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Franny Choi: Speaking with Two Mouths

Poet Franny Choi
Poet Franny Choi
David Byrd
FRANNY CHOI is a Korean-American writer, performer, and teaching artist.

She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014). She has been a finalist at the three largest adult poetry slams in the nation, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, PANK, Radius, Fringe, Apogee, and others. Her play Mask Dances has been staged at Brown University’s Writing is Life Festival. She spoke with Now host David Byrd ahead of the Split This Rock poetry festival in Washington.

BYRD: I read a couple of your poems, both of which are a bit confrontational, especially the one “To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street.” What was behind that poem and what were you trying to say with that?
 
CHOI:  Well, the poem came out of a very true story, of when I was walking down the street and someone tried to say hello to me, and I wasn’t feeling very conversation, I was just trying to get where I was going and they shouted after me ‘I like pork-fried rice.’ And it definitely wasn’t the first time that someone’s just yelled the name of a random Chinese food dish at me on the street, and definitely not by a far stretch that somebody had yelled something to me at all on the street.  And so the poem was an attempt to try to respond to that moment if not to the person, because in the moment I just sort of scurried off nervously, but to sort of respond to everything I felt in that moment and what women and Asian American women in a very particular way deal with on a daily basis of the fetishization of our bodies and the commodification of our entire physical being.

BYRD: What to you makes a good poem? I have had other poets say that it has to distill truth.  Do you find that that’s one of the ingredients?

CHOI: I think that distillation is certainly one of the most powerful potentials that poetry has. To be able to speak out side of prose and of normal everyday conversation and cut out all he filler stuff and get right down to the essence of what it is, I mean, I think that’s definitely part of it.  I don’t necessarily think that this is the thing that makes a good poem.  I think a good poem moves someone.  And I think that especially now, more and more, I think that moving another human being is becoming less important in some ways with language poets and conceptual poetry, but to me that’s what it’s all about.  Whether it’s moving somebody to action or moving someone to just feel a little bit more alive for a moment, to me that’s what the real power of poetry is.

BYRD:  You also have a poem called "Second Mouth", which is a very feminist poem. It is basically as if your vagina were talking. 

CHOI: Precisely it.

BYRD: That has got to be one of the more unique poems that I have ever read. This year’s festival is Poems of Provocation and Witness.  Do you think there’s a need for more of that kind of provocative verse or are we good, do we need less of it, what do you think?

CHOI: (Laughs) I’m certainly a proponent of more provocative poetry – more poetry of provocation and witness. I think what Split This Rock is highlighting is very important – you know, poetry and social change have always been linked together from the start.  One of the first presidents of a newly-liberated African nations was a poet.  To me poetry and provocation and witness are always intrinsically tied together.  And Second Mouth is doing some of that work, I hope. And I think that the work that it does is to speak in response or despite the silencing that has happened historically of women, of people of color, in this case definitely of women.  And perhaps in their most distilled form the vagina itself.

BYRD: You also are an Asian-American.  How does that inform your poetry? What does that bring to the way that you compose a poem or the subject matter that you choose?

CHOI:  My Asian-American identity has definitely played into all of the reasons why I write and why I continue to write since the very beginning from when I first started. I think sometimes poets are afraid -- and I feel this too – of being pigeonholed into being an Asian-American poet or and African-American poet or a woman poet and certainly – very rarely would you hear someone being described as a white poet. Much less so than you would hear someone described as an Asian-American poet.  But I think that there’s definitely a lot of power in being able to assert my race and my identity and my background and everything that I have lived through and just say it right up front.  And understand that no matter what I write I will always be an Asian American poet, even if I am writing that Second Mouth poem it doesn’t have anything really to do – or it doesn’t have anything on the surface with my being Asian-American.  Everything that it’s saying, saying “a rebel mouth testifying from the underside”, you know “careful not to let it speak too loudly” all of that is also about being silenced as a person of color.

BYRD: Anything we missed? Or that you wanted to add?

CHOI: I guess for me my poetry practice does intersect a lot with my teaching practice and my participation in the local – and national – mostly local grass roots movement collaboration for economic justice and justice for immigrants. And it’s often difficult to find that sort of sweet spot that lies between all of these things – teaching, writing, and activism – and that’s really just what I am hunting after and what I have been hunting after the past few years, and what I expect to be searching for, for the rest of my life.

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