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.
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.
angels; the power of an outline to name an absence holy, a finger pointing to the inherent fiction of angels and therefore
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.
crime scene outline saying, Take this, the dust of me. Remember the way my body was round and would not move through glass.
day, she wakes up
buried in a well.
The well is
It rings the stones. The stones
are crumbling too slowly
for anyone to notice.
is a distant moon,
a past life. She forgets
her own name. Her name
is Dark-Drinker. Bone-Wife.
marries the dust.
The dust is a boy who fell.
A boy is like a memory
but heavier. Memories
She has too many hands.
She is all open mouth
asking for night. The night
is asking her to
in my dream, i am galloping
on the winds of a violent revolution,
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
on the horizon
i've never seen
the file cabinets emptied
into the streets. only dreamt
blurry photographs of
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
into its surge,
dragonflies colliding and
turbine. and it is
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
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’
A Review of Franny Choi's Floating,
Brilliant, Gone by Lindsay King-Miller,
first published at Muzzle
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.
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:
a broken-glass girl,
Look. The damage
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.
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
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
An interview with Franny Choi at PBS News Hour
_________________________________________________________________________________________Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Readings
Click here to view multiple
readings by Franny Choi