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Behind the Lines: An Interview with Bao Phi

Posted on Tue, Jul 11 2017 9:30 am by Irene Hsu


Editor's Note: Bao Phi is the author of Thousand Star Hotel, a collection of poems published by Coffeehouse Press earlier this month. The collection is bold in its language for experiences that oscillate between existence and erasure, and it is moving in its mission to challenge the boundaries of solidarity and to refuse neat conceptions of past, present and future. I was grateful to have the chance to speak with Bao about his newest collection, which uses verse to parse through his childhood in the Philips neighborhood of Minneapolis, the complexities of fatherhood in contemporary America, and the politics of Asian America. In addition, Bao is also the author of Sông I Sing (2011), a long-time slam poet, the Loft Literary Center's Program Director, as well as a single co-parent of a seven-year-old daughter. His first children's book, illustrated by Thi Bui, is forthcoming through Capstone Press in fall 2017.

Please join us for Bao's launch event for Thousand Star Hotel tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7 p.m. at the Loft! Event details and registration here.

Irene Hsu: I want to start with the title poem, “Thousand Star Hotel,” from the collection. This poem is about being awake to the infinity, fluidity and generosity already present. But there is also conscious projection going on in the poem. The poem starts out with a cultural joke in response to commercial hotel rating, then moves on to you "fronting" in the Vietnam countryside, then settles on a retrospective, "What I should have done" that begins a hypothetical study of infinitude. Can you talk more about the tension between reality and hypotheticals in your collection?

Bao Phi: What I’m trying to do is embrace the idea that multiple truths that are contradictory can occur at the same time. In my earlier years, I approached a lot of my poems as these straight arrows. It was very much about control and I think that control was a reaction to feeling like I had so little control over how people perceived me because of my race, my class, my gender. The things that I’ve gone through during the second manuscript—the birth of my child, the break-up between me and her mother, going to therapy and really embracing that, revisiting a lot of my upbringing, which I didn’t address in my earlier years—there’s no way to look at all of that stuff if I had the same desire for control.

For instance, were my parents supportive of my art and my identity? Every instance I could think of would be contradicted by something else. For instance, my parents were very proud of being Vietnamese, and they hated that the kids were not Vietnamese enough. But I also remember my dad telling me to tell other people that we were Chinese, because he felt like Americans hated Vietnamese people because of the war. Those are both true. But they don’t answer the question.

So for me, the new poems are not about finding one answer to questions anymore. The new work is really writing toward the mess, and I don’t expect neatness.

IH: I remember in one of your interviews that you mentioned your direct and extended family were really open to talking about their experiences. Was there a conversation going on with them about memories that you’re unearthing for these poems?

BP: I never sat down and said, I would like to interview you about this, because I wasn’t writing a memoir, non-fiction—I wanted to stay true to my memories of my experiences and I wanted to be very careful, because this is my family that we’re talking about. I tried to be pretty transparent within the body of the poem about what I don’t know. My technique was to be as true to that as possible.

IH: I’m curious what you see as the difference between writing a memoir, writing non-fction, writing poetry—and what you mention about creative writing, as a way of writing history for people who are left out of history books.

BP: If I wrote a memoir and I had this memory that was intense, but I wasn’t sure about—I feel like it would be an imperative to sit down and get that correct. At least in terms of the traditional memoir. I feel like with poetry, I can be very honest that this is my memory of what happened. I didn’t feel like I needed to fill in any gaps. Whereas I feel like with a traditional non-fiction book, you would need to do that.

That being said, I’m toying with the idea of writing a memoir that’s different—that’s not linear from A to B—but a memoir in verse. It just seemed to me, that was the organic direction my writing was going. It feels very natural. And I think as I get older and older, and the idea of my mortality feels more and more inevitable, there is an urge to record as much of my experience that feels relevant. I remember what I remember for a reason, and I don’t need to be a documentarian in the strictest sense. I still want to write with integrity, but it’s a different process [than journalism] and a different area of concern.

