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: Helen Zell Visiting Writers Series with Anne Carson

When I walked into the UMMA on Thursday night, I was instantly reminded of last March, when Kazuo Ishiguro held a reading of his then-recent novel The Buried Giant. Then, I felt as if I was plunged into an environment that was larger-than-life, sitting under the high ceiling of the main foyer. But when I went down to the basement and entered the auditorium where Anne Carson would be reading, I felt the exact opposite; chatter abounded throughout the room, but the lights were muted, closing the room and making it feel small and warm.

If I was to characterize the reading as a whole, then, that’s what I’d say: small, warm, intimate, and most importantly, enchanting. From the introduction praising her amazing body of work to her actual reading, I was completely entranced. She wasn’t an intimidating figure, but quite the opposite. She even joked, in a very dry, but still somewhat kind tone, “I’ll try to be stream-worthy.” I felt nothing but warmth and welcome emulating from her as she introduced her work, titled “An Essay on Threat,” and began to read.

As for the work itself, I must steal from the eloquent introduction Jenny Boychuk. She described Carson as “unclassifiable” and quoted a national critic who deemed her a “philosopher of heartbreak.” Those two thoughts encapsulate her writing perfectly. If you asked me to describe “An Essay on Threat,” which came in three parts, one long, one very long, and one very short, I honestly wouldn’t have an answer. I don’t even know if there was solid plot that I could identify. Instead, I was mesmerized in listening to the writing, delighting in how poetic her prose sounded. Rather than narrating with a direct plot she fills your imagination for you, each salient detail immersing you into the world she created.

I know I don’t speak only for myself when I say I left the reading changed, challenged, and moved. Changed, because after hearing her read, I will never read her work the same way ever again. Challenged, because when she asked all the writers to raise their hands, I wanted to someday be the one asking that question from the stage, which means learning from great writers like her and developing my own craft. And, finally, moved.

“My heart is swimmed in time.” – Anne Carson


The next author in the Visiting Writer’s Series, NoViolet Bulawayo, will be at the UMMA Helmut Stern Auditorium on Thursday, February 11, at 5:30 pm.