Bao Phi was almost at a loss for words – and that’s rare for the acclaimed Minneapolis poet. Last week, the Loft Literary Center received a $150,000 grant to sustain and expand its spoken-word poetry programming, which Phi oversees. “We’re just really happy,” he said. “It’s a huge relief.” The money, awarded by the Surdna Foundation of New York, comes at a critical time for Phi’s decade-old spoken word showcase, Equilibrium (called EQ for short). The series, which books nationally-known poets of color, has been a vibrant and reliable space for spoken word in the Twin Cities. But with a tough economy, grant money has been tough to come by.

“Before we got the news, I was a little bit nervous that our time was up at EQ,” Phi said. “Part of me was trying to come up with a Plan B.”

In recent years, much of EQ’s budget has come out of the Loft’s general operating costs. “To their credit they didn’t cut the program, even through the thin times,” Phi said.

The Surdna grant will fund EQ for the next two years, with four shows annually. It will be a welcomed return to regular programming. Less funding meant fewer shows during the past couple years.

Part of the $150,000 grant will go toward a new, ambitious spoken word immersion fellowship. Phi called the fellowships an effort to deepen the Loft’s poetry programming. The fellowships will be awarded to six to eight artists who will immerse themselves in a community (such as a Native American reservation) and design a project built around engaging that community in spoken word. The goal, the Loft says, is to “buy artists time to work, to advance and catalyze their artistic development, and to increase exposure to the art of spoken word.” Each fellow can apply for up to $8,000 (the fellowships will be open to national artists, as well). Phi will coach them through the year of their immersion and then co-curate an EQ show.

I wrote about EQ back in 2007, on the cusp of its 5th anniversary. At the time, I asked Phi if he thought the program would last another five years.

“I hope so,” he said.

EQ’s next show will be in September, exactly 10 years from its debut in 2002.

For more information on EQ, read here. For more info on Phi, check out the Star Tribune's recent Best of Minnesota edition, in which he was named "Best Spoken Word Artist."

(Photo by Charissa Uemura)

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