“A Song That Is a Storm”: An Interview with Spoken Word Artist Bao PhiNEWS, News Left, PEOPLE, SLIDER Friday, October 12th, 2012
By Gina Chung
Two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and National Poetry Slam finalist Bao Phi wears many hats; he has performed throughout the country, appeared on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and is also a community organizer and a program director at the Loft Literary Center. His first book, Sông I Sing, was published by Coffee House Press in 2011. Sông I Sing is a powerful collection of poems covering topics such as war, racial profiling, and the racial dynamics within pop culture. His poem “Reverse Racism” is an impeccably executed examination of contemporary racial politics in the United States, while “Dear Senator McCain,” a response to John McCain’s infamous comment about his hatred for “gooks,” explores stereotypes about Asians with a frankness that is both laugh-out-loud funny and devastating (Two standout lines: “I am indeed a gook, polished gold-yellow / at Yale” and “I am gook, / I ate your motherf***in cat”).
At the heart of the collection are the Nguyễn poems, a series created around fictional characters who all have the same last name: “not related / but…more related than any of them will ever know.” The cast of characters is a dazzling and diverse one. In “Love Angel Music Baby” Bao discusses Gwen Stefani’s uncomfortable “Harajuku girl” obsession by writing in the voice of young fangirl Cathy, and “Prince among Men” follows Quincy, who finds freedom and self-expression as a Prince impersonator.
How did you get involved with poetry, and with spoken word in particular?
I was a refugee from Vietnam from a poor family. I was born right before the Fall of Saigon, and we came to Minneapolis, and I was raised in the largest, poorest, and most racially diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis, and when I came of age during high school, coming from that environment, I was trying to make sense of all these different things happening around me. You had crack cocaine, police brutality, gang violence, the deterioration of urban inner cities, trickle-down economics, the Persian Gulf War… And there was stuff like hip-hop and a renewed interest in the Black Panthers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and also poetry that came out of that era. That would be Gil Scott-Heron, and Ntozake Shange, the Last Poets. And there were also poets of color like Quincy Troupe, Alvin Eng, Li-Young Lee, Nellie Wong – all of these folks were part of my development in a way.
I feel like as a young man of color, in an urban, poor neighborhood, trying to make sense of all this stuff, I gravitated towards poetry because I had always been interested in art. I’d been interested in poetry, in fiction especially, and theater. And when I started doing this thing, performance plus poetry, I started competing on speech team in high school, and it kind of just, it all went from there. So, I can’t say it’s any one thing – I believe it was a collision of all of these different things.
How does humor play a role in your work, and how do you think humor can be used to combat racism and prejudice?
I have to say that I would give props to Sherman Alexie, because when I was a freshman, my freshman seminar was Native American Literature, and my mentor Diane Glancy, who’s also a Native American writer, told me about this young Native American poet who was coming up, Sherman Alexie. She was like, “You should go to his readings.” So I went, and First Indian on the Moon had just come out, and it struck me that Sherman Alexie was very funny, but he was able to talk about some very serious subjects with humor. To me, it was kind of a wake-up call because it showed me the strategic effectiveness of humor, but it also made me think on a personal level – you know, I don’t want to be the guy who’s angry all the time. I’m a person who likes to laugh. I’m a person who likes to joke. Just for those of us trying to make sense of stuff, for our own psychological well-being [laughing] – it’s really important, to be able to laugh and have some humor.
What does activism mean to you, and would you say that you continue to be an activist when you’re writing or performing your poetry?
It’s really hard to say. I’ve always kind of resisted the word “activist.” I’ve always considered myself more of a community organizer. I feel like that’s closer to what I do. I’m in the community, I try to organize within the community, and I try to think of ways that I can, within my capacity, create positive change. I feel like poetry is a platform through which people listen to me. Poetry has given me an opportunity to reach a lot of people, and that’s part of my activism.
In “The Nguyễn Twins,” you discuss different kinds of accolades in the poetry world. The brother goes on Def Poetry Jam, while the sister is part of the world of literary journals and academia. Do you think that poets of color are often pigeonholed into one of these two categories, and is that something you’ve experienced yourself?
That poem in particular was me attempting to address the duality. I do believe that for right or wrong (I think mostly wrong), that there is a dichotomy. It shouldn’t be this way, but there is a dichotomy where people look down on spoken word or look down on what people consider academic poetry. And a lot of that is informed by things like race, class, gender. I think that that poem in particular was me trying to address that duality, but in a way that was poking fun at both sides. It was important for me that the two characters were twins, because even though they are a part of both worlds, they’re still part of the same family. I think that there’s advantages and disadvantages to everything. I feel like I have my toes dipped in both worlds myself, and I think about this a lot, especially now that I have a book out.
