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: Poets at Michigan, Then and Now

On Friday, April 7th, natural light filled the Rogel Ballroom as poetry enthusiasts gathered to learn about the UM poetry scene from the 20th century to now. Because I only attended two out of the three panels of the symposium, I will only be reviewing those two: “The Middle Years” and “The Art Continues: Contemporary Michigan Poets.” This symposium intended to highlight the history of poets at the University of Michigan (not just poets from the state) and where that history has brought us.

The Middle Years panel consisted of poet and current professor Laurence Goldstein, former professor John Knott, and the illustrious multi-genre writer and funeral home director Thomas Lynch. Current professor Cody Walker introduced the panel. Goldstein began the panel by discussing the “middle” history of poets at UM from Theodore Roethke to Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. He opened with a poem by Anne Stevenson titled “Ann Arbor,” fittingly. He read mostly from his notes but clearly loves this subject and showed excitement about previous poets from here. He mused on Roethke never turning his coursework in until the very end of the semester and on Robert Hayden’s “proletarian poetry.” A notable closing quote from his portion: “You don’t have to be an English major to write great poetry.”

Next, Knott (who filled in for current poet XJ Kennedy, who originally was going to speak at the event) talked about the poetry of Roethke and Hayden as well as beginning the segue into today’s poetry scene. He read Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” and Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” both hallmarked poems about their respective fathers from their childhood perspectives. He discussed them in the context in which he taught these poems: thinking about their tones and complexity of the emotions and relationships. Before Lynch stood to talk, Knott finished his discussion by honoring the Helen Zell MFA program and comparing the old poetry scene to today’s, which is now lively and full of readings. He was also excited to be there and talk about our historical poets.

Lynch’s section was mostly him telling stories relevant to the middle years of UM poetry – he started by telling a recent one about his experience at the Russian Bathhouse with other writers. While he didn’t necessarily discuss specific MI poets, his stories were highly entertaining. He also noted (several times) the importance of buying books of living poets, gesturing to the Literati vendor in the back of the ballroom. His section and this panel ended with him reading his “unfinished and failing” poem, “Heaney-esque.”

Thomas Lynch telling his stories

The third panel was incredible: poets Jamaal May (who filled in for Tarfia Faizullah), Airea D. Matthews (filling in for Vievee Francis), and Laura Kasischke each read from their own works. This panel was a reading, so it gave a different energy than the previous panel and was a great end to a poet-filled day. Keith Taylor, poet and current director of the Creative Writing subconcentration, introduced this panel and told stories about each of the reading panelists.

Keith Taylor introducing Jamaal May, Airea D. Matthews, and Laura Kasischke

May began with some politically charged pieces and kept reading from his latest collection Big Book of Exit Strategies including pieces such as “I Have this Way of Being,” “There are Birds Here” (his famous Detroit poem, which he had memorized), “As the Saying Goes,” and “The Gun Joke.” He read a few pieces from his other collection Hum before closing with saying “I’ll never stop marvelling at the fact that people sit still while they listen to what’s in my head” and reading his poem “Now for My Last Trick.”

Jamaal May

Matthews began her section by discussing the return to representation and pattern-making. She read from her very new and very beautiful collection, Simulacra including: “Epigraph,” “On Meeting Want for the First Time,” “From the Pocket of His Lip,” “Rebel Opera,” “Letters to My Would Be on Dolls and Repeating” (probably my favorite), “Narcissus Tweets,” and “If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein.” Her poetry was poignant and emotion/language-driven, with an amazing focus on images. Some pieces had conversation threaded throughout. She explained that the last one began as a facebook status and informed the crowd that poets can start anywhere. She’s right.

Airea D. Matthews

Kasischke started the last reading by bringing up Frank O’Hara, a UM poet from the middle years, and how she didn’t hear anyone else discuss his work. She read his poem “Animals” before going into some of her funny and energetic, older poems. “You can’t swing a baguette in Ann Arbor without hitting a great poet,” she mused. Because she is a Michigan native and went to UM for several years, she said “When I die, they’ll have to mix my ashes with the cement and put it in a parking structure.” As for the poems she read: “Woman Kills Sweetheart with Bowling Ball” (inspired by a newspaper article by the same title), “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad,” “Something You Should Know,” “What I Learned in 9th Grade,” “Two Men & A Truck,” “Time Machine,” and “Memory.”

Laura Kasischke

Each reading was incredible and I wouldn’t be surprised if the poets in the audience went home directly afterwards to write poetry inspired by what they had heard that afternoon. While the Middle Years panel taught us about older poets in more of a mini-lecture form, the third panel’s conglomerate of contemporary poetry was a great ending to the afternoon. If you’d like to learn more about poets at Michigan, consider taking Cody Walker’s English 340 course on the topic this fall semester.

