. I thought I could call myself an activist just by writing poems that critiqued existing structures of power and generally aligning myself with a certain set of radical politics. That definition really changed after I started to work for an amazing community organization called PrYSM (the Providence Youth Student Movement), which supports Southeast Asian youth to be leaders in the local social justice movement. My five years of working and organizing in Providence taught me so much about both the power and the limitations of art. I learned pretty quickly that being a writer with great political analysis could never be a substitution for the hard, mostly unglamorous work of organizing a community. But there have also been times when my role as a poet has felt beautifully symbiotic with activism: when I’ve read poems at rallies or community-building events; when my comfort with language has been helpful in creating messaging around a campaign; the few times I’ve had the opportunity to lead poetry workshops in movement spaces. No poem can make shit move the way people power can. But I think poems are distinctly suited to create spaces for the fighters to heal, draw strength, and envision radical new futures.

These days, I’m living mostly adjacent to the movement, and not all of my poems are trying to be explicitly in conversation with the organizers on the ground. But trying to find and follow the arc that bends toward justice is a project of my life and therefore of my writing. I think my poems are almost always asking the question: What would it look like for this world to love us back? What would it look like to live in a world that saw us as people and not commodities, not vehicles for power or objects of pleasure? I guess what I’m trying to say is that these days, activism is more my compass than my practice, though I owe it everything, everything.

SE: You teach workshops using poetry as a means of talking about identity and power. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about why you find poetry to be a powerful medium for exploring these themes. I was also wondering if you’ve had any particularly moving or surprising experiences that have stuck with you while teaching these workshops.

FC: There are so many ways to answer this question! But what I’ll say this time is that poetry is a space in which logic plays a secondary role to imagination and feeling, and that can be a really great playground for a young person who is trying to define themselves and understand the world (i.e., all young people). I think most forces that students encounter are asking them to identify themselves in hard, logical terms—Which box do you check off? Which lunch table do you sit at? What block do you live on? What’s your SAT score? And poetry is this haven in which all lines are hazy, in which youth can define themselves on their own, illogical terms and have the result be something beautiful. Everyone calls you dangerous but you’re actually just the new moon trolling the horizon? Great. The only way to define your gender is with a list of flowering trees and spices? Perfect answer.  In one of the first poetry workshops I ever taught, a fifth grade girl wrote the line, “My name is a concentrated hum in a yoga class.” And everyone, teachers and students, all said yes. Yes it is.

SE: What has your experience been like as part of the Dark Noise collective (along with Fatimah Asghar, Nate Marshall, Aaron Samuels, Danez Smith, and Jamila Woods)? How has being a part of that creative kinship affected your work? Also, are you all working on any collaborative projects?

FC: Dark Noise is an experiment in radical, intentional, democratic, POC love in a world that values competition and whiteness.  I’ve become a better writer, reader, and teacher because of our four years together, and we’ve all helped each other advance in our artistic careers. But the biggest lessons by far have been around solidarity and community. Capitalism teaches us we need to be brutal and self-serving in order to survive; heteropatriarchy tells us the only real relationships are with blood family or heterosexual, monogamous life partners. I think much of our time in Dark Noise has been unlearning those myths by turning, fully, to each other.

In regards to projects, we have a chapbook coming out next spring on Organic Weapons Press, and we’re still working on creating more resources for writers and teachers in the face of police brutality and global terrorism.  And a few more things are, quietly, in the works.

SE: In addition to Dark Noise, you’ve also been an important figure in the Providence Poetry Slam and are a teaching artist in Project Voice (with another rockstar list of collaborators: Elizabeth Acevedo, Phil Kaye, Sarah Kay, and Robbie Q. Telfer). I was wondering if you could talk a little about the importance of creative community?

FC: Without creative community, I would be a selfish, worthless, terrible little worm of a writer—more so than I am now, I mean.

SE: At the risk of asking what might sound like too obvious of a question, I was wondering (in light of your work with Project Voice) why you see helping young people find their voices through poetry as important. Also, I was wondering how/if writing and performing poetry has been empowering to you.

FC: I have no idea how to answer this question without sounding really obvious and trite, but I’ll say this: I remember how good it felt, as a young person, to share something I’d written and hear my peers or my teacher tell me it was good. I remember how exponentially more awesome it was to share a personal, vulnerable poem and have someone tell me that they’d really needed to hear it. To know what it felt like to be moved and to cultivate the ability to move others. To stand on a stage and say something, and have people not just clap politely but make guttural, bordering-on-sexual noises because they’re overwhelmed with grief or joy. There’s a kind of magic that that does to one’s sense of both self-worth and community, to one’s relationship to one’s body and to the space it takes up. Poetry doesn’t own that magic, but for many reasons, that’s where I happened to land, so here I am.

SE:  What writers first got you interested in using poetry to explore identity politics? Are there any particular poems you read early on that you still carry with you and are influenced by?

FC: You know, I don’t love the term “identity politics,” though it does get used a lot. I think, at worst, it’s used as a way to pigeonhole or dismiss the work of POC organizers and cultural producers; at best, it’s a kind of shorthand for many things (anti-racist organizing, race/class/gender power analysis, caucusing based on affinity groups, etc.), which I think are worth distinguishing from one another. But. It’s true that I read a lot of poetry before reading anything that I felt spoke to my own experiences and identities. In high school, the first poet I really connected with was Allen Ginsberg (I got to say “cock” in class!), and it was only later that I would realize how my own queerness was present in that moment of recognition. In undergrad, I took two formal poetry classes and, I think, read one writer of color in all that time. So the first poets of color, the first API poets, the first QPOC poets I encountered, really, were through my school’s spoken word poetry group. Because of this, many of my early influences were my peers; and then, later, poets like Rachel McKibbens, Mahoghany Browne, and Kelly Tsai—women of color operating in the realm of spoken word. It was only later, much later, that I found the rich, vibrant, prolific community of poets of color publishing outside of performance poetry. Looking back, I resent that I didn’t read Patricia Smith or Aracelis Girmay until I was 24, after years of reading poem after poem by white men.

SE: A lot of times when people use the word “experimental” in regards to poetry, they mean something sort of esoteric and impenetrable. Some of your writing seems to experiment a lot with form and language (i.e. your poem “Pussy Monster,” in which you rearrange the lyrics of a Lil’ Wayne song in order of word frequency) in a way that I would say is pretty much the opposite of esotericism. In “Pussy Monster,” it seems to me that you’re re-positioning and asking questions of the power that the original text holds. Do you feel the occasion of writing poems that might be seen as using text in experimental ways as power-shifting? Or maybe something else entirely?

FC: Oh, I think all literary tactics can be used to uphold or challenge the status quo, formal experimentation included. Once, I went to a show where three white cis men passed a jug of milk between them while audio played of a (probably white cis) man reading totally impenetrable text (probably written by a white cis man), and then for 20 minutes, the white cis men kicked the empty milk jug back and forth while the audience fell asleep. And they weren’t even very good at kicking! So, like, that piece does absolutely shit to challenge anything except for maybe the idea that our time, comfort, existence, etc., are worthy of respect—which, of course, is the same story that cis white men have been telling for centuries. But you can use a shovel to bury something or to dig it up.  There are lots of poets and performance artists who are using the tools of experimentation (which, at the end of the day, is just play) to excavate, expose, reclaim, and create moments of resistive joy. So, I’m Team Douglas Kearney and Bhanu Kapil. I think Team Milk Dudes has plenty of members already; they don’t need me.

An interview with Franny Choi at PBS News Hour


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