Q&A with Franny Choi

Franny Choi will be teaching “A New Spelling of My Name,” part one of a two week writing workshop for teens. The workshop will deal with themes of selfhood, identity, and power. Her portion will be followed by “Invisible Cities,” an exploration of community and fictional societies with Kate Schapira. Frequency’s summer teen workshops run July 28-August 20, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 am-12:00 pm at 186 Carpenter St. Scholarships and sliding-scale tuition rates are available in the interest of including local students of all backgrounds. For more information, see our courses page. Register here.

Update: Thanks to the support of RI Council for the Humanities, this class was offered completely free to students!

 FRANNY CHOI

Writer | Franny is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014). Her work has appeared in journals including Poetry Magazine, PANK, Folio, Solstice, and Fringe; and anthologies such as Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry, and The Courage Anthology: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls.  Her poetry has been featured on the Huffington Post, Angry Asian Man, Feministing, and the Poetry Magazine podcast. A VONA/Voices Fellow, she is a recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Frederick Bock Prize, a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lily Poetry Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize nominee.

Performer | Franny has performed in schools, festivals, theaters, bars, and community centers across the country. She has been a finalist at the National Poetry Slam, the Individual World Poetry Slam, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam.  She was also the top-ranking female poet at the 2011 Southern Fried Poetry Slam and the champion of 2010 Seoul Poetry Slam. She is a member of the Dark Noise collective.

Educator & Arts Organizer | Franny has given lectures and taught workshops to many different audiences, from fifth grade classrooms to packed lecture halls; from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference to youth organizations in her home community. She is a coordinator of the Providence Poetry Slam and a teaching artist with the nationally acclaimed Project VOICE.

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Ben Williams: How did you choose the topic of identity? What do you hope to accomplish through the course and what do you hope for your students to accomplish?

Franny Choi: First of all, it’s really exciting to be teaching it as one part of a two part course, especially with Kate. Half of it will be very much looking inward, and sort of about self-reflection and introspection, defining ourselves. The second part of the course involves taking that work, bringing it out into the world, and learning how the identities we carry interact with structures of power in, say, a city that we live in. I think that’s a really cool way to structure a course, and that’s sort of how my own political education and consciousness was built. It began with thinking about my own identities along the lines of race, class, and gender. I couldn’t do the political work of understanding how structures of power exist in Providence without understanding who I was.

One of the reasons I chose the topic of identity, which is pretty basic, came from being a teenager. It felt like everybody’s biggest project was to try to figure out who they were and this quest to feel okay about who you are. I felt like I had a few tools and spaces that were really helpful for understanding who I was, but not that many, and not a whole lot of really great tools.

BW: Would writing be one of those tools?

FC: I think writing was one of them. I’ve had the privilege of working at a few Providence youth organizations that are safe havens for young people to explore their identities, the kind of safe havens I wish I’d had when I was younger.

BW: So did you start that process in high school, or did it begin later?

FC: Yeah, in high school, I said, “I’m an Asian American woman.” Then, in college, I realized, “Oh, I see what this means.” A lot of my writing deals with socially significant identity, specifically race and class, but I think also all my work deals with the project of self-definition outside of just those issues too.

BW: You were talking about the second part of the course. How do you see the issue of community tying into the first?

FC: If you’re trying to talk about community and understand how it works, while trying to think of yourself as a blank slate that doesn’t carry any power or privilege, then walking into interactions with other people will only lead to perpetuations of violence. It’s important to have a sense of power and privilege on an individual level before talking about macro-level problems.

BW: Specifically within Providence, how do you see these issues playing out? How are centers like Frequency, New Urban Arts, or AS220, important for the community?

FC: Providence public schools like so many public schools are suffering from cuts in arts programs and there’s a general trend of public education toward high stakes standardized testing. You have to be able to respond correctly to standard questions instead of thinking critically and engaging with the world or yourself. While it’s super important for that to not be happening in schools, I think having community-supported and community-run arts programs that are free or low cost is really important.

BW: Could you talk a bit about the other groups you work with? There’s Dark Noise and Project Voice.

FC: Project Voice is an organization that brings spoken word poetry performances and workshops into schools around the country and around the world. Our main objective is to get students and young people in school settings to get excited about the possibility of poetry in the short term and also the possibility for platforms and tools for self-expression on a bigger scale. We’re working directly in schools, which is kind of rare since a lot of my work tends to be outside of school settings. That’s a new, strange frontier.

