Sunday, September 06, 2015

Where Stardust and Poetry Meet: A Conversation With Bao Phi

Olga García Echeverría

At Dinner by Bao Phi

In Vietnamese:
They put salt from the sea on chocolate now!
Then, sudden as a dip in a wave,
tones in the language
all hats and heavy dots and slashes up or down,
intuitively rising and falling,
how the Americans, keeping track,
dropped their clipboards once the mortar shells started raining.
In the chaos,
who slipped onto the planes,
who got left behind.
Laughter about almost dying.
Small pauses for those who did.

Any one of my family
could walk down the street,
and suddenly
ching chong ching chong wah wah go back to where you came from,
or some sudden fist,
seeking jaws
taught to sing their words
to make sense,
English slurs straightforward as bullets
to pierce, to leave
smoking and full of holes,
without once even considering
what they survived.

Our language like a bubbling brook, they say
you, Bao - you were three months old, but you were the least scared - you didn't cry, didn't make a single noise.
The world exploding all around a quiet baby,
grown up to be a man who's afraid of everything.

Bao Phi: Photo by Min Enterprises Photography LLC

I can't remember exactly where I first met Bao. It was about 13 years ago and we were both featured readers at a poetry event somewhere in Southern California. Although the specifics are a blur, I never forgot Bao or his reading that day. His words were fierce, poignant, original, full of fuego and flow. Since then, I've never really stopped reading or listening to Bao's work. He is the author of several chapbooks, Surviving the Translation (2002), The Way We Pay (2004), Last Name First (2005), the CDs Flares (2000) and Refugeography (2002), and his first book of poetry, Sông I Sing, was published in 2011 by Coffee House Press. Here's an excerpt from his bio highlighting more:

"Bao Phi is a multiple Minnesota Grand Slam poetry champ and National Poetry Slam finalist who has been on HBO's Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and whose work was included in the Best American Poetry anthology of 2006. He has toured as a featured artist in hundreds of venues across the country since 1999, including the blockbuster diasporic Vietnamese variety show Paris By Night. He has been named a City Pages, Star Tribune, and Urban Griots Artist of the Year. His first book, Sông I Sing, was met with strong sales, is taught in classrooms across the United States, and enjoyed rave reviews, including the New York Times which stated "In this song of his very American self, every poem Mr. Phi writes rhymes... with the truth."


On September 12, 2015, Bao will be sharing some of his newest poems at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. The event, No Star Where: New Poems by Bao Phi is free and open to the public.

Those of us not in Minneapolis will miss out on this event, but we're honored to have Bao with us at the Bloga today, talking about poetry, identity, language, politics, and all kinds of stellar things.

Bao, so great to have you here at La Bloga. You have some new poems you will be sharing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis on September 12th. Are these poems from a new collection?

You know I am a fan of you and your work, so I’m grateful you’re giving me some space on La Bloga. Regarding the reading, it’s new poems I’ve been writing over the past two years. I’ve been unexpectedly prolific – I think I wrote more new poems over the last two years than in the previous five years before that, combined. I have a new manuscript, who knows if it will ever get published. I was fortunate to be awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, which supported me this past year and enabled me time and space to write a bunch of new poems. I’ll be reading poems from my new manuscript as well as some experimental stuff that will probably never get published.

The description of your event says, your new “poems deal with [your] history as a Vietnamese refugee born during war and raised in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, through [your] newly formed lens of being a man of color raising a daughter.” In general as a country we tend to think of the Vietnam War as something that happened a very long time ago, especially when we live in a country addicted to war, but really it hasn’t been that long nor is it far away, as there are generations of people here in the US today who are still living with and through the traumas of that war.

I agree – for those of us who are Vietnamese, Southeast Asian, and veterans whose lives were directly transformed – and often traumatized – through that war and its aftermath, it goes beyond theory and history. There’s also this idea that trauma gets passed down from generation to generation. Now that I’m a father, I wonder, since the Western world is not too good at educating the masses with any nuance about the war and Vietnamese people, and if my daughter has inherited our trauma, what tools will she have to understand this? That’s a big reason I’m writing the poems that I am writing now. I seldom wrote about my own personal history. But now that I’m a dad, what if I get hit by a truck? Or a racist police officer decides to make an example out of me? I want my daughter to have some record of who she comes from, and hopefully that will add to her toolbox for what she’s going to go through.

Bao Phi: Photo by Min Enterprises Photography LLC

I grew up in East LA. Although we were marginalized, we were in some ways protected from the daily sting of racism because the entire community was made up of us—Mexicans and Latinos who spoke Spanish and/or were bilingual. What was it like growing up Vietnamese in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis?
I can relate. It’s complicated, and contradictory. Though I grew up as a refugee in a poor, not-English-first family, in a neighborhood that was majority people of color and indigenous, and poor white people, when I was young I pretty much wanted to be white. Because white meant normal, attractive, carefree, American. And since we were refugees from war and the first large Asian population in Minnesota, there was tons of racism, misunderstanding, and hostility towards us from all different races of people. It went the other way, too – we had stereotypes and racist assumptions about the people around us. Put simply, we bought into what America taught and reinforced regarding non-Asian people of color and Indigenous people. And going the other way, Asian people like my family were the foreign enemy, the dog eating, dirty, cheap, inscrutable, betraying enemy.

