Enter the Poet

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

In some ways the piece represents the most intimate facet of Phi's efforts to imagine his ideal Asian America: Nowadays he will date only Asian women. Not, he insists, because "I think they're submissive or that they know these sex secrets," but because he believes his poetry and politics need to be grounded in his personal life.

This decision is complicated by what Phi considers a drastic imbalance in the mainstream's sexual ranking of Asian men and women. On television and in movies, Phi notes, "you will see a lot of images of supersexualized, exoticized Asian women, but very seldom do you see any type of sexual images for men." This tension is a constant theme in his work, as when he rants in "What's an Asian Man?" that "I'm not supposed to bring up/that most of my Asian sisters are holding hands with John Wayne." This is the subject that tests his nerve the most. When he's onstage pleading and screaming for inter-Asian hetero love, Phi is arguing for Asian masculinity and power by asserting that he, as well as every other straight Asian man in America, has been culturally castrated. And as bold as this and some of his other statements may be, there are few greater tests of courage than to stand in front of an audience and openly tell a woman that her rejections are breaking your heart.

But it is this same tenderness that fills Phi's poems with the humanity that is the foundation of his ideology. In "What If I Told You," the welcoming arms of a soul mate and of an imagined Asian-American community are yearningly evoked: "What if I told you my love has roots/like my mother's garden, like my mother,/both gave me roots..."

"I'm an Asian man in America so I hate the way you talk": Performance poet Thien-Bao Phi
Daniel Corrigan
"I'm an Asian man in America so I hate the way you talk": Performance poet Thien-Bao Phi

Phi's rhapsody lulls the room, but the piece also starts to feel like it's running long. The timekeeper lifts his hat in the air to signal that the three-minute mark has been passed. Phi doesn't see this, but his piece winds to a stop on its own. He finishes inside the grace period, barely avoiding a penalty. And when the scores are totaled, he takes first place by 0.2 points and wins the mantle of Grand Slam champion for the second year in a row. The title comes with a five-hundred-dollar prize.

The next evening Phi looks exhausted. He had a late dinner after his victory the night before, and then worked a full day at Pasqual's on half a night's sleep. He'll be getting little reprieve from his busy calendar in the coming weeks: He's writing a piece with the performance group Spine, working on a one-act play with Theater Mu, and preparing a performance series with singer José James at Patrick's Cabaret. He also learned the night before that, unlike last year, winning the Grand Slam won't guarantee him a place on the nationals team. For that, he'll have to compete in the qualifying slam at the end of the month.

He's not looking forward to the qualifying slam, even though his victory last night is a pretty good indication of how he'll do, and Diego Vazquez tells me that "I can't even picture that he wouldn't make it." Preparing for each slam, Phi says, is a process filled with stress and preshow jitters--even when he tries to tell himself the points don't really matter, even when he can take risks and still win. And it seems ironic that after railing against so much in the mainstream culture, Phi describes his Grand Slam victory with the most all-American of sentiments--the sports cliché. "I did the set I came to do," he says. Doesn't that sound like a winner?


Thien-Bao Phi performs with José James at 8 p.m. March 26 and 27 and April 2 and 3 at Patrick's Cabaret; (612) 874-9891. The Minnesota Slam Team Qualifying Slam will be held at 8 p.m. March 31 at Kieran's Irish Pub; (612) 339-4499.

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