REVIEW: Nell David & Franny Choi

On Friday night, the Helmut Stern Auditorium of UMMA was a small and cozy literary haven away from the museum’s After Hours event beginning upstairs. Though I attended alone, several Zell MFA friend groups and writer-enthusiasts (and probably writers themselves) around me gathered and giggled while we all waited for fiction writer Nell David* and poet Franny Choi to take the stage. The atmosphere was excited and comfortable.

In the tenth installment of its kind, two current MFA students emceed this year’s Webster Reading series. David was the first to read, and one of the emcees read her introduction: at an AWP conference in Washington, DC, the two strolled from table to table finding magazines in which David’s work was published. In each, her last name was different – a detail that interested me from the get-go of the evening. “At age 25, she was writing better fiction than people five years out of their MFA programs and didn’t give a damn about the name she put on it,” the emcee joked.

David, or [redacted] as they had also earlier joked, took the stage with the first few pages of a short story called “Joyce is Better Now.” The story was about a single mother whose son had just moved out for his first year of college, and how she fell in love with a doctor she had been seeing. While I’ve been paying more attention to poetry than fiction these days, I was still struck by her characters and how she moved through the piece. Characters, notably Joyce herself, were relatable yet given realistic and unique voices. I was reminded of life itself as they focused on small desires in a big world: two themes I noticed were those desires of finding honesty in already friendly relationships and being candid yet kind. Her reading style was confident and reserved, and I appreciated that she laughed at a funny line of her own. The excerpt she read gave us just enough information that we didn’t get the entire story, but wanted to know what happened next and how Joyce’s endeavors turned out.

Next was Choi, introduced by a different student (I think – or peer). He introduced her personality as a poet and commended her talents: “Saying that you’re a famous poet is like saying you’re a famous mushroom. Franny is the morel of poets.”

I’ve seen videos of Choi doing slam poetry a few years before, but this was a new experience. Slam poetry usually consists of some storytelling with sounds written to be heard on stage alongside movement, and I could sense those sounds echoing in her work within wordplay and patterns that I wouldn’t have expected. Sound aside, the images evoked were abundant and worked into one another while working together and alongside one another – stunning. She spoke with her hands and read so confidently, too, which also made me think of spoken word and slam poetry trends. Again, I was struck by the writing, especially as a poet myself.

Her first work that she read was from a collection about conducting a Turing Test on herself to see whether she’s actually a robot, though she read different poems thereafter (including one I’ve seen recently, “On the Night of the Election”). Before reading “You’re So Paranoid,” she noted that she’d never read it aloud before, and took a short pause before starting. That small moment was so beautiful, and I wondered whether she was considering the best way to read it, or whether she was capturing the moment for herself and the poem. Another intriguing piece she read was partially in response to the conversation about allowing neo-nazis speak on campus and a video wherein Richard Spencer used an image of her face, “The Cyborg Watches a Video of a Neo-Nazi Saying Her Name.” I liked how she bookended her reading, ending with a piece called (and reading the title in a voice that reminded me of an AI voice) “So, How Do You Like Working with Humans?”

Something that I appreciated about her reading lineup was that she interspersed poems about the aforementioned collection with others unrelated to it, but still managed to flow from one to the next cohesively. It was well-rounded and full of incredible work.

There was lots of writer’s confidence in the auditorium that evening, which extended to me, and for which I was grateful. I encourage y’all to read and support these talented writers as well as those who share the community here in Ann Arbor and beyond – or at least attend an MFA reading at some point.

*I wanted to include links to Nell David’s work in this review, but had some trouble finding her online and would appreciate any located links in the comments!

PREVIEW: Nell David & Franny Choi

As part of the Mark Webster Reading Series (affiliated with the Helen Zell MFA Writing program of UM and its second-year students), fiction writer Nell David and poet Franny Choi will be sharing a stage and reading their own selected works. David is a writer from Washington, DC. Choi is a published poet and editor of Hyphen, a literary magazine. This event is free and open to the public.

The series is praised for being a warm and relaxed setting full of literary energy. As a creative writing student and poet myself, I’m really excited to attend!

Date: March 16th, 2018
Time: 7-8pm
Location: UMMA Helmut Stern Auditorium

REVIEW: Zell Visiting Writers Series: Hieu Minh Nguyen and Nicholson Baker

On Thursday night, I was lucky enough to be able to listen to Hieu Minh Nguyen read several of his poems at the UMMA. Unfortunately, Nicholson Baker was unable to attend the reading due to travel difficulties. However, Hieu commanded the stage so well that I didn’t even realize that the hour had flown by until he announced his second-to-last poem.

This was the third installment of the Zell series that I attended, and it succeeded in blowing me away again. Personally, as a writer myself, I love attending readings because I walk away feeling inspired, buzzing in a way that is indescribable and makes me want to sit down on the curb right outside of the venue and whip out a piece of paper and a pen. Each writer has their own unique energy that touches listeners in different ways.

