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#NPRPoetry: Franny Choi Reads Listener Submitted Poems

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now it's time for one of our favorite things, poetry. April is National Poetry Month, and each week, we invite a celebrated poet to read through some of your original poems. Today, we're going to hear from poet Franny Choi. Her latest poetry collection is called "Soft Science," and she's the co-host of the "VS" podcast. Earlier this week, she spoke with our own Michel Martin, and she started by telling her about the first time she fell in love with poetry.

FRANNY CHOI: I remember the first poem that I ever wrote was about a robot exploring nature, a robot called Robie (ph).

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: (Laughter).

CHOI: And I think that...

MARTIN: I love it.

CHOI: The poem ended with the words, environmental slugs.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHOI: And I was looking back at that, and I was like, well, I was obviously just having fun putting words together. And that was the first - that was my first love, you know? My first love of poetry was just the game of what happens when you make weird words smash against each other. And then it really wasn't until, you know, adolescence and then in college that I started to understand poetry as a way to process my own experiences and understand my life and then also to connect with other people.

MARTIN: That's great. Well, I don't want to lose sight of the fact that there have been pain points throughout this year. I mean, there's - we are a year into the coronavirus pandemic, which has been a year of loss and grief for many people. And also, we're in a moment where we are seeing just a surge in abusive conduct directed at people of Asian descent, including, as we know, murders in Atlanta. And you are Korean American. You're a writer. I'm just wondering what all of this is bringing up for you. Is this influencing your work?

CHOI: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that it's also a time that I'm trying to practice dreaming, you know, trying to practice envisioning a world beyond these particular kinds of unspeakable cruelties, you know? And so I think that I'm trying to honor this moment while doing the work of a poet, which is to dream beyond it.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. So let's get into some of the submissions that have been sent to us. And you've been looking them over, and you've picked a couple that caught your eye. So why don't we start? Yeah.

CHOI: Yeah. Well, there's this one that was submitted by Kaite McKenna - @KaiteMcKenn. And it goes like this. (Reading) Fear has created its own love language. Text me when you get home. Call me when you're off the bus. You can crash here if you need to. Please get home safe.

And I just love - yeah, I love it. I mean, it's been so long since somebody has said text me when you get home because I've just been home. I've been home the whole time...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHOI: ...You know? And so it makes me feel kind of longing for that small gesture of intimacy, of saying, call me when you're off the bus. Yeah.

MARTIN: That's so true. You're right. It does. It's so - it does so much with so little, right? It's - OK. Let's play the TikTok entry. This is from, I think, Nytesia Ross. And let's play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NYTESIA ROSS: You ever heard of Black boy laugh? It's beautiful. Have you ever seen a Black girl dance? It's magical. Have you ever heard a Black man sing from the pits of his soul? Have you ever looked at a Black woman and not questioned if she's whole? There's so much more to Black stories than Black pain, like Black joy and Black praise.

MARTIN: OK. And why did this catch your attention?

CHOI: Well, I mean, when I first heard it, I was sort of, like, oh, it was - it's good, except until, like, it's sort of - you know, that last rhyme didn't exactly catch. But then the more I thought about it and the more I listened to it, I realized how much work it actually does to not rhyme those last two words, pain and praise. You know, they have the same vowel sound, but they're not perfect rhymes.

It's like - it reminded me of Emily Dickinson, of the ways that she will rhyme and rhyme and rhyme and then just deny it right at the end with a slant rhyme and how these two different stories of Black pain and Black praise exist at the same time. And they're not the same and that there's a little bit of friction maybe in what you - you as a reader, a general reader - might understand about the relationship between those things. But there they are. Let that friction and that resonance hang in the air, and relate to it as you will.

MARTIN: You teach poetry. Do you have any tips for people who want to write but might be intimidated or just a little, you know, scared to get started but who want to?

CHOI: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Yeah. Stay grounded in the concrete things, to stay grounded in your five senses and the things that you can taste and smell and touch. I think that sometimes there's a tendency to go really big and philosophical and feel like you need to have this great, big answer to an enormous question of humanity. But actually, I think our job as poets is just to create a little bit of language that encapsulates just a small thing about our lives that might fly into the heart of somebody else through words.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, then I want you to read one more that you picked, the gnat poem. Do you mind?

CHOI: I think this might be my favorite one. OK, this is from Lucas Lou's dad, and it goes like this. (Reading) Little gnat, please, little gnat, please don't fly through the screen of the window and into my eye.

And I just love it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHOI: And, you know, I sort of passed over this one, too, when I was looking through them at first because I was, like, OK, this is just, like, a poem about a fly. But then I kept coming back to it, and I kept just saying out loud, little gnat, please, little gnat.

And it just got stuck in my ear. And yeah. What a - I think that, again, that's just exactly what a poet - all a poet can hope for is to make a little bit of language that'll follow somebody throughout the day and keep them company. So I think that for the whole rest of the day, I'll probably be saying under my breath, little gnat, please, little gnat.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That's great. Franny Choi is a poet and co-hosts the "VS" podcast. Her latest collection, "Soft Science," is out now. Franny Choi, thank you so much for joining us.

FADEL: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: If you would like to participate in Poetry Month, we've expanded to TikTok. You can post your original 15-second poem to TikTok with the hashtag #nprpoetry. Please remember to keep it radio-friendly and 15 seconds or less. And, of course, we are still taking your original Twitter poems. You can tweet those to @npratc with the hashtag #nprpoetry. And even though Twitter has changed its character limit since we started this, we're sticking with the original rules. Poems must be 140 characters or less.

And please know that your submissions may be used by NPR because each week, we invite a celebrated poet like Franny Choi to join us and discuss some of the poems that caught their eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES CLARKE'S "BLOW UP A GO-GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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