Monday, September 10, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Franny Choi, Judge for the 2019 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest

by Neveen Shawish
The Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest serves to raise the visibility and prestige of poetry of provocation and witness.  

PRIZES: First place $500; 2nd and 3rd place, $250 each. Winning poems will be published on Split This Rock's website and in The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. All prize winners will receive free festival registration to Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2020 and the 1st place recipient will be invited to read the winning poem on the main stage at the festival.

READING FEE: $20. Benefits Split This Rock, helping to sustain its work to bring poetry to the center of public life.

The contest is open for submissions until November 1, 2018. To submit, please visit the contest page on the website.

About the Contest Judge
Photo of Franny Choi. Franny has long hair that is dark brown at the top and becomes lighter, eventually blonde at the bottom. She stand against a white backdrop, looking off into the distance. She wears glasses and a black tank top, and has bright red lipstick.
Photo by Tarfia Faizullah.
Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and the Helen Zell Writers Program. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow, an Editor of News and Politics at Hyphen Magazine, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective. Franny was a Featured Poet at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2014. Learn more at Franny Choi's website.
Franny will serve as a final judge for the contest, selecting the winning poems from up to 20 top poems chosen by first readers. As she desires, she may also select poems as honorable mentions.

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Neveen Shawish: Your cultural identity is prevalent in your work in such a vulnerable and beautiful way. The cultural divide between your family and where you live now really resonates with me, particularly in your poems “Split Mouth” and “Choi Jeong Min." How has your upbringing impacted your work? What have you found out about your own cultural identity through the world of poetry?
Franny Choi: You know, I get some version of this question almost every time I’m interviewed, and I never know how to answer it. If you’re asking how being the queer, femme child of Korean immigrants has impacted my experience of language, the best answers I have for you are my poems—that’s exactly the question I’m trying to answer in nearly everything I write. So: yes, exactly! How does it affect a voice to begin in uprooting? What can I learn about what it means to come from a forcefully divided, postcolonial country through the world of words? What does it mean to write like a person whose body has been objectified, fetishized, scapegoated, made fantasy, made tool, etc.? Yes, those are exactly the questions I’m trying to answer, too.
Shawish: From Floating, Brilliant, Gone to Death by Sex Machine, or even from before your publications, how do you think your poetry has evolved over time and how do you believe that you, as a poet, have evolved?
Choi: I think the content of my work hasn’t changed that much over time; the questions that drove me to the page five or ten years ago are still the most important ones in my writing today. But when I look back at Floating, Brilliant, Gone, what I feel most strongly is a kind of shock at its openness, at how forthcoming those poems are about both their content and their mechanisms. I love the vulnerability of that book (in the same way I love the 23 year old who wrote it), but I’m also glad at the ways I’ve grown in my ability to modulate between clarity and difficulty. I know more often now, that my moments of intense vulnerability are intentional, that they’re openings I can stand fully behind. And I know that my moments of difficulty aren’t just there to sound smart, but are intended to vibrate—to create a particular kind of tension that I want the reader to grapple with, or stand in the midst of. I think gaining more fluency in openness/difficulty has been not just an important point of growth on a craft level, but also part of forming a healthier personal relationship to my poems.
Shawish: In what ways do you hope poetry will contribute to ongoing resistance efforts? Do you carry a sense of responsibility for particular causes that you write about?  
Choi: I think poetry that is meant to witness, educate, and incite is so vitally important. Poetry as a strategic vehicle for disseminating knowledge about injustices; poetry that serves as documentary and memorial; poetry that sparks the kind of anger that’s necessary for real change—these are particular and crucial modes of writing, but I think it’s not exactly the work I’m tasking my poems with at the moment. 

At the moment, I think the impulse that’s driving my writing is the impulse to understand and imagine deeply. That is, to go microscopic on the terrain of human tenderness in the context of this world wrecked by the violences of empire; and to imagine new ways of feeling, new ways of living. 

As far as responsibility in that work, I always want to ask myself: Am I making something that’s already here? Is this redundant to the ways we already know how to think about the world, whether by reinscribing its violences or recycling the horror stories already available to our imaginations? Or: does it make some attempt to break through to something else? I think being armed with this question, along with an ethics of care and a good crew of people to tell you when you’re screwing up, will get a person pretty far.
Shawish: As Split This Rock’s 2019 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest judge, is there anything that you will be looking for in poetry submissions? What moves you most when reading a poem?
Choi: There’s certainly no particular style or form of poetry that I’m looking for. I feel moved by reading poets who seem to truly be writing like themselves. I feel moved by new ways of making language, by political and conceptual bravery, by rigorous vulnerability, by humor, by meter, by a well-crafted lie. Judging contests is weird; please just know that I’ll consider every poem I read a real-life, breathing gift. 

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Image of Neveen Shawish standing in front of a large orchid with salmon colored blossoms. She looks at the flowers, and is wearing a black, mock turtle neck top with a jean jacket, and a large gold pendant necklace. She has long, wavy chestnut brown hair and brown eyes.
Photo by Elizabeth Khatib.

Neveen Shawish is a 20-year-old Palestinian American, based in the Washington DC area. She is a full-time student at George Mason University where she studies Communication with a concentration in Journalism. Neveen spent the summer as Split This Rock’s Communication and Social Media Intern (and loved every second of it!). She is passionate about progressive social change, volunteering, American Sign Language, and of course, poetry.

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