The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #115: Bao Phi

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Minneapolis has a life of its own in Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel. It appears in nearly every poem—crumbling in some places, lively in others—and its richly described infrastructure houses Phi’s unflinching examination of race, class, and immigration in urban America.

Phi, also the author of 2011’s Sông I Sing, lives in Minneapolis, where he is program director at the Loft Literary Center. A spoken word poet, Phi is a multiple-time Minnesota Grand Slam poetry champion and National poetry slam finalist.

Thousand Star Hotel feels bracing and true. Phi’s voice is as electric in print as on the stage, coupling precise imagery with a surprising frankness. Reading and rereading his work, I learned that distinctions between place and witness are quickly dissolved. Phi is a spoken word artist. Yet, for him, the voice and the page are inextricable. His city is both a setting and a character, and place is inseparable from the people whose lives shape it. A way of knowing the world and its objects in Phi’s work is dependent on your way of seeing. “Pass every streetlight,” he writes, “without your glasses they look so much like stars.”

Phi and I corresponded via email in mid-July.

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The Rumpus: Viet Thanh Nguyen writes that ​Thousand Star Hotel ​is, in part, a book about both “the inner city and the inner self.” Yet the title poem brings readers into a different space: rural Vietnam in 1996. What’s the significance of this poem in a text so otherwise focused on an urban landscape? Is there interplay between urban and rural in this text?

Bao Phi: Honestly, it wasn’t intentional. The memory of being in that rural space, at that time, has stayed with me for many years. That particular poem has undergone numerous revisions. It took a long time for me to figure out what I had to say about it that was worthwhile.

When I was much younger, I remember my parents being friends with farmers in Minnesota. We would hop in the conversion van with the hoary orange shag carpet interior and drive out to the countryside. We’d ride horses, buy fresh produce and sometimes meat, and learn about farming in America. Once, a couple of farmers came to our house for dinner. They dressed up, in suits and the whole nine, and my father showed them what a VCR was and how it worked. Which is funny, since we were this family of poor refugees living in the hood.

Rumpus: So the divide between urban and rural is indistinct and sometimes blurred. The language you use to describe place, in general, centers on the city’s materiality. Words such as, concrete, asphalt, glass, and highway reappear throughout the book. What is the role of the city’s physical makeup—its streets and infrastructure—in your poetry?

Phi: Maybe it’s because the cities I’ve been to, no matter what their character, seem to have a life and a soul themselves? And sometimes they rhyme. When I studied abroad in Vietnam, I remember riding a bike at night, in the rain, through the streets. It felt very much like Duluth, when I walked down the foggy evening streets with my friends, lit by hazy streetlights in front of me. Maybe it’s just the poet in me, that looks for love and meaning everywhere and in everything? Wow, I feel self-conscious admitting that. Sometimes a bridge is just a bridge.

Rumpus: How would you characterize the life and soul of your city, Minneapolis?

Phi: When I think of this city, I think of fierce activists and artists from all walks of life—straight white folks, sure, but tons and tons of people of color and indigenous, queer, women, people with disabilities; intersections of all of those identities. Yet I think the national perception of us is as flyover country—a bunch of small town, backwards people who are stupid and fake nice. Honestly, if that’s what people believe, fuck them. That’s not the Minneapolis I know. We are not a utopia, far from it. But there are so many lovely, powerful aspects of this city that go unrecognized and erased.

Rumpus: I also think of Minneapolis as an activist city, in a certain sense, and one with a multitude of identities.

Though you embrace this activist energy, you often use adjectives that connote brokenness when you write about the city. Glass is cracked, highways are crumbling. Even people are described as “smoking and threadbare.” I was drawn to a moment in “Go to Where the Love Is” in which you write, “a hurricane never grows tired. / It destroys until it doesn’t.” How does the idea of destruction shape your thinking about the city? About language?

Phi: Well my family and I are direct survivors of war in our lifetime. It’s funny that you mention it because I don’t think I realize to the extent such imagery is in my work. To be honest, my upbringing was rough. But there were beautiful moments, too. Pushing the furniture together in the living room and putting sheets up to make a fort. Laughter and good food. My dad singing songs in Vietnamese. My mom reciting Vietnamese poetry at community events. But maybe my work is just haunted by war; not just the war we fled from, but also the many small wars we faced as refugees in the United States, as outsiders who had the face and skin color of “the enemy.”

Rumpus: And yet there’s also construction—as you say, building a fort, building communities, building worlds with language. The speaker of your poems often carries his own tool of destruction: a light saber, represented in play by a flashlight. Can you talk about the ​Star Wars ​references in these poems? How do they help contextualize heroism? Violence? Fatherhood?

Phi: I’ve gravitated towards nerd shit from jump—Star Wars, my older sister’s hand-me-down Elfquest and X-men comics, Greek mythology and Arthurian legends. Lots of geek white male power fantasies. It was escapism in my younger days, I suppose. But who doesn’t fantasize about having the power to smite your bullies, the ability to defend your loved ones, should the evil and wicked come knocking? We had, after all, survived war and experienced such things first hand. As I get older, and as I turn more to therapy, I question more and more those power fantasies. I deconstruct them a bit in the Zombie Triptych poems.

Rumpus: And is there something about the ‘nerd shit’ flavor of those power fantasies that makes them more appealing to the young speaker? Like, are the fantastical and noble qualities of Star Wars and Elfquest (which I admit I had to look up), in themselves antidotal, for a child, to a very real sense of violence in the world?