Dark Noise is a collective of artists of color, all of whom have a background in spoken word poetry, but span a lot of different media and genres. We’re also a group of friends that support each other in our artistic processes and careers as young people trying to professionally be artists.

BW: Going off of that, what do you see as the challenges as writing for young people? There’s this environment in writing of harkening back to a better time when everyone read books and there weren’t computers, even though that didn’t really exist. There are so many great ways of engaging with writing now, like your project Notes on the Existence of Ghosts, where you can scroll through and you have pictures, text and audio. What are your hopes for engaging with poetry for young people?

FC: I think spoken word poetry and hip hop are collectively saving poetry for youth, for people of my generation, and even older. The poetry that’s taught in the classroom, which can be divorced from the way people speak, use and mutate language now and divorced from the issues that people deal with on a day-to-day basis, that feel urgent and close to them. It takes that poetry, which still has a lot of merit in terms of lyricism and understanding where the English language has been, and connects it to an art form that is reflective of the way language is working and changing rapidly now. It is connected to the issues that people are dealing with. It’s exciting and gets peoples’ blood boiling. It bridges gap to other kinds of lyricism that without that bridge wouldn’t be that exciting. But it’s not that I think spoken word poetry can only function as a gateway drug to romanticism.

BW: How can you disassemble the stereotypes young people have about poetry coming from standardized educational regimes where you’re learning about specific meters and centuries-old work? How do you deal with very real ideas people can connect with?

FC: My poetry deals with political ideas because that’s what gets my blood boiling, but that doesn’t have to be what it is for the next person. There are so many kinds of poetic work happening right now that feel exciting and new and urgent or relevant, even packageable into a shareable, 3-minute YouTube video, which is ultimately a really good thing for all forms of poetry.

BW: In the course, will you not only be dealing with how to write something about yourself, but also how to stand up and perform it like you do?

FC: I think probably, a bit. But the focus should really be on the content, the creation. We’ll talk a little bit about performance. The best thing, in a short amount of time, to impart to somebody who is just learning how to read out loud something that they’ve written is just sort of assuaging a lot of the fears of performance. So, helping to build confidence that people are excited to hear what you have to say, which aligns with the greater themes of the course, essentially that who you are is okay and important. What you have to say is okay and important and awesome, and people should want to listen to that.

BW: I liked “Bedtime Story” a lot, since it dealt with coming out of that childish position of not realizing the things that you don’t have to deal with because of your parents. There’s that line: “Why is it that all my childhood comforts turn out to be imperialism’s drippings?” How do you deal with that process of coming into the world, and realizing that your clothes were made in sweatshops or what your parents did to get you where you are?

FC: I don’t really know, but I think critical reflection and the ability to go back and understand the ways that one’s life has been shaped by power, inequality and the world is hella key. Not just the ability and the tools, but also the willingness and the bravery. For a lot of people, they just don’t want to go down that road because they’ll be sad. The more I can encourage people to do that kind of critical reflection, the better it is for helping to build, if not an army of poets, at least an army of critical thinkers.

BW: What are some things that you’re working on now?

FC: I’m working on this chapbook about cyborgs and androids, specifically Asian female cyborgs and androids. It’s about sadness and sex too. Ex Machina really sparked it, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while–the utilitarian body, the body that has a purpose of being used in servitude. For Asian-Americans, the robot figures into our greater understanding of the Asian body. And then fem-bots are everywhere as sex servants and stuff. It’s at that stage where I’m like, “Does this make to any sense to anybody but me?” Right now I’m just having fun with it.

BW: Anything else you’d like to add about the course specifically?

FC: Yeah, I guess even though I’m really interested in engaging with ideas of race, gender, class, sexuality, power, and ethnicity, I don’t want that to scare anyone away. Saying “we’re gonna talk about race” is scary to some people, and I know that it may’ve been scary to me as a 16-year old. I don’t want to make it seem as though people who are white and/or straight or upper middle class don’t have a place in this workshop. If anything, it’s about self-reflection. I think everybody needs to feel comfortable talking about race, but it’s not just a class for people of color. I hope people come in with an open heart.

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