An Interview with Bao Phi

Bao Phi strikes again! The spoken word artist and poet graces diaCRITICS yet again with Kim-An Lieberman’s interview, speaking about how he sings the Sông I Sing, his most recent publication.

Bao Phi 2.0 -

If you have been lucky enough to attend one of Bao Phi’s dynamic spoken-word performances, then you know why his new book Sông I Sing, just released from Coffee House Press, belongs at the top of your must-read list. Slam champion, community activist, HBO Def Poetry Jam alum, Associate Program Director at The Loft Literary Center, and self-proclaimed “geek of color,” Phi writes with a clear sense of purpose. His poems rail against racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, and ignorance of every shade – with urgent emotion and no-holds-barred language – all while radiating love and gratitude for the rich spectrum of Vietnamese American and Asian American experiences.

On paper as in person, Phi’s work is immediately engaging. He conjures vivid narratives from a mix of contemporary news headlines, 80s pop culture, and memories of childhood in the working-class Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis. Phi is also intentionally direct and provocative: not everyone will agree with his views, but the whole audience must grapple with the questions he raises about culture, representation, and identity. Sông I Sing incorporates several acclaimed pieces like the politically electric “Reverse Racism” and “8(9)” – both featured on diaCRITICS earlier this spring in a guest post by Valerie Soe – as well as “Race”, a dazzling street-racing allegory selected by Billy Collins for The Best American Poetry 2006 anthology. The second section of the book gives voice to a diversity of Vietnamese American characters from Phi’s persona-poem series “The Nguyễns.” Other highlights include a subversive riff on the acronym F.O.B. (which, among other things, stands for the Facebook fan page Friends Of Bao), and an awesome sestina about Godzilla.

Sông I Sing is already receiving rave reviews, and Phi graciously took the time to answer some questions for diaCRITICS about the creative process behind his book. Keep reading below for insight into Phi’s daily life as a poet, the double entendre of the book title, and a dash of zombie apocalypse.

Extra special! Order Sông I Sing directly from Coffee House Press before 11/1/2011 and use discount code BAOPHI (one word, case-sensitive) at checkout. You’ll get 25% off the purchase price, and even better, your book will be signed by the author himself.

Sȏng I Sing (Coffee House Press, 2011) - Cover Art by Binh Danh

You’ve recorded several spoken-word CDs, and you’ve been performing your poems live for decades. Did it feel different to prepare for publication in book format?

Bao Phi: Definitely. Any time you are dealing with anything that records your work, whether it be through audio, video, or the written word, it feels very permanent. When I perform live, I have the freedom to improvise, and any mistakes I make live and die in that moment. But once your work gets recorded – your flaws, your mistakes, are there forever, for anyone to see. It’s kind of nerve-wracking.

How did you go about selecting specific poems for the book? What was your thought process as you arranged the book’s four different sections and the overall progression from beginning to end?

BP: It was actually a process and a give-and-take with the editors, primarily Chris Fischbach at Coffee House, as well as my partner Juliana Hu Pegues and one of my mentors, David Mura. I knew for sure that I wanted to have at least two sections: the Nguyễns section and everything else. Juliana and David sat down together with a stack of my poems, read through and sorted them, then made a suggestion. Those two really kicked my ass to get this done. When Coffee House first asked to see my manuscript, I was hesitant because I didn’t think I would get published, thought they would reject me. Juliana and David basically made me hand over a stack of poems and made a suggestion about the sections, and the order. And I made some changes, and then it’s been a back and forth with Chris and I. Originally the first short section was autobiographical, then it went to the Nguyễns, then to my older spoken word stuff, then ended with what David and Juliana considered to be my strongest poems. Chris advised me to make the first section into a short section that represented my voice and my world-view the most, which I ended up doing.

Refugeography Disc 1 (2002) - Artwork by Chamindika Wanduragala

What is the meaning of the title Sông I Sing?

BP: It’s supposed to have a double meaning. So it can be song I sing, if you’re reading it in English. But sông means “river” in Vietnamese, so it can also mean river I sing. But really, it’s supposed to be both at the same time. That rivers are songs and songs are rivers, and we sing them and they sing us.

The opening poem of your book is entitled “For Us” and serves as a kind of dedication. Other poems throughout appear to address specific individuals or groups—from Gwen Stefani and John McCain to the University of Florida’s Delta Tau Delta fraternity. What readers or audiences do you ultimately hope to reach?

BP: Ultimately, at my core, I write for an Asian American audience in mind. And from that core, radiates the hope that my poems are in conversation with other communities of color, indigenous communities, LGBTT communities, working people, and then to a certain degree anyone who has some level of engagement or dialogue with Asian American communities. Really, what I hope to do is challenge this idea that Asians are monolithic – the idea that there is only one or two voices that represent the multitudes of us is silly. And yet that’s often what happens to those of us on the margins.