However, out of all the installments I experienced in the past, this one was notable for the way in which Hieu commanded the stage. He immediately established an easy rapport with the audience, making us laugh with references to astrology and kindergarten-age romance. He was conversational and bold and bright, and after the first half hour I decided that if I would ever be able to choose whatever parallel universe I wished to inhabit, I would choose the one in which I was close friends with Hieu.

Because if there was one theme that made recurring appearances throughout the program, it was the importance of friendship: how much Hieu needs and treasures it. In fact, the person who introduced him with an opening statement was his close friend Franny Choi, an esteemed poet in her own right. Seeing the two of them hug onstage and smile and laugh, I could sense how deep the love for each other is; watching them admittedly made me miss my best friends at home.

Besides friendship, Hieu’s poems also dealt with heavy topics that centered on his experiences as being a queer, Vietnamese American poet. Though the night started out with laughter and lightheartedness, the mood became a bit more somber as he read more of his poems, which delved into the aforementioned darker issues (though none of his poems are trivial or shallow, by any means).

All in all, I enjoyed listening to Hieu Minh Nguyen read some of his works. I intend on reading more of them on my own, as well as attending future Zell events.

Hieu Minh Nguyen has a forthcoming collection of poetry, titled Not Here, released in 2018 by Coffee House Press. I anticipate reading it, and encourage others to, as well!

Image credits: University of Arizona

PREVIEW: Zell Visiting Writers Series: Hieu Minh Nguyen and Nicholson Baker

On Thursday, February 15, come out and attend the next installment of the Zell Visiting Writers Series, featuring Hieu Minh Nguyen and Nicholson Baker. The Zell Visiting Writers Series invites one or two distinguished authors to share their work, and it’s a great way to gain some insight into what the Michigan writing community is all about, as well as to listen to some beautiful works of literature!

Hieu Minh Nguyen is a queer, Vietnamese American poet who is associated with Kundiman and Muzzle Magazine. His first book (This Way to the Sugar) has won the Minnesota Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award, and his other works have been published in places such as the Southern Indiana Review, Guernica, and the Paris-American.

Nicholson Baker has published a total of nine novels and four pieces of nonfiction, as well as various other pieces of work, in places such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The New York Review of Books. Baker’s work has won him a National Book Critics Circle Award, House of Holes, and other awards.

The reading will take place in the UMMA from 5:30 – 6:30. Admission is free.

REVIEW: Constellations

It is simply astounding that out of all the possible things that could happen, out of all the ways things could turn out, it is this one way that events align. How astronomically unlikely it is that two people would meet each other, at this time and at this place, and be suited enough to each other that they could form an attachment, remain woven into each other’s timeline; how much more possible that they never meet at all, never become the people they need to be to be suited to each other. In any romance, or even any story involving the meeting of people, or maybe even any accounting of an interaction between two objects, it is a given that the paths of those individuals did cross, and what matters is everything that follows. Constellations accounts for the possibility that nothing follows, that the spacetime continuum doesn’t allow for a story at all. In bringing to the foreground the laws of physics, it reminded me that everything that does happen is wondrous just because it happened, and not something else. Somehow Constellations maintains the inevitability of a single possible outcome and also confirms the existence of infinite potential outcomes.

Time is linear, and yet it must go in parallel lines because so many different end results occurred in the play. And it must be intuitive to understand this at some level because even with the same lines, and cuts forward and backward in time with no cue but lights and tone of voice, those vignettes assembled clearly into cohesive alternate timelines. There are so many ways to say the same words, all of which change the way the characters perceived their timelines if not the timelines themselves. Skillful is the least you need to be to switch from angry to loving, bouncy to pensive, in a split second, and these actors were worlds better than merely skillful. I didn’t expect each vignette to be so short—really just a few lines before it was repeated with a different interpretation—but those little snippets of story were enough to give the show the texture it needed.

It was very full-bodied for a show that was only an hour and ten minutes long. It felt much longer, not longer because it was boring but longer because it was mesmerizing enough that it felt as if there was too much story there to have unfolded in only an hour. I think several lifetimes happened over the course of the play, lifetimes that contained laughter, awkwardness, poignancy, anger, and love all at once.

I realize this isn’t a review so much as it is a reflection. Perhaps that defeats the purpose, but I mention this because any show that makes me think, the way Constellations did, is worth seeing. Had I been asked before tonight, I would have told you that if you had enough numbers, enough variables, and an equation, you could calculate the outcome of the universe. And perhaps I still would. But tonight, string theory seems closer and truer than it ever has before.

PREVIEW: J. Edgar Edwards Reading Series

Interested in exploring the Michigan writing community, listening to beautiful literature, or simply want something to do on Saturday night? On January 27th, the J. Edgar Edwards Reading Series will be presenting works by Elinam Agbo, Augusta Funk, and Rachel Cross, all first-year MFA students of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. The reading is free and open to the public. Each reading is held on Saturday evenings, but at different locations; the January 27th reading will be held at 605 West Hoover, Apt. 2, at 7:00 PM. Come out and enjoy!