Yes, it was similar in my community and family too in regards to stereotypes we had of other people of color. It wasn't until I went to college that I actually interacted, made friends with people from other cultures. The college I went to was small, private, and predominately White, so it was quite a culture shock to go from brown/bilingual East LA to there. The retention rate for people of color was so low that they had to initiate special programs to try to keep us there.

When I got a full ride to college, in many ways it was a way out for me. But no one tells you or really prepares you for how different it is, to go from Phillips to a private liberal arts college. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I even had the capacity to understand that when I was 17. Though I was already trying to educate myself and get involved in social justice, I was also pushing carts and mopping up spills at the grocery, and dealing with a great number of personal issues. It was all a mess. And I was one of the lucky ones!

I often see your posts on FB. So many of them are about your daughter and the everydayness of being a parent. I recall one post in particular where you were picking up your daughter from school wearing an “Angry Asian Man” t-shirt. The image made me think about the general assumptions that 1) anger is a bad thing and 2) that as people of color we are always angry.

There’s so much to be angry about. At the same time, for our own health and sanity, and for the sake of my child, I strive for a balance. A lot of my anger stems from love. The people I love getting abused, rendered silent, erased – I am angry about that. I’m angry at the continued violence towards Black bodies, Native bodies, Black and Brown bodies, trans people… I’m angry at the nonchalantly racist attitudes most Americans have towards Arabs and Muslims. I get angry when cat videos get more circulation than nuanced, vital essays regarding Asian American issues – and I *love* cat videos! I get angry that no one seems to care about Asian Americans who suffer from racism. I get angry that so much attention goes towards grandstanding on the internet, how seldom Asian American people are treated with any degree of nuance, and I get angry that the many strong, tireless Asian American activists (I am not including myself in that group) are devalued, taken for granted, will be lost to history. But I am trying to divert that anger towards more constructive, loved based actions and attitudes. 

You know, I've been trying to read Thict Nhat Hanh's book Anger: Wisdom Cooling the Flames, but every time I try to read it I get pissed off. The book talks a lot about compassion and although I think I have a lot of that in my heart, it's extremely difficult to be compassionate when systematic racism and violence continues to destroy the lives of so many marginalized people in our society. Sandra Bland comes to mind right now, but I can think of so many other examples. How can we have compassion for those who are responsible for her death and who take no responsibility or show any remorse or compassion? I have no compassion for millionaires who spew hatred against immigrants or religious fanatics who bomb abortion clinics. I'll stop here before I start getting angry again.

Yeah – compassion is good but can only go so far. I don’t have an answer for you, because honestly, I think it might take a better person than me to say that compassion should rise above it all. I’m just not that good of a person. But you know, maybe one way to look at it is, we should be angry at the system, and those that continue to reap benefits from it or kill the ones we love without any remorse or passion. I do try to have compassion for those who may not understand, but who are trying. I have little patience for people who are bigoted and snide and just mean spirited towards people who actually give a shit. You know? But if someone is trying to understand, to be reasonable, and to learn, I always try to remember that I myself am a deeply flawed person, I have had to ask for forgiveness, I have been rash and ignorant, and that I am continuing to grow. I have to cut others the same slack as I’ve been given. The current environment seems to stress this idea that there is a perfect activist or position to occupy. I don’t know if such a person or position exists. 

Have you shared your work in Vietnam?

I’ve been back a couple of times, but not since the late 90’s. I did share some of my work in Vietnam back in ’96, and it was generally well received, but to be honest that was a very small and selective group of people – teachers, friends, community members. I have no idea how my work would be received in Vietnam at large.

I’m dying to know—the title of your event, No Star Where--what does it mean?

There’s a phrase in Vietnamese, Không Sao Đâu, which means “no problem”, but literally translates to “No Star Where.” I love that it’s a plain, common phrase but that the literal translation has quite the poetic meaning when broken down into its component parts.

Through your work at The Loft and your series Equilibrium, you have supported and promoted so many writers, especially writers of color--me included! What does it feel like to be the featured reader at the Loft versus being the organizer?

Yeah, I’ve been there for like, sixteen years, starting as a receptionist. I feel really lucky, that I’m able to do work that I believe in, with an organization and staff that is so supportive. In terms of my own show, it’s kind of business as usual – handling logistics, doing outreach, setting up the physical space, making sure the stank ass artist shows up on time, it’s just in this case the stank ass artist is me.

Ha! Ha! I hope your stank ass shows up on time to your own reading. Anything else you'd like to add before we bid you farewell?  

I recently had a short story published in OCTAVIA'S BROOD: Science Fiction Stories from Social Movements. It's an amazing anthology -- please check it out.


Thank you, Bao. Here's wishing you a spectacular reading in Minneapolis. May the poetic force of the stars be with you.

Flaming Star Nebula by Jim DeLilo


1 comment:

msedano said...

the intersections of Vietnamese people with US people and culture have provided some great literary moments. I enjoyed Bao Phi's poem here, a few years ago a poet joked that "I like pho" ended in a rising tone like a question (you had to have been there). Years ago, I had a refugee student and an ex-Air Force in speech class. She described being forced to move from their family home at the end of an airbase runway. He described this great hootch he lived in at the end of an airbase runway. His hootch had been her home. It was beautiful and it was tragic; they became classroom friends.