Levitt Artist-in-Residence Franny Choi blurs the lines between poetry and politics—if there were ever any lines to be drawn. In 2016, she founded The Brew & Forge Book Fair, an artists’ fundraising collective working for political change. Three years later, as a Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow at Williams, she created a public lecture series to bring creative voices to campus. She’s currently wrapping up a fifth season of the podcast VS for the Poetry Foundation and working on a book to be published in the fall of 2022. Williams Magazine spoke with her earlier in the fall about the superpowers of poetry, including the “spooky science” of how words can create chemical and emotional reactions.
How do you view the intersection of poetry and political activism? My life as a poet has been rooted in community. When you enter into a relationship of deep mutual accountability with a community, questions of politics and power are inevitably going to arise, especially if your arts community is primarily folks of color, queer and trans folks, and other people who have been historically left out of the literary canon. My political responsibility as an artist is primarily a responsibility to my people, and that means writing at the highest point of my ability and imagination in order to do justice to our lives.
Poems can open us up to possibilities and make us feel them viscerally. To feel in your body what freedom is like—that’s an important part of the process of liberation. Toni Cade Bambara said that the job of the artist is to make revolution irresistible, and that seems to me like a wonderful job, as impossible as it can sometimes be.
What are your students talking about in the classroom? One thing I’m seeing is the attempt to bridge the personal and political. Over these past two years, we’ve seen the horrors of American capitalism magnified manyfold. There’s a lot of personal loss that has everything to do with larger, structural injustices. It’s hard to tackle all of that in a poem that you’re writing for a class, but I see students trying, and they’re having real conversations. I feel grateful to get to be part of that and to help them do the magic of making words on a page, creating a chemical and emotional response in another person’s body 500 miles away. That’s a spooky sort of science, but they’re doing it each week more efficiently and more spookily.
Last spring I taught a course called Apocalypse Now and Then: Poets Confronting Political Crisis, in which we studied poetry about the catastrophes of our time in relation to the poetry about catastrophes of other eras. The final project was to write a series of poems about a current crisis that was meaningful to them. They wrote beautiful, incredible stuff. Whether it’s the small, personal apocalypse or the pandemic or the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder—these things are felt on a human level. It was incredibly moving to read their work.
Was there a poem you taught from another era that resonated with them? I was surprised at how many of my students were moved by Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Something in that poem traveled through the specificities of time and place to get to the heart of the thing, which is just that modernity is weird, and living among the consequences of colonialism can be horrifying. One of the superpowers of poetry is that it’s of a time, it’s of a place, it’s of a culture; but then the job of it is to get all the way down to the marrow of the thing and to operate there, to talk to people from that place. Writing is time travel.
What’s the importance of poetry in 2021? The consumption and appreciation of poetry is at an all-time high, if you factor in poems in books and on subways and in TV scenes, in hip-hop and on Instagram. There’s so much of it right now. And thank goodness, because living in this time and place is so loud that if poetry can be in any way a counterpoint to the horror show, let’s have as much of it as we can get.
We Used Our Words We Used What Words We Had
By Franny Choi
we used our words we used what words we had
to weld, what words we had we wielded, kneeled,
we knelt. & wept we wrung the wet the sweat
we wracked our lips we rang for words to ward
off sleep to warn to want ourselves. to want
the earth we mouthed it wound our vowels until
it fit, in fits the earth we mounted roused
& rocked we harped we yawned & tried to yawp
& tried to fix, affixed, we facted, felt.
we fattened fanfared anthemed hammered, felt
the words’ worth stagnate, snap in half in heat
the wane the melt what words we’d hoarded halved
& holey, porous. meanwhile tide still tide
& we: still washed for sounds to mark. & marked.
(Originally published in Poetry Magazine, December 2019; hear Choi read her poem.)
To learn more about Choi and her work, visit her website.