The second section of the book focuses on “The Nguyễns”. Who are they? What do they represent?

BP: They are all fictional characters – I’ve been concentrating on writing persona poems. This goes back to challenging the idea that Asians are monolithic. I mean, just look at our own Vietnamese American community. The only thing people can really see about us is the war, and the tragic Miss Saigon narrative. But we’re also artists, community leaders, soccer players, parents. We’re musicians, crooks, scientists, slackers. I wanted to challenge myself by creating Vietnamese characters outside of the dominant narrative forced upon us by the majority, through the art of performance poetry.

The Nguyễns EP
The Nguyễns EP (2008)

You write in English, but you use a handful of Vietnamese words and phrases in your poems. Why and when do you feel it’s important to incorporate Vietnamese language into your work?

BP: It’s important for me to use Việt in my poems, but it has to be natural and make sense. I forced myself to write a poem all in Vietnamese once and it was pretty terrible. It’s also not my reality. I was the youngest of a large refugee family – I was like 5 months old when my family fled Saigon. I grew up in a bilingual household – though admittedly my Việt language speaking skills have pogo’d up and down throughout my life. So there’s this tension, that Việt is an important part of who I am and yet I’m not nearly as fluent and skilled as I’d like to be. Part of using a little Việt here and there in my poems serves a couple of purposes: it signifies to my fellow Việts, and it also challenges me to keep up on my Việt language skills and, hopefully, improve them as I move forward.

A few of your pieces mention the arc of your own career as a poet or satirize certain elements of the poetry world. How do you see yourself in relation to “poetry”? Why do you choose poems as a medium of communication?

BP: When I was younger, I wrote poems because it was cheap. I was a refugee kid growing up in the hood in Minneapolis, and I had a lot to try and figure out. Poetry was a way to explore, and express, that didn’t require much beyond a pen and a pad. Now, I choose to continue with poetry because it’s a fluid medium. It can take many forms and many voices, yet it still can contain the urgency, and brevity, of the moment. In terms of how I fit into the poetry world, I don’t know. I mean, I know why I do what I do. But beyond that, it’s not for me to say.

Which poem in the collection was the most challenging for you to write? Why?

BP: There are actually quite a few that were challenging. Almost all of them, to tell you the truth. Poetry is not an easy medium. The challenge is, how do you communicate some things that you only understand in your heart and your gut? How do you communicate things that you don’t understand, in words? And how do you do that in a way that is poetic, and original, and true? Poetry is a rough business.

Bao Phi on stage
Bao Phi on stage - Photo by Michael Tran

Describe your writing process. How do you usually get started? What happens between the first draft and the finished product?

BP: Poems usually get sparked by an idea, a gut instinct. If that happens and I’m by a computer, I’ll email myself a note. More often than not, I get an idea while shopping or eating, so I’ll scribble a note down on whatever’s nearby – takeout menus, receipts, napkins. And sometimes these lines and notes take form, and I sit down and write a draft. And sometimes that goes somewhere, and then begins the editing process – outlines, ideas, free writes, cuts and edits. And sometimes it just becomes junk in a folder, and it lays there either forever or if I come back across an idea or feeling.

In some of your more recent essays and articles, you’ve discussed how becoming a parent has changed or intensified your perspective on political issues like Fong Lee’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer. How has parenthood influenced your poetry or your work as a poet?

BP: There’s more at stake. Like most parents, I want our daughter to have an easier life than the one I had. But the world’s a mess. Our lives are a mess. How do you explain such injustices to your daughter? How do you prepare her for racism, sexism, classism, homophobia? I’ve always asked these questions, but once you have a kid it intensifies.

You recently coordinated the 2011 APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit in the Twin Cities. How did it go? Can you share a highlight or two?

BP: It was great – draining, but great. Really, it was just wonderful to see everyone together. Back when the Summit first started, most APIA poets were used to being the only Asian and/or PI in their poetry scene. Like the token, or the guest. We never knew if we were around because people really found value in our work or if we fulfilled some invisible, and sometimes not so invisible, exotic quota. But the first Summit brought us all together, and for all its flaws I think the most beautiful thing it does is center APIA artists and community. The Twin Cities Summit was no exception: being the center, and creating the center, is a powerful and beautiful thing.

What are you working on next?

BP: A sci-fi short story about two Vietnamese Americans surviving forced internment after a zombie apocalypse. Yep, seriously. Beyond that, I’m trying to write new poems, and still working here in Minneapolis as a community organizer, creating dialogue between and among communities of color through the art of spoken word.

Bao Phi Community
Bao Phi & friends - Photo by Wing Young Huie


Kim-An Lieberman hails mostly from Seattle and holds a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Vietnamese American literature, from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Breaking the Map: Poems. More info at her website.

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