May 1, 2015
Franny Choi did exactly what the posters on walls and windows said she would do: speake poetry. But that wasn’t all she did with poetry. She also rapped it, sang it, questioned it, whispered it, repeated it and philosophized about it.
She revealed her signature sassy, colloquial, somewhat-optimistic honesty in her first poems, embracing grandfathers, deaths and armpit hairs. To introduce the latter, she asked the audience, “Make noise if you’ve ever felt insecure about your body!” Immediately, the majority of the Events Barn made some sort of noise. She nodded, agreed with those who made noise and then explained that when she’s feeling insecure about her body, she writes a poem dedicated to one part of her body—one that doesn’t normally get any love. Thus, she began “Ode to my Armpit Hairs,” a spoken word poem dripping with gargoylean imagery and Shakespearean exclamations of “O!” and “You brave...fallen soldiers!”
The honesty of her poems was tinged with humor, a combination that created an easy relationship between the audience and herself. After solidifying this with her first three poems, Franny recited “Whiteness Walks Into a Bar,” a numbered series that fused jokes and white privilege. The structure of the joke was used—somewhat like the purpose of a chip from the point of view of a guacamole-fanatic— simply to hold the racial critiques. The familiar line, “— walks into a bar,” preserved the trust that Franny had built with us over her first couple of poems, but the content of each joke challenged us both as an audience and as self-proclaimed open-minded college students. Mumford & Sons, Whole Foods and “hoppy” beer references were sprinkled throughout the series. In the final poem, Franny told us that whiteness owns the bar—he was in the bar before he walked in. There was silence, and then there were snaps, and then there were claps echoing from the palms of every audience member.
As the clapping dribbled off, Choi arranged a small contraption in front of her right foot on the floor. She dedicated her poem to the people who have been attacked recently in ISIS territory, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and several other countries. She paused and then slowly put her head down and, with her right toes, pressed a button on the contraption. She beat-boxed for about two measures and then pulled away from the microphone. The beat-boxing continued. When pressed, the device would record whatever Franny had just said into the microphone. She layered a beautifully haunting three-note hum and the words “to strike” on top of the beat-boxing beat, and then began her poem. Like a hybrid of a haiku and a sestina, the recording created a constrained repetition within which Choi had to operate: she had about six seconds between each repetition of “to strike,” and each statement aptly incorporated the two words into their structure. The final product was inherently haunting, and the cessation of the recording didn’t stop the words from echoing in the minds of the audience.
Choi saved one of her most famous poems, “To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” for later in her set. Again, she used a question for introduction, asking the audience if they had ever been cat-called or been the victim of a micro-aggression, or both. “This,” she told us, “is a poem about both.” You can find this poem on poetryfoundation.org, but the italics and punctuation fail to convey the buzzing of dead air between her first line, “You want to eat me,” and the following one: “Out.” The stanza breaks of the typed version fail to act out the way she would dip her head toward the stage after each question mark and the way her hands trailed over unseen shapes in the space beside her as she spoke.
During the Q&A session she addressed this, saying that spoken word is different from other forms of writing because “spoken artists have time.” Writers who only write can manipulate time with the spacing on the page, but they cannot force you to wait for the next word or phrase. Spoken artists, however, choose when you hear the words— they also choose for how long and with what vocal tone. They refuse to constrain their voices to the keyboard and the page, so they get rid of both, stand in front of you and tell you their story.