Bao Phi with his daughter
Photo by Simi Kang
This evening, two acclaimed local poets will be giving a reading sponsored by BIrchbark Books at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Performance poet Bao Phi, author of Sông I Sing, and Ed Bok Lee, winner of the poetry Minnesota Book Award 2012 for Whorled, have known each other for many years. For a brief time they even performed slam together. Recently, they released their poetry books together.
"We both work from an urgency," Phi says. "We both love language, and exploring these things about our identity, how we are perceived, and how that fits into the larger scheme of things."
Phi says he's planning to do a mix of new material and excerpts from his book.
Phi began doing poetry 21 years ago as part of Minneapolis South High School's speech team. "When I was a kid, I was raised in the Philips neighborhood," he says. "I came from the Vietnam War. When I became older, there was the Persian Gulf War going on, there was crack cocaine, Reaganomics, police brutality. As a young man raised in the hood, I did not know how to make sense of that. No one told me how to think about all that stuff. I tried to read things, but nothing encapsulated what I was going through."
Phi ended up going to Macalester College on a full scholarship. He signed up for more creative writing courses after taking a class with Native American poet Diane Glancy, who sought him out on campus afterward and encouraged him. "I didn't think poetry was something you could actually study," he says.
Phi began his writing a career as a performer, gaining acclaim nationally as a slam poet. As a young writer, he penned his poetry as a kind of script. "I would write in a way that would make sense to me," he says.
When he began the process of publishing a book of poetry, Phi started to pay more attention to line breaks and the way readers' eyes see the poem on the page. While he's cautious of comparing himself to Emily Dickinson, he says he thinks about how Dickinson scholars pay attention to the way her poems were found with specific dashes and breaks. "Before I wrote the book, I didn't have to worry about that stuff," he says. "You actually have to think about how it appears to people."
In 2001, Phi stopped doing slam poetry. "It became more stressful than it was fun," he says. "I actually was doing quite well at the time that I quit. But at the same time, I was stressing myself. I wasn't listening to other poets. At a slam, it was so high pressure. I became obsessed with my own work and how I was doing. I wasn't listening to other poems, I wasn't learning."
Phi currently works at the Loft Literary Center, and has started a family. "Time is at a premium," he says. "Time and energy is in short supply. I have to focus more."
Though Phi has written a number of persona poems, he says his new works are very autobiographical, exploring his childhood, growing up, and things that happened to his parents.
These days, Phi is working on a zombie novel about two Vietnamese Americans put into concentration camps after a zombie outbreak, where they become revolutionaries. "It's just for fun," he says. "I don't care if it ever gets published. Poetry is really difficult. I feel like I need to have something fun and for me," he says.
Reading with Phi is Ed Bok Lee, who won a Minnesota Book Award for Whorled. Unlike Phi, who started as a performance poet, Lee only did slam for a few months, winning recognition as an independent competitor. "The way I see slam, it's a form just like haiku or a sonnet." For Lee, poetry is a circular continuum. Often performance and academic poets are "yelling at each other across the gorge, saying what the other is doing is not real poetry." What many academic poets fail to see, he says, is that on the continuum, poetry has always had an oral tradition. Since the printing press was invented in the 1400s, there's been a divide between what is now called "page poets" and "spoken word" poets. "To me it is all poetry, whether it's on a CD or on the page," he says.
Lee writes in various forms. Some poems are more powerful when they are performed out loud. Other poems he never reads. "I never know what a piece wants to be. Sometimes it wants to be a spoken-word poem. Sometimes I write a poem that I probably wouldn't read aloud because it's too quiet," he says.
Lee was born in the United States, and went back to Korea with his family at age three. He returned to the U.S. for elementary school in North Dakota. When he graduated from high school, he took a few years off before starting college. He lived briefly with his sister in Minnesota, and traveled around the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
At 17, he packed up his hatchback and made the decision to visit every single U.S. state. "I got to many of them, except those in New England. By the time I got there it was winter, and I was pretty spent, so I came back to Minneapolis."
Lee eventually began studying Slavic languages and literature at Berkeley, and found that it was so grueling he didn't have any time to write. His roommate suggested that if he were to switch focuses and go to Brown University, he could get a full ride to get an MFA in poetry. Out of desperation, Lee applied to Brown, and ended up going there where he completed his MFA.
Lee has lived in Central Asia and Russia, and has traveled throughout a couple dozen other countries. "Sometimes I don't know what my identity is," he says. "I don't always know what style feels most natural."
The title poem in Whorled is a homonym. He came up with it one day looking out a window and seeing the leaves out on the street, "doing a dance out of a spiral. That's kind of how I feel -- culturally confused," he says. "Am I Minnesotan? Korean? These are questions other writers have covered. I think in this age of globalization, it might even be the norm. Global consciousness is not the exception but the rule."
Lee has written plays, short stories, poems, non-fiction, "and everything in between." Currently, he's focusing on poetry and fiction.
Lee's first book, which was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award, was called Real Karaoke People. It dealt with looking back on the Korean war, and the idea that trauma is perpetuated from generation to generation. In Whorled he explores Fernando Pessoa's concept of nostalgia for the future. "What is my place in the future?" he asks. "Where are we going?"