IH: Memoir is such a strong genre in Asian American literature--I’m thinking of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, or lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and this idea of the “real” past being difficult to pinpoint.

BP: Yes, and I think there’s this tricky thing when it comes to people of color and memoir. On one hand, literary gatekeepers and literary arts people don’t have a lot of respect for memoirs and memoir-writers, who tend to be women, who tend to be people of color, because they’re like, “You’re just writing your story. You’re just coasting on content.” That’s just the perception. But at the same time, the other side of that is the burden. Because we’re Asian American people, there’s no history taught about us and we’re seen as inscrutable, so there’s almost like this pressure that we have to write memoir—or else everybody just thinks that we’re the person who works at Panda Express, you know what I mean? There’s no context for us. I feel like we have to deal with these dualities of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” all the time.

The fact that Asian Americans are almost completely excluded from the canon, the fact that an Asian American writer can go through an MFA program without having read a poem by another Asian American person, that’s deeply problematic. But there’s not a whole lot of valuing of Asian American history, even within our own people. We're not beholden to like Asian American writers just because they’re Asian American, but we need to at least know who they are, and their work, because they were writers during a time that was even more hostile to them, racially, than now. Without knowing and acknowledging that history, we're lost.

IH: I know there have been writers of marginalized identity who do write poetry, who do write memoir, but despise being seen as contributors to history, as representative of a history. How do you see that tension in Thousand Star Hotel?

BP: I resist the idea that any one voice can represent a whole group of people—of course I resist that. But I think it’s disingenuous to not acknowledge that that’s a possibility—that we will be seen as a representative. It doesn’t mean we kowtow to it, it doesn’t mean we cater to it, I think we just need to acknowledge that both dynamics exist. I think there is potential to play there—to give both dynamics the finger, and just write your ass off and do what you need to do.

As an Asian American writer, I try hard to avoid the trap of exceptionalism: the urge to position oneself as more radical, more intelligent, more "woke". than one's own people. We all have so much work to do. Rather than jockey for position, seeking out "work badges" or grandstanding about what a great "ally" one can be, I'm more interested in cross community solidarity, in transformative work that involves entire communities rather than one or two exceptional individuals.

IH: How do you conceive of audience when you write?

BP: For my first book, my answer was very simple. My audience was, one, Asian Americans. And then, number two, people of color who are not Asian. And then three, anyone who is willing to listen to an alternative perspective on Asian American community.

The second book, the audience I envision is anyone who is willing to listen to art that contradicts the myopic binary of who Asian American people are. Rather than audience, it’s more about intent. I felt like this book was a resistance to erasure. I’m not saying I wasn’t thinking about audience, but it was more like, this is my opposition to erasure. So this is for people who also see that erasure and support me, and people who don’t. People who want to hear about that erasure, they can get educated if they’re open-minded. People who know it and are just frustrated by it, maybe it’ll feel supportive to them to see an alternate voice. People who hate it--the book can be seen as me fighting. There was a definitely an audience. But this was my act. This was my act of resistance.

IH: Going back to the solidarity of the book, even when you’re talking about intent over audience, this seems to allow an audience that has the potential to expand, a growing contingent of people who are willing to support your project against erasure. That in itself strikes me as way of expanding the possibility of collectivity. I’m curious whether you have that in mind, and if so, whether that was something you had in mind from when you first started writing, when you first started performing slam in ‘92. How has it changed?

BP: I don’t know if I’ve changed so much as the atmosphere has changed. Back when I was in high school and on speech team, on what is now called spoken word, I felt very alone. Not just racially, but in terms of what I was writing about. But I didn’t necessarily enjoy that aloneness. As I grew and started taking this more seriously, I actually was interested in making the doorframe bigger. I wanted to bring in as many people as I could with me. Because when you are alone, that drives you insane. I wanted it to be more about making the room bigger, making the door bigger. I didn’t want to be on an island by myself, which is funny because I’m an introvert. But in terms of the politic, in terms of the community, I’ve never aspired to be a leader. I never wanted to be the voice. I’ve wanted to be one, among many. When I find other Asian American poets of color, other poets that I vibe with—that’s when I’m happiest.

