The first round was supposed to go better than this. It's the second week of March, and every seat in the backroom of Kieran's Irish Pub is filled for the Grand Slam, the Twin Cities' biggest poetry slam of the year. Thien-Bao Phi, last year's champion, takes the stage and stands before the microphone, his soft face framed by slicked-back black hair and a wispy goatee. He jerks his eyes open, swings his arms wide, and shouts the first lines of his poem "What's an Asian Man?": "OH MY GOD/I'm one of those.../ASIAN GUYS./So what am I doing reading poetry?"
At first the poem's self-parody earns scattered giggles from the crowd. But as Phi begins to rant against the stereotypes encountered by the Asian man, the crowd becomes silent. He clenches his eyes shut; a paper softly rattles in one hand as the fingers of his other hand point into the air, then back at his head. "I should stay quiet as they turn Tiananmen Square into a T-shirt/or Tibetan Buddhism into a white hipster concert," he intones. Phi caustically calls out every image of the Asian man: He steals cars or builds them; he downloads porn off the Internet or plans to buy Wall Street. Next Phi strips these characterizations away until only a painfully direct emotion remains. "I'm an Asian man in America so I hate the way you talk./I'm an Asian man in America so I hate the way you listen./I'm an Asian man in America so I hate the way you act./I'm an Asian man in America so I hate the way you love."
His poem will prove to be one of the most ambitious pieces of the night. It scores seventh out of 18, barely qualifying him for the second round.
Offstage the 24-year-old Phi speaks with a reserve that belies the vivid stage presence that made him a standout on Minnesota's inaugural slam team last year. His day job certainly doesn't call upon the same dynamic. When Phi's not working on his poetry, he manages a Pasqual's in Edina, driving out from the Phillips neighborhood where he lives and where he grew up.
When Phi was only a few months old, his family fled Saigon, where his father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army; they got out the day before the city fell in 1975. The Phis eventually moved to South Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood, where Bao lived with his parents, five older siblings, and the occasional relative or family friend. (Today his father works as a tailor and his mother runs a gift shop in Frogtown.)
After graduating from South High, Phi attended Macalester College in St. Paul, supported by a battery of scholarships. "I remember going to the financial aid office once," he says, "and somebody...looked at the amount of money my mom made, and who she was supporting with that money, and said she thought I was the poorest Macalester student she'd ever seen." Phi had expected to find a thriving pan-Asian student community at Mac and a culture that spoke to the political and social concerns of Asian Americans. Instead, Phi says, he found that many Asian students preferred not to identify themselves by race, including one woman who was apparently angered at having been invited to an Asian Student Association meeting. "She was talking about how she had friends of all colors and she didn't need to consider herself Asian," Phi says. "I think that kind of set the tone for my four years at Mac."
As Phi found himself dissatisfied with the racial discourse at Macalester, he began to address these issues even more insistently in his poetry. Phi had been performing poetry since the age of 16 at open mics in local coffee shops, and even on his high school speech team. By the time he arrived at Macalester, his work was already beginning to attract local attention. Diane Glancy, an English professor who worked extensively with Phi until he graduated with honors in 1997, says that during his honors project presentation, "the room upstairs where he read was just filled with people. It was amazing. He had a following even when he was at Macalester."
Today Phi's foremost goal is to provoke discussion among Asians and other people of color. It's an objective he takes seriously enough that he now tries not to worry about the reactions of white audience members. The politics of guessing at their responses are just too confusing to be worth the trouble, he says. "I don't want to have to deal with the fact that at the end of the night I'm wondering, 'Well, did I do well because people feel guilty?' Or 'Did I do poorly because people hate me in terms of what I have to say?'"
In the brief intermission between the first and second rounds of the Grand Slam, doubts like these run through Phi's mind. He mulls over his lackluster score before five white judges and a mostly white audience, and tries to strategize. In a broad sense, he asks himself how important winning is to him. Phi was originally planning to perform two new pieces, but after the first round, he tells me, "Now I have to figure out if I want to go for a sure win or just do what I want." As the second round begins, Phi sits at his table waiting for his name to be drawn, pours himself a glass of water, and stares tensely at nothing in particular.