Enter the Poet

Thien-Bao Phi brings his cultural grievances and personal lamentations to the arena of competitive poetry

The rules of the poetry slam are simple: Each contestant gets three minutes to perform a poem, after which the judges, who are picked at random from the crowd, rate the poem from 0.0 to 10.0. Dropping the lowest and highest ratings results in a score from 0.0 to 30.0 (most end up in the 20 to 25 range). Points are docked if poets exceed the time limit. The format encourages lean poems that unfold quickly and are peppered with a crowd-pleasing wit. It also relies on the tenuous assertion that there's something useful in numerically comparing two works of art. These issues aren't lost on Phi, even if he has excelled within the confines of the format: Last year he succeeded in taking first place at a slam at New York City's revered Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

"The competition is what makes you an intense performer," he says. "But at the same time, why are you doing it? Are you going to change just because you want to win? Is that going to change the way you do a poem?" Phi's concerns about this temptation became more acute last August when the team traveled to Austin, Texas, to participate in the national slam competition. The team scored 22nd out of 45 teams, a decent score for a first-year entry.

Individually, Phi tied for 12th out of more than 150 contestants, and asserts that he might have fared better if it weren't for the fact that some people didn't anticipate his particular take on Asian politics. There were three other Asians at Austin, and the one who did best was Beau Sia, a New York poet who played an irascible jail inmate for laughs in last year's spoken-word art-house film Slam. Phi is quick to point out that he respects Sia's work, but also notes that much of it consists of Sia poking fun at himself and other Asians. By contrast, when Phi won last year at the Nuyorican, he says, "There was a group of three young African-American hoods who were there, and they came up and talked to me, and they were like, 'You're the first Asian American we've ever heard that was angry.'"

If Phi has found a suitable vehicle for that anger, perhaps he has his childhood to thank. Growing up in Phillips, Phi reports, had its hardships--he was beat up and robbed at gunpoint, for instance--but it also helped him learn to love hip hop. This interest bled over into his reading of black poets such as Langston Hughes and Ntozake Shange. Today Phi showcases the easy swagger and tight, effortless rhyming ability of a skilled MC.

 

"This is for the six other Asians in the room," Phi says as he steps onstage and introduces his second-round selection, "Surviving the Translation." It was only days ago that the piece coalesced from notes scribbled on restaurant order tickets and grocery store receipts into a coherent form. As he imagines the identity crisis of an Asian woman, his voice takes on an urgent tone:

 

Her cries the saline solution for eyes blinded

by blue contact cataracts

that burn to the touch

a torch in the form of a Zippo

on a grass hut

her yellow skin painting her a Miss Saigon slut

although she's a virgin, her outside is

fucking her insides

 

When the piece ends with a note of hopeful defiance, it receives raucous applause and a score, 27.1, that is more than a point higher than his first-round effort--a significant gain for a slam. Perhaps the judges, four of whom are women, have more appreciation for a message of female empowerment than one of male rage. Or perhaps everybody is simply happier to hear a piece with a sliver of optimism. Regardless, Phi scores well enough to progress to the third round, along with four other contestants.

To take the third round, Phi will need to refine his delivery. Though his passion is palpable, he's running past the three-minute limit, and it's hurting him: After three minutes and a ten-second grace period, poets lose half a point for every additional 10 seconds. In the break before the third round, Minneapolis poet Diego Vazquez sits down next to Phi and berates him, half seriously, about keeping his poems short. Vazquez has his own interests at stake in this pep talk: He organized the slam team last year and picked Phi based on his Grand Slam victory. The time limit, Vazquez tells me, is Phi's most significant problem: "There's so much power in every phrase that he uses, he could get away with half a poem and still score as high."

Vazquez isn't concerned that Phi won't make the team. Instead, he's trying to keep Phi in top condition for future national competitions. Scoring at slams can fluctuate wildly depending on factors such as the opposing team, the unpredictable tastes of the judges, and whether the venue serves alcohol, which loosens the crowd as the night goes on. Last year Vazquez placed Phi in the vulnerable lead-off spot under the belief that he could score well under most circumstances.

The third round begins. Matthew John Connelly performs a piece that openly draws inspiration from the affected rhythms of the Nuyorican crew and Slam star Saul Williams; Megan McIrney scores well with a hyperbolic, crowd-pleasing poem about planning her own funeral. And in this competition, what pleases the crowd wins. Phi draws the last slot in the round, which means that "What If I Told You," a tender, yearning ode to an Asian woman, will be the last poem of the night.

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