I’m not sure if anyone else remembers the Sesame Street picture book The Monster at the End of This Book, in which the adorable blue puppet Grover warns the reader with increasing urgency not to turn each page because a scary monster awaits you on the last page. The gimme in the end is that the monster we so feared the whole time was, in fact, our lovable friend Grover.
Franny Choi’s second full-length book of poems makes me recall this childhood memory as she asks the reader to consider the cyborg. Soft Science questions the lines that separate humanity and technology at the same time it questions the lines that separate race, gender, sexuality, and migration status. She asserts, “man comes / & puts his hands on artifacts / in order to contemplate lineage / you start with what you know / hands, hair, bones, sweat / then move toward what you know / you are not / animal, monster, alien, bitch.” In these lush poems, Choi shows us the heartbeat in the engine and the resilient steel in our blood. By the end we realize the cyborgs and other “others” we imagine may have been closer than we previously thought, and that our fear might be holding us back from a potential and bountiful intimacy.
Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody, 2014) and the chapbook Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has been a finalist for multiple national poetry slams, and 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, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective.
I sat down with Choi at The Moxy in Chicago to discuss Soft Science, the blurred line between poet and persona, the downfall of Microsoft’s short-lived chatbot “Tay,” expanding our notions of intimacy, and much more.
The Rumpus: In 2017 you released Death by Sex Machine from Sibling Rivalry Press, and a lot of the poems in that chapbook now appear in Soft Science. Do you feel like you started off with the manuscript for the chapbook or the manuscript for the full-length, and how do you think of the relationship between the two?
Franny Choi: I did start off with the chapbook manuscript, and I didn’t really know what it might turn into. I had been writing these poems about the character Kyoko from Ex Machina, which led me also to write poems about the robot Chi in Chobits, and they seemed to have some kind of kinship with other poems I was writing about my own experience. The idea was, originally, to then extend that into a full-length, and expand beyond robot poems into a bigger picture about race, gender, intimacy, queerness, et cetera.
So it was strange, since the Kyoko poems had for so long been the backbone of the project, to take most of them out in the end. There’s now only one poem in the book that remains in her voice. Danez Smith—my dear friend and partner in many things—sometimes talks about what they call the bay leaf poem of a project. The poem you need to get things going, that you might take out before serving it. And I think the Kyoko poems for the most part ended up being bay leaf poems. She led me to the book, but in many ways the book ended up outgrowing her.
Rumpus: There are a lot of experimental forms throughout Soft Science. There are the iterations of Chi poems that have different structures, like “Chi: IV Cognates” where you write around words sharing roots with “chi,” and then there are found poems like “The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Heard You Right” (previously published as “@fannychoir”), where you take tweets directed at you and run them through various languages in Google Translate. Were there other experiments or forms you tried that didn’t make it to the final book?
Choi: So, a few years ago, there was this AI Twitter bot that Microsoft came out with called Tay, that supposedly learned through conversations on Twitter. And of course, the trolls latched onto this pretty quickly, and within twenty-four hours, they had her spewing racist garbage. I tried to write a poem in her voice, speaking to the corruption of her language. It ultimately didn’t end up staying, mostly because I had a lot of trouble managing how to write a poem in the voice of someone who was programmed to use a lot of hateful language, to appropriate an appropriated and violent voice. So it didn’t make it in, though the concept of Tay is present in a sneaky way, I think, throughout the project.
But I think, generally speaking, the spirit of experimentation in the book really has to do with thinking about the poem as technology. Because the real cyborg of the book isn’t Kyoko or Chi or even the persona who’s referred to as “The Cyborg” in a few titles; the cyborg in the book is the poem, which is partly human and yet has to communicate through the technology of language, through the mechanisms of the poetic form. So experimentation is more than just something I do for fun (though it is also that!). It’s about using play as a way to engage fully with the technology of the poem, and a reminder that this doesn’t mean we have to lose any of its heart in the process.
Rumpus: That makes me think of the poem “Turing Test_Boundaries.” There’s a line where the speaker being questioned responds “so sorry / for the delay / i’m away / out of touch / lucky i left / my voice at the desk / lucky / i’ve got connects / got plenty kin / to answer in / my stead.” Do you imagine the speaker of these Turing Test poems, or other ones, to be shifting through the voices of several kin, or do you imagine it to be one consistent speaker?
Choi: I’m not sure I understand what the difference between those is, you know? I’m not really interested in inhabiting a persona that isn’t secretly me. I really understand and respect the move to separate author from speaker; at the same time, it’s important for me to make others reconcile with the fact that every speaker is me, no matter how discordant it might seem. Maintaining that kind of complicated, shifting subjectivity is important to me on a philosophical and political level, not just an artistic one. It’s a sort of shifting I think is also important to building and inhabiting a cyborg subjectivity.
