The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Franny Choi about her latest collection, Soft Science (Alice James Books, April 2019), cyborgs, post-humanism, and the mundanity of Internet nudity.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So in the piece I wrote about why we selected this book for our Poetry Book Club, I talked about the term “soft science” and the sort of derogatory ways I’ve seen it used. Did that play a part in your choice of title, or did I just make that up?
Franny Choi: That’s a great question. And thanks for writing that piece, too. I think that might have been there, maybe lurking under the surface. I’m not sure if I’ve seen that term used in a derogatory way, exactly. But maybe in a way that slightly delegitimizes certain kinds of knowledge production.
Brian S: In the long, long ago I was a chemistry major. But then I took calculus three times.
Franny Choi: I think what we delineate as a “soft science” includes those kinds of knowing that rely on feeling and personal experience. And it’s important to me, as a poet, as a woman, as a person of color, for those methods of knowing to be taken seriously. At the same time, I have a deep love for science—my dad is a physiologist. So I was hoping that it would also work as a science of softness—of suggesting that we give what’s considered “soft” that sort of deep and rigorous attention.
Brian S: The areas I’ve most often seen called soft were psychology, sociology, anthropology, and so on, while the hard ones were chemistry, physics, and biology.
Alexander Scalfano: This definitely seems deeply connected (as I expect all titles are) to a question I had, which is broadly about your relationship to science fiction—something that also gets brushed aside as not real science or even allowed to exist on the same plane of existence as science. I guess I’m wondering about how you see some of the gender politics (I’m not super thrilled about that phrase, but that’s the best I can come up with) being reflected in the relationship to what I will call the “technofantasy” of some of your images and themes.
Brian S: And I think the cyborg, both in your book but also the artificial intelligence we see in various forms around us in the world, act as a combination of those worlds. Like, much as some people would like to denigrate psychology, you’re not going to get an AI that can fool most humans without a deep understanding of psychology.
Alexander Scalfano: Right, Brian. Not to mention how we seem to struggle to connect the attitudes and aims of, say, Silicon Valley “science,” with something equally as commercial and morally nebulous, like military technology
Franny Choi: Yes! Brian, that makes a lot of sense. So much of what we think about technology requires a deeply human and subjective questioning.
Alexander, to your question: It’s sometimes a little hard for me to separate out what’s gender-political/feminist about my poems, since they reflect the feminism that roots everything I do, but I’ll try to think about it: I think a lot about a line from a poem by Cameron Awkward-Rich: “once made into an object-for-the-other, how can the thing-for-itself survive?” We talk a lot about “objectification” in feminist conversation, but the question is: what do you do with being made into an object? With an object-subjectivity?
Alexander Scalfano: I guess that’s my issue with asking about gender politics as a category since it kind of feels like I’m making being a woman a literary device. I’m was just so enamored with seeing the cyborg image juxtaposed with sexuality and longing.
Brian S: Wasn’t there something recently, like the last couple of days, in WIRED, about people thinking sci-fi has suddenly gotten political? I saw that headline and wondered who would actually make that argument.
Alexander Scalfano: Lol. Yep, it happened all the sudden. Heinlein and Bradbury be damned.
Brian S: Or Mary Shelley, even.
Franny Choi: I’m just regurgitating a lot of materialist feminist and post-humanist thinkers here, but I think a cyborg feminist subjectivity means facing that objecthood head-on, and asking how that broadens our ability to know and think rather than limiting it.
I think part of my own Asian American feminist political project also means that I’m thinking about what it means to have been made into a fetishized object and, from that position, experience desire.
Leslie: I like that in putting the “humanity” of the cyborg on trial, it really reflects back on the humanity of humans. Similar to the way we treat someone we believe to be different/”inferior” reflects back on us. We seek to be in a position of power and control, but in doing so allow something to control us or make us less humane.
Alexander Scalfano: That makes a lot of sense, Franny. The “synthetic” part of the self, then, is the one with the ability to interface with sociocultural constructs that layer over our everyday individual interactions. Like female objectification and rape culture.
Franny Choi: Also, yes, feminist writing isn’t just like a tool or a literary device, but it is an orientation and an archive and a history of writers to draw on!
Leslie, well the whole idea of the Human relies on an exclusive category. The entire history of colonization and chattel slavery depends on excluding some people from the category of human. So, some have asked: What do we actually stand to gain from demanding that that category be extended to us? While others have been like: Uh, a lot. But this is all BIG PICTURE STUFF. This is the background that’s informing my poems, but:
When I’m actually writing the poems, I’m thinking less about like, Haraway and Braidotti and all these other post-humanist feminist scholars, and more about the ways I try to bend my speech to match others’ accents in order to “pass” as a person. It’s deeply personal for me, always!
