This week we asked poet Franny Choi about violence, domesticity, and absurdity, and she encouraged us to try “letting the rabid dog in your brain run around the yard for a little bit.” We published four of her poems in our March issue.
Interview by Diana Clarke
1. In “Warning,” I found the most unsettling and wonderful thing to be your pairing of industrial/disaster imagery (oil spill, oilskinned harpoons, eye of the storm) and domestic objects (tape, fly paper, ceiling fan). This culminates in the final line–“a poised fork, stalking the whites of my eyes.” Do you see some inherent violence in the domestic?
I think to say that violence is inherent in the domestic is a risky claim to make — that verges on normalizing domestic violence. But I do think that the line between violence and pleasure is sometimes frighteningly blurry. I was interested in capturing a bit of the horror of confronting this line, and I think absurd juxtaposition is a major crux of horror.
2. In the poem, I also thought it was super-interesting how the speaker takes some control by issuing the titular warning, although most of the threatened violence is aimed at the speaker by “you.” How did you arrive at that unsettling balance, that structure?
The warning, for me, is one that the speaker issues to herself — a sort of recognition of a red flag, a mental note. Perhaps the poem is clues that the speaker returns to following a moment when consent is complicated and confusing. Or maybe a plea to pause and reexamine the conditions of her pleasure. But I also like the reading of the title as a warning to the “you” character — I guess that’s a better place to leave a reader than dread or doom. I think speaking about violence is inherently confrontational. If there’s also a contradiction there, it’s an important one.
3. A similar threat of violence and control–the speaker’s “I” overwhelming an unnamed “you”–creeps into “Pussy Monster.” Did you set out to prove or say something in rearranging Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics, or did the meaning emerge with the form of the poem?
I usually try not to predict a poem’s thesis when beginning to write it. I think my wildest ideas come out of a place of exploration or inquiry. I’d seen a YouTube video of Lil’ Wayne performing the song “Pussy Monster” live in a concert, and I couldn’t stop watching it — which is usually a good sign that there’s shit to unpack. The song excited and fascinated me as much as it enraged me. The poem was initially just a study, an exercise focused on the repetition of the word “pussy.” The meaning of the rest of the poem emerged slowly, and usually comes out in the performance of the poem. Performing Lil’ Wayne’s words is most exciting to me as an exercise in reclaiming language.
While we’re on the subject, I should also say that the poem has had some unintended consequences. Recently, after a performance, a man yelled “pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy” at me as I walked by. Let me be clear now and say this: The poem is the OPPOSITE of giving men permission to use this word as a weapon. Another response has been for some people to use this poem as a rallying point against Lil Wayne in particular and hip hop in general. Both reclaiming language and critiquing hip hop (especially as a person who is not Black and not even really a hip hop head) are thorny and complicated projects that I don’t take lightly. I don’t claim to be a gatekeeper of anything except my own experiences, and my intention has never been to shit on any participant in hip hop (except wealthy white executives who exploit artists of color). And in many ways, the space that Lil’ Wayne occupies in the white imagination makes me deeply uncomfortable. My only task has been to participate in a conversation that was happening about bodies like mine, to zoom in on the language and share what I found there.
4. I loved how, in “Too Many Truths,” you begin and then undercut narrative after narrative — “What I mean is I didn’t give my seat//to an old woman once. What I mean is//sometimes I have a seat and others don’t” — while keeping a building sense of chronology (one time, then, once). Can you speak some to that idea of many narratives and truths, often contradictory, running together?
I think many API people find themselves at the intersection of many conflicting narratives about race, power, and privilege; same goes with young, educated people of color trying to locate them in the landscape of a city plagued with gentrification. What’s closest to the truth is that capitalism creates a state of constant absurdity. The fact that my neighborhood has both foreclosed houses and homeless people is horrifyingly absurd. I think we try our best to resolve these absurdities by creating certain narratives (especially about personal responsibility) in order to justify oppression. It’s only by laying them out all at the same time that we can start to detect the bullshit. At the end of the day, though, the poem is about belonging, about a person who occupies several intersections of identity trying to find home and digging through its fragmented pieces.
5. About two-thirds of the way into “Too Many Truths,” the speaker switches from “I” to “My body” to “Body,” and then back to “I.” How do you see bodies as relating to the self, containing the self, symbolizing or betraying it?
I know, right? My publisher might want me to say something like “you can order my book, Floating Brilliant Gone, to find out!” But I’ll just point you to this video.
6. The more structured quality of “Mud,” in three segments, made room for the poem’s messiness–“I dug for worms and the howls of writhing things, but found only seeds, half-sprouted and too holy between my fingers.” How did you arrive at that balance of grime and control?
I think finding a balance of grime and control is my principal task as a writer: to touch the wild, inconceivable, illogical truth, to get up to my elbows in it, and then to name it, or tame it, or just bring home a fistful of it; to sit alone in a room with it and ask it questions. Of course, if any of us engaged constantly in unadulterated messiness, we’d stop being able to interact with other humans. So I think controlled experiments in absurdity are the way to go — like letting the rabid dog in your brain run around the yard for a little bit. That’s probably the best way to describe that poem.