I thought a lot about Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, especially in writing the Turing Test poems, but also in thinking about how to do persona in porous, flexible, and yet caring ways. I was so inspired by the way Kapil’s voice and the voices of her interviewees are all blended together in these poems that are both singular and polyvocal at once. I feel moved by how protective and caring that feels, to speak in chorus with people that you consider your kin.
Rumpus: The book, among many themes, pushes our understanding of vulnerability and openness and tenderness, and in “Turing Test,” you write “i’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you can read / anything you want,” but later poems like “Acknowledgements” and “In the Morning I Scroll My Way Back Into America” show how others can commodify or exploit this vulnerability. When you’re touring and promoting new work, do you have any practices to preserve space for yourself, or to draw a line between your public and private life?
Choi: I feel really appreciative of that question. Over the years, I’ve worked on being able to present the work in a way that it can succeed even on the days I can’t be fully vulnerable and fully open. I think that just comes with years of touring and teaching—that if I can’t be a totally soft underbelly of a thing, it’ll still be solid. But of course, it also feeds me to sometimes get to be a soft underbelly, in the right situation. So with young people, especially young queer folks, Asian Americans, queer people of color, I feel fed by having the chance to be vulnerable in the moment. For those I feel less kinship to, it sometimes just depends on how much generosity of spirit I’m able to offer that day.
But my hope is that the bulk of the tenderness I have to offer people, at least in the context of readings, is the tenderness that is built into the poems themselves. My poems are written from the softest places; even if I can’t be the softest version of myself in front of an audience on a particular day, I want to trust the tenderness of the poem to be enough.
Also, I almost always keep at least two Korean sheet masks in my suitcase. Just in case.
Rumpus: So the context I’m reading this book in, I’m thinking about the two Fyre Festival documentaries, which speak pretty monolithically about millennials and technology, and I think they consider millennials in ways that are very racialized and classed in terms of representing white wealth, and technology to them is social media and phones. Your collection really pushes our ideas of what technology encompasses, and all the ways gender, race, sexuality, and migration underlie conversations about what is human and what is not. I think you exemplify that in the poem “The Cyborg Meets the Drone at a Family Reunion and Fails to Make Small Talk,” especially with the line “if it kills for a living we call it ; a soldier ; if it kills but can’t speak ; we call it ; a mirror.” Where else would you like to see conversations about technology venture into, or what else would you like those conversations to recognize?
Choi: That’s a really great question. The first thing I’ll say is that, as you said, race and gender profoundly affect the way we engage with technology, beyond phones or social media or military apparatuses. English, for example, is a technology that many of us learned early to use in order to help our families navigate spaces. There are the many technologies of the body, how we alter it in order to pass, infiltrate, become ourselves, move, survive. People who have, for a wide range of reasons, been called not-human, have always learned to use and bend tools of survival to their will. In the process we might morph with them, which is sometimes terrifying and often beautiful.
Which maybe leads into the second thing I’ll say, which is that I think we need to move past horror as our primary affective response to tech. (Maybe even move past the next one, too, which I think is a kind of fetishistic desire.) Certainly there are a lot of things to be horrified by—the surveillance state, Big Data, drones, Amazon, the prospect of a “smart wall” at the border—all of this should terrify us. And yet, I think if we’re going to survive the merge, we have to figure out a way to think past either terrifying destruction or terrifying addiction. I’m not saying we have to learn to just accept predictive policing or anything. I just think there needs to be some way to think about it all beyond the options of either fear or guilty pleasure. The optimist in me hopes that the lessons that queer and trans and disabled people of color have learned about how to live with the technologies of our bodies will show us at least a small part of the way forward.
Rumpus: The second to last poem in the collection, “Introduction to Quantum Theory,” really reminds me of José Olivarez’s “Mexican Heaven.” They’re both speculative poems that present what could be a utopia, and then both poems force you to question that concept. What do you imagine the role of speculative poetry to be?
Choi: I love that poem by José and am so happy that you’ve put my poem and his in conversation. “Introduction to Quantum Theory” is, more than anything, a thought experiment. And I think that spirit of asking yourself a genuine question—even if the range of possible answers might be scary—is something that poets are actually really good at. There are a lot of poems that I consider to be in a speculative mode that seem far away from sci-fi or fantasy. For example, Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact” is simply making a proposition and briefly running with it, and I think that’s speculative writing at its root.
On the subject of thinking about utopias specifically: given the state of the world, I don’t think that there’s a danger of having too many poems that ask, “What would it feel like to be free?” I would like to hear as many of those as people can create. The particular superpower that poets can offer to the wider field of speculative literature is specifically in the realm of feeling, in our ability to imagine new emotional relationships with the world around us. Generally expanding our affective lexicon makes us more intelligent beings in order to survive whenever apocalypses come our way. I also think that it’s important to have poems that are exploring dystopia. Really, I think any poem that talks about what it’s like to live in our world is a dystopian poem, and therefore also a speculative poem. It’s one that’s asking, “What would it feel like to survive a world bent on our destruction?” which is a question that takes enormous imagination to answer, and one that I don’t think we’ll ever outgrow our need for.