Brian S: Right, like those lines from “A Brief History of Cyborgs”: “I once made my mouth a technology of softness. I listened carefully as I drank. / I made the tools fuck in my mouth—okay, we can say pickle if it’s easier to / hear—until they birthed new ones. What I mean is: I learned.” I read that first as literal speech, but also there’s the act of listening so as to bend speech so that you can fit in with others, not just subject but even things like cadence and accent.
Leslie: I work in mental health (yeah, soft sciences!) and I notice that many people are lacking that validation that they are human, okay, and normal. We often see something like people on the autism spectrum described as trying to learn and act out social skills, but truly it transcends. We talk about how our brains and bodies are wired and seek to understand the machinery of ourselves. I appreciated the way the poems incorporated body and nature along with technology
Franny Choi: Well right, Leslie, that access to the category of human is so totally urgent for many folks who have long been denied it!
Brian S: I have a form question about “Chatroulette,” if that’s not too much of a swerve away from this. I’m just interested in how you did it: Did you write them in the order they appear, or did you originally have another form in mind and the poems found their own form? Basically anything you want to tell us about how that poem happened.
Franny Choi: Yes, I’ll be happy to speak to that but first I want to address Alexander’s comment from above! I think when we think about the cyborg as a hybrid between human and machine, there’s a desire to name which parts are “natural” and which parts are “artificial.” But I wanted that, in this book, to be constantly disrupted.
What’s deemed “natural” has historically failed queer and trans folks. And what’s “artificial” is life-saving for people with disabilities as well as anyone who’s relied on any sort of intentional project of accessibility. So I worried about having those Perihelion poems in there—the danger of glorifying natural imagery. But ultimately, a desire for affinity with the earth also felt exciting and SUPER queer to me—so I kept them in!
Okay: on “Chatroulette”! I think(?) I knew I wanted them to be in a sequence, to mimic the form. And once I started writing that first one, I realized the poem was starting to come out in iambs, so I followed that lead. I mostly just remember sitting on Danez [Smith]’s bedroom floor as we were hanging out and tinkering with poems in our corners, and the sonnet was a good thing to mess with while half-doing other things. Like knitting or something (maybe; I don’t knit.)
Brian S: Lol.
Franny Choi: But I think iambs feel slightly glorifying! And I liked using that classic form to write intense poems about the extremely mundane experience of looking at strangers’ dicks on the Internet.
Brian S: I love that you call that mundane, because if there’s anything mundane on the Internet, it’s nudity.
Franny Choi: Right—mundane but also deeply disturbing! Goes right to the core, showing one’s tits to strangers.
Brian S: Have you found some favorites from the collection that you like to perform at readings yet?
Franny Choi: Ooh! “Ode to Epinephrine” is fun. I find that “Turing Test_Love” is oddly fun, too. Basically anything with jokes in it. I’ve been experimenting with a way to read “Glossary of Terms” at readings, too! Using a PowerPoint.
Brian S: That would be interesting to see. You’re doing some touring with this book, right? With Costura Creative?
Franny Choi: Yes! There’s a list here.
Brian S: Last one from me. Who are you reading right now? What should we be watching for?
Franny Choi: Oh! I’m reading the Broken Earth trilogy and about to start Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy. I was recently very floored by Diana Khoi Nguyen’s book Ghost Of, and of course Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. We got to interview them both for VS. We also had Brenda Shaughnessy as a guest on our live show at AWP, and it made me super excited for her new joint, The Octopus Museum!
Brian S: We read Deaf Republic for the Poetry Book Club, just before your book. It’s so good.
Brian S: About VS, do you have any idea how long that’ll keep going? It’s such a good podcast. I listen to y’all on my drive home from teaching tech writing.
Franny Choi: We’re definitely set for the rest of Season 3, so you can expect new episodes of VS throughout 2019! I really hope we’ll be able to keep doing it for a while, at least. It’s one of my favorite things to get to do.
Leslie: What are your go to forms of self-care? I imagine the touring, promotion, and balancing projects can get intense.
Franny Choi: Go-to forms of self-care: I water my house plants and spend too much money on Korean skincare products. And I prioritize time with people I love and care about. And watch Star Trek.
Thank you all! This was fun!
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Franny, and for your wonderful book. At least from Twitter it looks like you have a pretty hectic life, so we appreciate this hour a lot.
Leslie: The exclusive AWP mug makes me want some VS merch. Anything to support and keep it going!
Brian S: Star Trek, woo! Good night everyone! Thanks for your questions and comments as well. Your next book should be in the mail soon!
Alexander Scalfano: Thank you, Franny!
Franny Choi: Good night, everyone! I am so, so, so appreciative of you all for reading and thinking about my book. It really, actually means the world to me.
Photograph of Franny Choi © Qurissy Lopez.