Poet and spoken word artist Bao Phi speaks with a mighty voice when he’s onstage. In person, however, he keeps things more modest.
The two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion spoke with a hesitant but thoughtful lilt during a recent interview. And he wore simple black square-frame glasses, enhancing a series of pensive expressions as he discussed racism, work and his family.
Born in Vietnam in 1975, Phi was just 3 months old when his parents and five older siblings fled Saigon and the Vietnam War — it was a traumatic experience, for his parents especially, which informs much of the writer’s work. Once in the United States, the family settled in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. Phi graduated from South High School and later Macalester College in St. Paul with a degree in English.
He built his reputation as a spoken word artist in the 1990s but published his first book just six years ago. That poetry collection — “Sông I Sing,” released in 2011 following the birth of his daughter — explored the varied experiences of Asian-Americans and wrestled with the politicization of the Vietnam War.
Phi kicked off a busy summer of publishing with the July release of his follow-up book, a collection called “Thousand Star Hotel,” filled with poems about his personal life and loved ones. And his first illustrated children’s book, “A Different Pond,” was released Aug. 1.
When he’s not writing, Phi balances parenting with his duties as program director at the Loft Literary Center, where he recently sat down with the Star Tribune. The conservation has been lightly edited.
Q: Tell me when you started writing poetry.
A: Ever since I was young, maybe fourth or fifth grade, I was writing stories. Most of the time they had to do with fantasy, like Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons. But poetry, especially the way I’m doing it now, can be traced to my sophomore or junior year of high school.
I went to South High and joined speech team, and there were all these issues around me I couldn’t ignore. Around that time, there was this anti-racist group and protests against the [1990-91] Persian Gulf War. And I, as a young person, was trying to figure out being involved.
I was interested in theater, but I didn’t have a whole lot of time to act. I wasn’t a rapper or musician.
But performance poetry made sense because it was accessible. I think the genesis of a lot of it was speech team.
Q: Did your racial identity influence your early work?
A: Absolutely. I was raised in the same neighborhood where the American Indian Movement started and was learning about the Black Panthers … but I’m this Vietnamese kid. And I’m like, how do I fit into the big scheme of things? I did not understand how the history of my people was a part of the American fabric. The way we are racialized is we are always “foreign” and “other.” But people see the relative success of Asia and conflate us into that. That’s not even getting into how a Vietnamese refugee is different from an Indian on an H-1B visa. We have no control over how we’re seen, and we are basically erased and viewed through the lens of someone else.
I don’t think we have it harder than other people, but I think different groups are marginalized due to different confluences. I think in Minnesota, in particular, we were the first Southeast Asian populations to arrive. That has an effect on why we’re viewed differently than on the coasts. The Hmong, Vietnamese and Cambodians are associated with a very painful war. We’re criminalized through the lens of war. And that might be different from the experiences of Chinese, Japanese or Indian people on the West Coast.
Q: How do you as a creative know what to share? And when you’ve crossed the line of being too personal?
A: If it’s just me, and I’m making myself look bad, anything goes. It gets tricky when I talk about other people’s stuff and I sit and I ask myself: Do I have the right to talk about this? Am I acting with integrity and presenting myself with integrity?
I have this piece about cross-racial hostility that I’ve witnessed between people of color. And I haven’t figured out a way to write it that isn’t pouring gasoline on a fire. If I am putting something out in the world, I need to do it in a way that’s about healing. As artists, it can be difficult. It’s a constant negotiation.
Q: Has your work changed as you’ve gained experience?
A: I think my newest book is much more personal. I started writing a lot of stuff that was heavily influenced by rhetoric, polemics, positions and stances on social justice issues. Nothing wrong with that, obviously. But becoming a father and going through a transformation — it pushed me into the realm of the personal. I’ve always been a writer who tries to trust his instinct. And my instinct told me to go here.
Q: All of your work so far has been poetry. How did you decide to do a children’s book?
A: We read to my daughter every night. So I’ve always been invested in the idea of diversity in children’s literature. Not just Asian-Americans, but also just different people and cultures and perspectives because the world isn’t monochromatic.
A lot of people encouraged me to write [a children’s book]. Then I wrote a poem about fishing with my dad, and I thought maybe I can adapt this. I also wrote a review of another children’s book by coincidence, and the publisher of that book wrote to me and said: “That’s a great review; do you write children’s literature?” And I said, “Actually, I have this brand-new manuscript.” So we met a couple of times and they bought it six months later. That was the process. And I trusted [illustrator] Thi Bui. I was just like, “I’m excited, now do your thing.”
Q: When you were younger, did you have mentors in the Twin Cities?
A: I’ve had great English teachers throughout the Minneapolis Public Schools system. At Macalester, a Native American professor named Diane Glancy was my mentor. I’d been writing already, but I didn’t know you could take classes on writing.
Diego Vasquez Jr. — a writer who really shaped Minnesota Poetry Slam back in the late ’90s — he mentored me as well. And [Minneapolis author and poet] David Mura. He just is a very generous person who tries to help young artists, particularly Asian-American writers.
Q: Writers of color are getting more attention. What do you think is the biggest misconception about their work?
A: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sherman Alexie, Claudia Rankine. These are all writers I like and respect a lot. But the problem is that every racial group and gender gets only one representative. And what people need to be doing is reading many different perspectives and voices and genres of writers of color. And that’s women of color, that’s queer people of color. People need to not tokenize us.
Q: What is it about Minneapolis that keeps you here rather than leaving for a bigger city such as New York?
A: What I love about the Twin Cities is there’s a tremendous amount of talent, but not a lot of ego-tripping. I appreciate there’s not a lot of snobbery here. The community is really supportive and smart and engaged, in a way that’s not so cutthroat.