IH: When did you start feeling less alone, as a writer, as a poet, as an activist?

BP: This was back in the day—I would meet other poets, poets and audience of color, women, queer folks, you know, other marginalized folks, and yeah, straight white males too. Something in my work reached them. And then I can remember slamming on the national level, meeting other Asian American poets who slammed was really empowering to me. This was before social media, before YouTube. You had to go out and meet someone. And there were ways in which, once we started getting booked to do gigs together, it was like a family reunion with everyone we’d met. And rappers too. That world of art has a lot of intersections, and it’s just really wonderful to be a part of it. It was really empowering.

IH: How has that changed over the years?

BP: Before, we were sending bootleg CDs and chapbooks out of our backpacks. If you liked someone you had to see them when they were in your town, and you had to actually go and buy something from them. Now it’s different. There is easier access to representation, but it still doesn’t feel complete. I think there’s something to be said about meeting someone in person at a show that you’ve done. Like having a sandwich with them, and just talking. Now, there tends to be more points of contact, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing.

IH: Can you remember the first time you felt like you weren't alone, and were participating in a conversation?

BP: Anytime anyone came up to me, and said, hey, I never thought about that before. Or, I wish someone had said something like that earlier. Or, I've never seen another Asian American get up and talk about race before. Anytime I was able to connect with someone like that, it felt like, maybe I’m doing something right.

IH: I’m curious about your role as a parent--and I know you’ve mentioned the collection came out a large part out of thinking about what you were passing on to your daughter. Did writing this collection affect your relationship with your daughter in any way?

BP: It’s more that my daughter has become such a large part of my life and who I am at my core, that of course, she occupies so much of my mental and emotional state. I know that our relationship has changed due to a lot of factors, due to of a break up, and for a while, long distance. Even though we’re still co-parents, the difficulty for both of us—not just me, but for her mother as well—the economic strain, the spatial strain, the emotional strain. The enormous amount of transition that our daughter has had to put up with. I don’t know if the work has changed our relationship. But I’ve had conversations with her about the things I write about—because you don’t want to shield your child from the horrors but you've got to find out a way to tell them about stuff that’s not terrifying.

IH: Do you see writing as a possible medium between the political truths that you know, and the process of your daughter coming to know about those truths?

BP: My relationship to my daughter is my relationship to my daughter. It’s the most intimate thing in my life. I can’t lie to her. I feel like the writing is more for me, and the world, right now, but that being said, it’ll be for her in the future. The stories she wants me to read to her at bedtime, they’re about magical cats that walk around and talk. But hopefully when she gets old enough to be curious the way that I was, when I was in high school, and learn about all these different communities of colors and their histories, then she'll actually have [my book].

So it’s more, hopefully, of a time capsule. There's little to no Asian American history in public schools. And that goes back to those of us writing from the margins about our history. Maybe she doesn’t specifically need my book of poems now. But someday she will.

IH: You were saying that you don’t see the book as necessarily changing the relationship to your daughter, and it’s not currently for her, but it’s a time capsule, but more of a document. Do you see that relationship also with the communities that you’ve represented and lived?

BP: The idea of community is so amorphous and I am also morphing and ever-changing. I guess I would hope it gives insight into why I am who I am.

For me, this is my life. This is what I’ve been through. Maybe other people who experienced something similar but have never seen their experiences reflected will derive something from it.

I guess it goes back to—it’s an act of resistance, but it’s not an act of resistance just to be contrary. It all comes from somewhere. Where that is—I hope that’s answered in the new book. 

Irene Hsu is a recent Minneapolis transplant from the Bay Area, where she spent most of her childhood and college years. She is a current Marketing & Communications Intern at the Loft, as well as an Editorial Intern at Graywolf Press. Her poetry has been recognized by the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Prize and has appeared in the Asian American Writer's Workshop's editorial platform, the Margins. She is currently working on a personal essay about studying literature in the Silicon Valley.