Phi: For one, the sense of good and evil is very binary. It’s easy to understand. However, in Greek mythology, which I was really into when I was young, everything seemed much more complicated. Lots of hubris, lots of flawed characters. But I think, you know, there are so many times in my life when I wish I had the power to destroy anyone who would threaten or seek to humiliate the people I love. When you were a small, shy, awkward kid like me, and you saw and experienced some of the things I did and you can do nothing, you’re going to gravitate to those comic books and fantasies where the nerd gets bit by a radioactive spider and can beat up the bad guys.

Rumpus: Violence is not always named in these poems, but its presence is felt. Words, rocks, toys, and histories all have the potential to hurt. How do you view your writing in relation to the violence and oppression you name in these poems? Is writing an act of exposing? Of countering? Of healing?

Phi: All of the above. Resistance, deconstruction, examination, admitting my own complicity.

Rumpus: In the opening poem, “Vocabulary,” you talk about the significance of finding language “to speak of the things / that haunt me the most.” What is the difference, for you, between poems on the page and poetry out loud?

Phi: I’ve been performing my poems to audiences since about 1992, as a part of my high school speech team. Poetry is poetry. My process is I try to write the best poem I can, in the best way to communicate whatever it is the poem is trying to communicate, and then I try to figure out the best way to present that poem to a live audience. It’s all craft, just different stages of craft.

Rumpus: Something I’ve always admired about slam poetry is that slam performances are interactive. Listeners are invited to vocalize affirmation and understanding, and the often internal process of reading a poem is made into a community experience. You write about police brutality, war, historical erasure of marginalized peoples, and a distinctly American expectation that immigrants express gratitude for being here, even when that being is defined by violence. Slam poetry has always played a role in uplifting and supporting communities; is that particularly relevant in our current political climate?

Phi: It’s always been relevant, to paraphrase Viet Thanh Nguyen. Spoken word, slam, whatever you want to call it, has always been relevant because it’s an art, a tool, a platform that has been accessible to those of us who have been marginalized. There is no one who can stop you; you find a mic, a crowd, a set of ears, and nowadays, a camera and YouTube, and you recite your poem. You have your say. I don’t want to over-romanticize it: of course, any time an art form ascends, especially when competition is involved, there will be gatekeeping, chauvinism, and other unfortunate dynamics. But the beauty of spoken word and performance poetry is, by and large, its ability to reach people in the moment—right there, right then.

Rumpus: Your poetry definitely seems invested in forming those relationships and connections, especially among families. You’re a father, and you write about wanting to protect your daughter from racism, violence, and “the plastic worlds” young children are invited into. What kind of poetic space does childhood represent for you?

Phi: Childhood is as contradictory and painful an experience as any during a human lifetime. I think we have a tendency to make sense of things in binaries: are children innocent or not? Are children inherently mean or did they learn that from adults? Who is to blame? In poetry, I tried to write about all of it without flinching, without trying to swing the poems towards one end of an ideological continuum or another. Kids are fucked up and endure fucked up things. Parents are terrible and doing the best they can. I tried to write about all of it, without romanticizing or demonizing children or, for that matter, their parents.

Rumpus: That’s something you seem to be able to do deftly in your work—meditate on the problematic aspects of all kinds of relationships and binaries without reducing them to a single truth. You’re also able to turn a critical lens on yourself. Does this come naturally to you during the writing process? Is it something that you add or notice during revision?

Phi: All of the above. Sometimes a poem starts because I feel the urge to write about something from which I carry a great deal of shame, and I try to sketch out in writing how I am complicit in whatever dynamic it is I am illuminating. And sometimes it comes later, when I step back and challenge myself—am I being honest here?

Rumpus: The three sections of Thousand Star Hotel ​are formally consistent, though the final section contains two adjacent prose poems. To me, there is something poignant about ending with the two prose poems, as they suggest an enhanced presence of your voice on the page. How would you describe the interplay between the three sections of the book, and the evolution of the strong sense of self that emerges in this final section?

Phi: I knew I wanted to end strong, and I knew that “Refugerequiem” would be the poem to end the book, just because it encapsulates so many of the fears and the joys, the love and the frustrations, the nihilism and the survival that dogged me through the years I worked on this manuscript. I also wanted to stack the more hopeful poems I have nearer towards the end, because counter to my pessimistic personality, I want my work to end with at least some threads of hope. The beginning is an assertion of Vietnamese people and heritage: whether I am a failure of a Vietnamese person or not, I am one. The middle section is a lot of exploring, writing towards what I fear, what I don’t understand, it’s like a map in reverse: erasing the destinations as I journey towards them.

Rumpus: Lights are everywhere in ​Thousand Star Hotel​: streetlights, lightsabers, flashlights, fiber-optic cables. What does light signify for you?

Phi: Many contradictory things. Getting the lights turned off either meant some natural disaster or you were poor and didn’t pay the bill. The title, Thousand Star Hotel, is a sly Vietnamese joke that suggests thousands of beautiful stars are available in the night sky to each and every one of us, whether we can afford to stay in a four star hotel or not. The lights in a city can be illuminating and comforting, or if they are police lights, fear and oppression.

Nothing is ever one thing.

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Author photograph @ Thaiphy Phan-Quang.


KB Kinkel teaches literature and creative writing at Worcester Academy and holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Their poetry and writing have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Prelude, and elsewhere. They tweet, infrequently, @kb_kinkel. More from this author →