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Celebrating #NPRPoetryMonth with Franny Choi

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's National Poetry Month, which is one of our favorite times of the year. And that is because we ask you, the listeners, to submit poems on social media. And then we get to read a few submissions each year with a celebrated poet. So today, we've called Franny Choi. She's an award-winning poet who's published numerous collections, including "Soft Science." Franny Choi, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FRANNY CHOI: Thanks so much for having me.

DETROW: So we'll get to the poems we got in a minute, but first, let's catch up with you. We last spoke to you for National Poetry Month back in 2021. And since then, you've released a collection of poetry called "The World Keeps Ending, And The World Goes On." Tell us a bit about it.

CHOI: Yeah. Well, I started writing this book at a time when it seemed like the only option that I could see ahead of us was that the apocalypse was here, that the world was ending. I feel like I have this feeling maybe three times a day, but at this point, I was really in the depths of this feeling.

DETROW: Well, looking at the 2021 release date, I feel like you might not have been alone during that period.

CHOI: Yeah. Yeah. I think so. But, yeah, my partner at the time reminded me that the apocalypse actually happened a long time ago, and that our people have been surviving it for a long time. And that kind of reframing really helped me kind of see other possibilities in a moment where I felt that there was no hope. So that's where the poems came from.

DETROW: And I understand you brought - you've got part of a poem from that collection to read for us today.

CHOI: Yeah. So there's a series of haikus in my collection called "In The Aftermath Of The Unforgivable, I Raise My Doomed Green Head," which is five syllables, seven syllables and five syllables. So the title is a haiku, but I just wanted to read the last two of those in this poem.

(Reading) In Laos, it rained yellow. No word helps me understand, but this - oh, oh, oh. Someday we'll lie in dirt. With mouths and mushrooms, the earth will accept our apology.

DETROW: I like the idea of hearing haiku instead of reading it because I feel like, you know, I'm so trained to, like, look at the line breaks and things like that. But it's a different experience just hearing it and not seeing it.

CHOI: Yeah. I mean, I think that this is a form that's so famous - right? - for its syllable counts. We all know five, seven, five. And I think that kind of knowledge can sometimes - you know, there are ways that that can really open up the understanding of a poem. And then there are also ways that sometimes, that can kind of get between us and actually feeling the poem with our bodies and our hearts. So that's one of the things I love about hearing poems out loud. It's just - it feels sort of, like, intimate, like there's nothing between me and the words.

DETROW: Yeah. That was actually a conversation that we had last week, the idea of, like, the rules sometimes can be constricting and sometimes that they can open up the world, you know? But I feel like so many people go in, like, with haiku specifically, like, feeling it. Like, OK, five, seven, five, five, seven, five - and getting hung up on that.

CHOI: Yeah. Well, it's helpful sometimes to have some structure to know what might count as a poem if you're new to the form. But I think that also, as I've, you know, explored poetry and as I've written more and more over the years, I've started to find the rules to be just helpful kind of things to rebel against or to fight against, you know, to create some more tension by fighting against the rules of the sonnet. You know, what happens if I make it 15 lines instead of 14? - and so on. So the rules can be useful in all kinds of ways.

DETROW: So you get first crack at taking a look at some of our submissions and picking some poems to read. What jumped out to you?

CHOI: Yeah. So there's a poem that was submitted by David Wright. The handle is at @sweatervestboy, which I think is just great. But it's three couplets and it goes like this.

(Reading) April and he stepped out of a hospital into rain, a father. He breathed petrichor and lilac. He saw purple buds open like an infant's hand. I've lost his letter. Lose him each April until my hands open to blooms woven with earth and wetted stone.

There's so much packed into just these three couplets. You know, it's really not very many words. But, I mean, one of the first things I noticed about it is that the line breaks are kind of phenomenal. You know, line breaks are one of the most powerful tools that poets have at their disposal. They can create tension, tell us where to look, create a sense of suspense, like, highlight the rhythm in a line or something. And so - and some of these line breaks just, like, really moved me. There was something - he saw purple buds open, break like an infant's hand.

I think the surprise of going like an infant's hand is really great. And then later in that last couplet, the poet says, I lose him each April until my hands open. And so then suddenly, we realize that the speaker is actually this infant that was imagined previously in the poem. And everything really kind of comes around full circle in just a short span of time.

DETROW: What's another poem that you picked for us?

CHOI: Sure. OK. I think that this one might be my favorite of all. I feel like the weird ones are always my favorites. The handle of the person who submitted it is @SkipKeith4, and it goes like this.

(Reading) In his bright yellow jacket, Mr. Crocus hollers, it's spring, y'all.

I just love how fun that is. And, you know, I've just been thinking about crocuses so much, too, because, you know, they're kind of coming up everywhere around where I live. And they're such tiny, almost delicate-seeming, humble flowers. But if you think about it, they really are hollering, you know? They're loud, they're brave and I - they make me want to holler when I see them because I know that they signal the end of a long, gray winter. And so I just love the way that this poet makes Mr. Crocus loud.

DETROW: The y'all does it for me, too...

CHOI: As loud as I think he should be.

DETROW: ...At the very end.

CHOI: Yeah. The y'all is great. The y'all is great.

DETROW: So I can imagine people hearing this segment and thinking, those are great poems. I don't know if I could do that. I mean, what's your advice for someone who wants to give it a try - because we've got several more weeks to submit these poems and read them - but feels intimidated?

CHOI: I think that sometimes, poets who are new to poetry will kind of go for what seems, like, universal. You know, everybody understands what love is. And so if I say love in a poem, then everybody will be able to relate to it. But actually, it's like the more specific and idiosyncratic and strange that, like, the closer you get to your own private language that you think nobody else will understand, I think that that is actually the thing that can reach somebody in that deep, private place of themselves, too. So I guess I would just say, yeah, that's my biggest advice. Just don't be afraid to get weird.

DETROW: Get weird. That was poet Franny Choi. Her latest collection is called "The World Keeps Ending, And The World Goes On." Franny, thank you so much for joining us.

CHOI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.