Rumpus: One of my favorite series in the collection is “Perihelion: A History of Touch,” which is a very lush, natural reflection on intimacy in its many forms where each section is named after a season of the moon. What was your mindset when writing this sequence of poems?
Choi: So a cyborg is a cybernetic organism: part machine, part human. But a lot of thinking about cyborg/posthuman subjectivity also includes thinking about other kinds of hybridity, too: human/animal, human/earth, etc. I didn’t originally write those poems to be part of this book, though I think they came from the same place within me and were approaching some of the same themes: intimacy, desire, the blurring of human boundaries. I realized that I could use the series to shift the scope slightly, to a hybrid queer subjectivity that didn’t have anything to do with machines, where the speaker could explore other kinds of blending.
Rumpus: It makes me think of Tommy Orange’s novel There, There, where he speaks on the experience of indigenous people living in cities, and how that’s not thought about as natural or a reservation, but the buildings are still made of natural materials. Like you mention in the collection, the silicon in circuitry is made from sand.
Choi: Yeah, yeah. It’s not like we spring from our natural environments and then are free from them; we reciprocally create those natural environments we sprang from, to a sometimes catastrophic effect. With the moon poems, it was trying to expand beyond robots in thinking of a wider post-human mode of being and being intimate.
Rumpus: The other thing I love about that poem is its note at the end of the collection that says, “These poems borrow their titles from the Farmers’ Almanac, which cites Algonquin origins; however, their correlations with any indigenous languages are inconsistent and unclear. Colonial knowledge makes for strange distances.” It almost feels like an extension of the poem.
Choi: Yeah, and it’s been a strange thing to navigate, engaging with a poem whose framework relies on indigenous knowledge that’s been altered, maybe butchered, through the process of colonial adoption. I am a writer who has lived my entire life on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples, and so that history is part of my history as well, that garbled passing of knowledge mediated by brutal violence. It’s strange to think about how to write things that have been passed into your lexicon through violence, especially when that violence perhaps rhymes with but isn’t the same as what was inflicted upon your people. So that’s part of the question of intimacy in that poem, as well: how to write alongside the knowledge of people with histories different from your own.
Rumpus: The poem “You’re So Paranoid” presents this complicated perspective on witnessing injustice, and then the inability to fully represent that story to others. I think most poets go back and forth on this idea that poetry can profoundly impact society and resist institutional justice, and yet also a poem is just a poem. Most days, do you feel hopeful or limited in poetry’s power to resist institutional injustice like the police?
Choi: I think both hopeful and limited. I spent five-ish years of my life as a political organizer, spent a lot of my hours trying to leverage people power to get legislators to stop legislating violence on the bodies of people in my neighborhood. And you know, poetry didn’t have that much to do with it. I understood that there was a really clear delineation between what art could do and what a community meeting could do, what a large-scale political action could do. I don’t think of my art as activism. But that doesn’t mean that my art isn’t political, or that it’s not engaged in resistance. I think the terrain of what we can change is not unrelated, but really different.
Rumpus: I think sometimes the subtext of the question can be “Is a poem as impactful as participating in an action or voting for or against members of Congress?” which is misleading. The poem can never be that, but a resistance doesn’t just need active demonstrations in the streets; it also needs cooks and poets. It’s the idea that an activist and a poet potentially have to be the same person, when instead it’s all these people that can be involved in the same movement.
Choi: Yeah, totally. Bread and roses. It’s not respectful to the full range of our humanity to act as though material freedoms and gains will satisfy everything that we need in order to feel free. But I also think that for the question of “Is a poem as effective as a rally?” the follow-up question is: “Effective for what?” Is it as effective for enacting legislation, no. Is it effective for helping people going to that protest to have a more nuanced or fuller understanding of what it is they envision, maybe. I think there’s a lot of different ways to be effective, and to make change. And some of it is internal, and some of it is in the invisible fabric of how we understand how to relate to each other.
Rumpus: To close on a sillier note, on your podcast VS with Danez Smith, you close your interviews with guests playing a game called “This or That,” where you ask which two abstract ideas would win in a fight. So my question is who would win, softness or science?
Choi: [Laughing] I feel so exposed! Softness or science? This is awful because clearly I want both of them to merge into something better than all of us. But I think that softness might win only because—I mean I think it’s decimated by the fight, on a physical level—but I think science has an inherited set of rules for what it means to win, whereas softness just gets to define that shit on its own at every turn. I think softness would perish and then be like “I, by perishing, truly win, because now I understand the full weight of what it means to lose.” [Laughing]
Photograph of Franny Choi by Qurissy Lopez.