Q&A with Franny Choi
Franny Choi is the author of Soft Science (Alice James Books) and Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing). She is a Kundiman Fellow, a 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, and a graduate of the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers Program. She co-hosts the podcast VS alongside fellow poet Danez Smith and is a Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in English at Williams College.
Esther Kim: Hi Franny! Since we are in a period of social distancing, I want to first highlight a very timely poem that you wrote called “Quarantine”. Can you tell me about it and how your understanding of it has changed now that we actually are in quarantine?
Franny Choi: Yeah, that poem is one that I wrote a few years ago, and it’s about a metaphorical quarantine. It came out of something Ilya Kaminsky said to me––“the thing about capitalism is that it takes us away from our senses”––and that line really stuck with me for a while. This was the poem that came out of it: the metaphorical quarantine away from the sensory experiences that make us fully human. I think this period of being sequestered away in our homes and distant from people is in some ways the reason that it’s so painful; it’s an exacerbation of this thing that we’ve been experiencing all along, which is that there are so many things that keep us apart from the world. As writers, and especially as poets, to feel separated from the bodily experiences of being in the world is really hard.
EK: Your poem “Quarantine” is about trying to break out of a larger system. How do you think your work in general aims to break out or come out of something greater?
FC: That’s a really good question, and I think that it’s kind of an impossible question. I spent a good chunk of my life fighting against the system in ways big and small. I spent a few years working as a political organizer, doing police accountability and anti racial profiling work. I spent a lot of time reading books about liberation movements, and I think that right now, I feel like there are no ways to live fully liberated from the systems that govern us. I used to think of my poems as having to solve some political problem, and I don’t necessarily believe that anymore about my work. I think that my hope is to put people back in touch with momentarily feeling alive and feeling present. That’s the thing about capitalism––it takes us away from being present and feeling alive. I hope to try to build a world in my work that is, if not totally freed from the confines of the world, then at least can be a respite from it, or show a little shadow of the alternate world where we are able to live our fullest lives.
EK: The mission of our magazine is to highlight teen writers, musicians, and artists because we believe that writing is a means for relieving stress and anxiety. How do you think your work with writing has helped you cope with current stressors?
FC: I think that writing has always been a companion through the hardest times of my life. I think especially during the times when something sort of profoundly unexplainable has happened, then writing has helped me, if not explain it, then process it. Lately, I think that time is really weird. When times are really weird, writing semi-regularly has helped me keep track of time passing.
EK: You mentioned that you write regularly. Do you suggest that poets write every day or in a consistent manner?
FC: There’s a thing that happens during April, National Poetry Month, where people try to write every day, and I’ve done that a few times before, and I think that’s really great. The thing about creative writing is that there’s this common idea that we have to wait for when you’re inspired, but the skills for writing poetry are something you have to learn and practice. [NaPoWriMo] is really good practice, and it teaches you to look at the world like a poet. If you know you have to write a poem by the end of the day, then you spend your whole day looking around being like “Oh, could that be a poem?” and training yourself to look around at the world like that is really useful. It’s good to remember that you have to research before you write. I think of that period where you’re just listening to yourself, reading things, and looking at things around you––that’s a period of research. If you don’t give yourself that time to take in your life, you won’t write poems that are as good. That step is also important.
EK: Do you have a structured writing process or one that is more spontaneous?
FC: I think that there are times when I wait for an idea to just start writing, but often, I start by just making a list, getting some notes, and basically just doing a free write. Or, if I know I have something, and I don’t know what it is yet, I’ll set a timer for 10-15 minutes, put on really loud music and sometimes I close my eyes and just write. Doing that helps me get out of my own head, it’s sort of forcing yourself to get stuff onto the page without editing or judging.
EK: Because the writing process is so individualized, it may seem quite difficult to teach writing. How do you go about doing that?
FC: It’s actually not all that mysterious. There are exercises and, like I said, building muscles and skills as much as any other discipline. For me, the way to always do it is to show lots of poets’ writing in lots of different ways because you never know what is going to click for a particular student in the room. Also particularly, if you’re giving a lesson on syntax, you might show three different poets who are all using syntax in really cool ways but differently. I usually give people some sort of writing exercise; if we’re talking about syntax, write a poem that’s all one sentence from beginning to end. It’s a way of trying out what they see in poems. By being forced to write a little bit differently than you would normally be inclined to write, you learn how to write. A good way to get started is to read a poem or watch a video and then invent a writing prompt for yourself based on that poem.
EK: To close, do you have any tips for young writers who are trying to explore their identity while navigating these current, stressful times?
FC: That’s a really, really good question. I would say that anything that you feel right now is okay. And I would also say that it’s okay to lean into the contradiction. Our identities are always going to be a little bit more complicated as we live them than they might seem on paper, and it’s okay for those complications to remain complex.
Note: this interview has been edited for concision.