How do you think the model minority stereotype applies to Asian Americans in the literature and poetry world? And how do you think the model minority stereotype might be more harmful for Asian Americans than more explicitly virulent stereotypes have been in the past?
I think in all spheres, in the American discussion on identity, there’s always pressure for Asian Americans to conform to something, one way or another. The model minority, racially, plays absolutely into our pressures to conform. Asian Americans are either expected to go through the gatekeepers and become this “safe ethnic writer,” where you talk about how oppressive your Asia is, or, in spoken word, you’re expected to be this angry person, but you’re not necessarily expected to talk about race in terms of Asian American community. When you’re talking about Asian oppressive regimes, that’s the model minority stereotype very directly – the implicit understanding is, “Well, we have it better here as Asian Americans, even if we’re Asians.” But I think, going the other way, it becomes a model minority stereotype in which you’re on the left where you’re talking about all these things, but you don’t talk about Asian American politics, because you’re “the good Asian.” You don’t talk about yourself and your own community because you’re the exceptional lefty who’s down with everybody.
And I feel like in both scenes, they’re okay with one or two of us. But in terms of all of us doing well as a community or looking towards community empowerment and self-empowerment, I think that that idea is still very much, kind of a foreign idea. [Laughing] Pun intended. A lot of people are like, “Well, we’ve progressed beyond race,” and I really disagree with that, especially when it comes to Asian Americans, because I feel like we never had these conversations.
I also think that the model minority stereotype creates a culture of silence in which people feel like they can’t talk about cases that aren’t exceptional in a positive way, as in the case of Fong Lee, which you discuss in your poem “8 (9).”
That was absolutely a case of racial profiling for a young Asian man. But I felt like a lot of Asian leftists didn’t pick up on the case because they felt like it was an exceptional case. That’s another way that it hurts, that people don’t see that actually we have to deal with racism, and I feel like people internalize that.
But, if you actually dig, I have friends in Michigan, who were like, “You know, there was a young Hmong American man, Chonburi Xiong, who got even less attention than Fong Lee, who was similarly racially profiled and killed by police.” Even though we keep finding these examples of Asian Americans being racially profiled the way other young men of color do, somehow people don’t take it seriously because they just think it’s not a big issue for us. For whatever reason, this model minority thing becomes so deep, and internalized, that we don’t take our own issues very seriously.
Along those lines, and in relation to your poem “For Colored Boys in Danger Of…,” how would you explain the mainstream media’s silence on cases in which men of color are targeted? I feel like the opposite is true for women of color, where it’s actually just as oppressive in that it’s pretty much always talking about victimization.
I guess our dialogue is still very fiercely gendered. I want to be very careful here. I would in no way ever suggest that women have it easier than men. But I think that you are on to something in terms of how the discussion on how these types of things is very much racialized and gendered. It’s almost like, in order to have a meaningful dialogue about people who suffer, you have to make them a victim before they’re sympathetic. In a way, because we’re kind of used to seeing women as victims, especially among the left, it’s almost like a lot of that conversation can happen. Whereas I feel like, with men, we should have these discussions whether the women or the men are victims or not. Even with the Fong Lee case, they keep alleging that Fong Lee was in a gang. Even if he was in a gang, so what? Even if he was in a gang, he shouldn’t have been shot and killed by this police officer. But I feel like the way that we talk about it, it kind of insists on this victimization before we can have sympathy. And I feel like that’s very gendered, and that’s very racialized.
I saw that you recently contributed to the Shattered exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America. How was the experience of creating a comic character different from creating a character in one of your fictional poems? Could you tell us a bit about your character?
The two characters I created for Shattered are a Vietnamese American man and a Vietnamese American woman. With fiction you have a lot more room. You can take your time, whereas poetry is all about brevity. It’s all about compacting a lot of images and story into one line. So one line can carry three or four pages of prose. With poetry, sometimes you kind of tease that thing, but then basically that’s all you got. You can tease, and you can hope that people make the leap, but you have to take your chances. Whereas, creating the comic book character, which was based on a short story… I get to keep going. There’s more room; I get to play and create and flesh out the character more.
So do you think you’ll be doing any fiction or prose writing anytime soon?
Well, that short story, I’m actually toying with it and trying to turn it into a full-length novel. It’s a Vietnamese American post-apocalyptic zombie short story. So, we’ll see.
Short URL: http://www.ourchinatown.org/?p=12502