PREVIEW: Poets at Michigan, Then and Now

Ever wondered what the poetry scene here at UM was like from the Robert Frost era to now? Didn’t know that Robert Frost taught here back in the day? Want to hear some current poets read their own work while enjoying some catered snacks? I have great news and a great event for you!

April 7th, 2017 (tomorrow) from 10am-4pm, there will be three panels:
10-11:30am – Robert Frost, the Hopwood Awards, and the History of Poetry at Michigan (discussed by Nicholas Delbanco, Paul Dimond, and Donald Sheehy)
1-2:30pm – The Middle Years (discussed by Laurence Goldstein, John Knott, and Thomas Lynch)
2:30-4pm – The Art Continues: Contemporary Michigan Poets (Tarfia Faizullah or Jamaal May, Vievee Francis, and Laura Kasischke)

This event will take place in the Union Rogel Ballroom and is part of the bicentennial celebration. See you there!*

University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Bicentennial Theme Semester Event: You Are Invited

*Due to a conflict I will be attending/reviewing only the 2nd and 3rd panels, however the 1st promises to be excellent as well.

REVIEW: Caldwell Poetry Performance

On the night of Wednesday the 29th, sixteen students affiliated with the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program (current and alumni) stepped up in front of a full crowd in Lloyd’s Barner Lounge of other LHSP students and staff to read poetry. There was a mix of nine original works with seven interpretive works of other poets, and altogether, it was a great night of poetry. Out of respect for the original works, I do not have any lines from those pieces, but will link to the interpretive pieces as available.

I (to my own surprise) started the night off with current UM professor Laura Kasischke’s “Game,” but I couldn’t objectively tell you how my performance went due to forgetting some of my memorized lines. Regardless, one of my favorite parts of the piece reads: “She shouted my name, which, even as a child I knew was not ‘Stop. Please. I’m Dying.'” Next, current LHSP student leader Rhea Cheeti recited Lily Myers’ “Shrinking Women” with a powerful voice to mimic the powerful words.

Original works interweaved nicely with interpretive works: after a few interpretive pieces, students read their own original works. One of the earlier yet highly notable original pieces was Mary Oseguera’s “They don’t call it Mexi-coke in Mexico,” a gorgeously written piece with a refrain on the speaker’s experience with the descriptor “Hispanic.” My description of her piece wouldn’t dare come close to how amazing her words and recitation were. Alyson Grigsby read a piece “pages 131-133) from Claudia Rankine’s incredible book Citizen, one of the most important works of American poetry available to the public today:

“You imagine if the man spoke to you he would say, it’s okay, I’m okay, you don’t need to sit here. You don’t need to sit and you sit and look past him into the darkness the train is moving through. A tunnel. / All the while the darkness allows you to look at him. Does he feel you looking at him? You suspect so. What does suspicion mean? What does suspicion do?”

Next, a few students read their original works and Josh Segal read Rachel McKibbens’ “Selachimorpha.” Another one of my personal favorites was Hannah Rhodenhiser’s “I Wrote You A Poem for Christmas,” a refreshing love poem. It made my heart smile, and I hope it made the rest of the audience feel just as warm. Olivia Anderson read “On the Corner of Ann and Observatory,” which had a mysterious feel to it despite the title being located where we all sat in that moment. Allison Taylor’s “Poison” was a treat for the audience – instead of just reading the poem, she sang it while playing her acoustic guitar. Her talents are real.

Dhriti Deb read “The Gaffe” by CK Williams and before Dominique Witten closed the event with an original piece titled “They are not Children,” Laura Dzubay read Katie Makkai’s “Pretty.”

The event was excellent and, as advertised, full of poetry. Original works were plentiful and strong – as were the voices of their writers. As for the students who interpreted works by other poets, I was impressed. Their voices and performative skills were impeccable, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to everybody’s works and being in a setting devoted to the enjoyment of poetry.

Winners will be announced on April 12th, at LHSP’s End-Of-Year Festival (or more recently referred to as LHSP’S LHSP: Last Hurrah for Student Projects, coined by the performance event’s emcee, Emily Miu) held at Couzens. I’m looking forward to seeing the joy on the winners’ faces, whoever they may be!

PREVIEW: Caldwell Poetry Performance


The annual Caldwell Poetry Prize is back! This competition for written poetry and oral recitation of poetry by students or other poets. While the contest is open only to students and alumni of the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, the recitation tonight is open for anybody to watch talented poets and admirers of poetry perform their work in Alice Lloyd’s Vicky Barner Lounge, 7-8pm. Past years have seen wonderful performances, and tonight’s event promises to be chock-full of talent as well. As a side note, I will be reciting as an alum in my third time participating. Light refreshments and awesome words guaranteed.

Date: Wednesday, 3/29/17 (TONIGHT!)
Time: 7-8pm
Location: Vicky Barner Lounge