Enter the Poet

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

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.

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.

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..."

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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