Franny Choi is a poet, performer, editor, and playwright. She is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone and the chapbook Death by Sex Machine. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman Fellow, senior news editor for Hyphen, cohost of the Poetry Foundation podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her second collection, Soft Science, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in April 2018. A current Zell Postgraduate Fellow at the University of Michigan, she is currently based near Detroit, Michigan.
Katherine Gibbel: I loved reading Soft Science. I wanted to start by talking about the title. Your book scrutinizes so many methods, like the Turing Test, and turns that test on its head. Do you see your poetry in relation to science, whether it’s hard or it’s soft?
Franny Choi: I’m certainly not a scientist of anything but my own weird feelings—and in fact, my father is the real scientist, a physiologist at Emory. So it makes me slightly nervous to put the word “science” in my title. I was raised with a deep respect for science and for empirical ways of understanding the world, so I don’t want to claim that poetry could be anything like a stand-in for that kind of knowledge-making. It feels slightly nerve-wracking, too, to have written a book that takes artificial intelligence as its sort of central premise, when I’m not a programmer and am wildly ignorant about AI, machine learning, robotics, etc. My entry point to all of it is through metaphor—and through my own experience of feeling like a machine, like a cyborg, like an object, and so on. And I think feeling can be, if not a replacement for other kinds of knowledge, a method that’s just as important, just as fierce. So I think that, if the book is a study of anything, it’s a study of feeling—of tenderness, of vulnerability, of what’s soft.
KG: It’s interesting that you mention your father. One of your first poems mentions him, in which you use the phrase “countable nouns.” In your book, language is both fixed and mutable. We do have countable nouns, we have ways of measuring things, but at the same time, language shifts all the time, and in your poem “Glossary of Terms,” you have this matrix of language where sometimes a word’s antonym is itself. Your speaker wrestles a lot with the problem of description. Could you talk about the problem of language both in poetry and as you are observing it in the sciences?
FC: What’s important for me to remember is that language is a technology. As someone growing up in an immigrant family, English was a technology I learned to use to navigate the world safely. That included proofreading my father’s scientific papers, impressing my teachers in school, coaching my parents on their pronunciation so that they could get closer to passing as American (and, by extension, as human). So I wanted this book to approach language as a technology, along with all its imperfections and limitations, the ways it breaks or glitches or jams. Which I think is a shift—from feeling frustrated with English, to making some attempts to delight in it. It doesn’t always work. I’m worried I veered away from your question.
KG: No, that’s great. I was wondering if you could talk more about the relationship between language, particularly English, and race?
FC: Well, writing in English, as someone who is conscious of her position as an Asian American writer, is a particularly strange thing. The authenticity of the Asian American poet writing in English is always called into question. No matter what our relationship with English is—even if our families have been speaking it for generations—there’s a degree to which Asian American writers, I think, are always perceived as writing in translation, in a foreign language. Which puts me, as the writer, in a strange position—one in which my authority over the poem is always shaky. But I think that strangeness opens up some beautiful possibilities.
KG: I saw that strangeness happening in a lot of places, but particularly in “The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Heard You Right,” a poem where one realizes other people are going to describe this speaker and describe her falsely. Your poem records all this troll speech as a way of pointing to it and flipping it.
FC: It also makes it weirder! I’ve wrestled with that at various points—writing things that are intentionally made strange, given the stakes of being perceived as speaking a garbled English. But I also delight in doing it on purpose and being able to control the reader’s path through the poem. It felt, when I wrote it, like a satisfying way of engaging with that text without letting anyone either off the hook or all the way in. Which is something I’m always trying to figure out how to do.
KG: Yes, to hold on to that control.
FC: Yeah, to hold on without making it boring.
KG: I was thinking of the cyborg who comes in as the speaker of your poems at times. Donna Haraway calls cyborgs “a hybrid of machine and organism.” How do you see that hybridity playing out in Soft Science?
FC: It’s partly why the book is wide-reaching in form—why there are poems in a lot of different shapes. I think it has to do with a cyborg mentality of trying to shift and evade and play outside of expectation—the desire to be slightly uncategorizable. And the form of a poem, after all, works out somewhere between the “organic” and the structure you impose on it. There’s a push and pull between structure, meter, the tools of the poem and that weird organic spooky part.
KG: Yeah, the weird organic spooky part and the making of the poem. I was thinking about this in “Glossary of Terms.” The term mouth is used: it’s both an entry and an exit, it’s its own antonym. The mouth is where the poem often originates because it’s where people speak, but also breathe, and control the breath and meter. The mouth is also what people use to talk on the phone, or make love, or eat. Can you speak about the mouth as a location of hybridity?
FC: I definitely overuse the word “mouth.” But of course, how weird! This organ with a wildly weird and far-reaching number of functions, some of which are seen as powerful, like speaking—yet it can also be a site of invasion. The mouth is definitely a cyborg.
KG: Yes and you can use the mouth to inflect, like in your Chi poems, where the android Chi says the word Chi over and over, creating meaning through punctuation. How are you inflecting your poems?
FC: It’s interesting to think of inflecting as a method of communicating. I also think of it as a way of sneakily keeping things to yourself. “Chi” is both a word used to mean anything and a non-word—as well as a name. It seems like a good superpower to have all of this be possible at once. And I hope I’m using that spirit in other poems, as well, to use inflection, as you say, as well as context and play and other things, to make words stretch and hide and whisper to a few people over here, while the ones over there laugh at what just sounds like gibberish to them.
Speaking of the Chi poems, they had a big place in the chapbook that this book comes from. It’s maybe a little random, to be writing these poems about Chobits, but she was one of the characters I thought of when I started that project. People sometimes ask if I’m an anime fan, and I have to say, actually, no, not really, sorry! I just got really into thinking about this character that I came across years ago in the manga section of a Borders. I was interested in the idea of a machine girl that says the same non-word over and over again until she becomes it. And I was interested in the way she’s both sexualized and also innocent and childlike, and how her silence plays into both.
KG: That makes me want to ask you about intimacy. There are so many ways that intimacy is happening in Soft Science. There are a lot of different beloveds, whether they’re partners, or friends, or even the self. Your speaker says, “Nothing is more frightening than looking / and loving was you see.” How are love, desire, and friendship—that big Venn diagram of feelings—operating in Soft Science?
FC: I’m glad you asked that question. It’s easy to think that intimacy happens, in the book, in the context of violation, the shittier or failed parts of intimacy. I think though, that my poems are driven by a desire for closeness, the closeness of love. I think it’s asking: as an Asian American woman, how can you possibly navigate desire, having been made into a tool for other people’s desire? I think that yearning for intimacy includes everything that you said, but it also includes a desire for intimacy with the earth—a desire for closeness with the immediate and material world.
KG: I see that happening in “The Price of Rain” in whose title I hear The Price of Salt. In the poem there’s this exaltation of gardening and relationship with the earth, but it’s fraught because that relationship happens under capitalism. There’s a question of ownership, feeling adoring and conflicted at the same time.
FC: Yes: what does it mean to desire closeness with idealized organic forms, knowing that they—we—have been shaped by and will continue to be touched by machines? I think often about a line by the poet Laura Brown-Lavoie: “Your body is a simple machine. It is hungry, strong, hungry, strong.” I want to think about the body—the hurt, vulnerable, senseless, dangerous body—as a machine that we love without owning. And I want to remember that all the cruelty of capitalism was invented by soft, dying animals, too. Maybe, if I can offer anything, it’s that remembering that tenderness is essential to our hope of surviving it, and of pulling it apart.
Katherine Gibbel's poems have been published in Bat City Review, The Bennington Review, Tin House Online, and elsewhere.