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Slam champion Bao Phi reads new poems at the Loft

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Bao Phi has been busy this year. Not only is he the programming director of the Loft Literary Center, he’s been a single co-parent to his five-year-old daughter, Sông, and involved in community activism work. He has also managed to find time to write a bunch of new poems, with a little help from the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant.

This Saturday, Phi will be reading from this new batch of pieces at an event co-sponsored by the Loft Literary Center, with an introduction by Kyle Tran Myhre (Guante). We chatted with the former Minnesota Grand Slam poetry champion and author of Sông I Sing about his new work.

When you write poetry, do you always think about it as if it were going to be performed?

Bao Phi: I don’t really have rigid ideas of what is a performance poem versus what isn’t. Mostly I’m trying to write good poems that I think that I would find provocative if I was sitting in the audience or reading it on the page.

When do you write? 

Whenever I can. Sông moved away recently, but for the majority of this grant, I had Sông. The grant allowed me to hire baby sitters to take some time and space for myself to write, but it also allowed me to alleviate some pressure about trying to find additional work to support myself and her. Pragmatically speaking, I would wait until Sông was asleep, and then I would have an hour or so to write before she would wake up… If I had to deal with the pressure of finding paid gigs, I would probably be too mentally and physically exhausted to write even when she did fall asleep.

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Now that the grant period is ending, do you hope to continue with the momentum? What is the plan coming up?

I’ve been writing a ton, and that’s good. But I’m going to take a short break, honestly, because I was writing non-stop for a while. I just needed to take a little bit of a break because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. That being said, a videographer is going to video the event, plus we’re going to work together to create a couple of video poems and put them online. I’ve never been very aggressive about getting my stuff online. Hopefully with a professional videographer, and a little bit of time and effort on my part, we can get something up that would be compelling. 

Who is the videographer?

His name is Tony Nguyen, he’s a documentary filmmaker and a good friend of mine.

How do you take the [program director] part of your brain and switch it? I imagine it’s a very different way of being between being a non-profit person and being a creative person.

You know, I think that I’m able to do it because it’s different. I’m a person that does like to switch gears a little bit. So I think that when I’m on this side of the desk, whether it be administration or events managing, it’s a different skill set. Even though it’s with literature and poetry, and it’s doing stuff that I believe in, it’s a very different energy. It’s a different mindset. I’m basically creating opportunities for other people. I’m trying to facilitate a good event for both audiences and the artist, and the community on behalf of the Loft. That’s very different from sitting down at my desk and being like, 'This is what my daughter said about race. She’s five years old, and this is how I feel about it and this is my worry, and I’m gonna engage my creative heart brain,' you know?

I honestly think that before I was a father it was more difficult for me to write because I was exhausted all the time. I think once I became a father, I got really exhausted. There’s a different level of exhaustion that you experience as a parent, especially to a really young child. I started to be able to write in those hours that I was free whereas before it was like, 'Oh! I have a full time job and I’m trying to do community activism at the same time.' I was just tired all the time. Now I’m tired all the time, too, but I’m used to it being so full throttle that I’m able to be like, 'Hey, look at this little hour I have, what can I accomplish in it?'

It all changes when you are a parent, and double when you are a single co-parent.

You have a pretty active Facebook presence, does that inform your other writing?

Sometimes it does. My engagement with social media is international but I have parameters. But that being said, sometimes it’s a way to put thoughts and ideas out in the waters of the wild. A lot of times I don’t necessarily do it to be a barometer of anything. It’s just that I’m a citizen of the world. I try to think about how to engage with it in a way that’s meaningful. To answer your question: Sometimes that engagement does make it’s way into my writing. So there are a couple of poems in my manuscript that are either inspired by something that started out as a comment or a prose piece, or thoughts on Facebook that have blossomed into something. I’m definitely open to the potential of that. 

In another interview, you talked about how some of your poems are more experimental. Could you talk about those?

My writing goes in stages. A lot of my poems tend to be similar in tone or speed and style just because writing is hard. Poetry is hard. When I’m prolific, I kind of ride it for as much as I can, but also the contrarian in me wants to do something that’s way different, that’s a little bit crazy, that’s not very similar at all in tone to what I’m doing.

For example, this one poem I’m trying to do today, it’s this funny poem about therapy. I think it’s kind of fun in this experimental way in the context of a public reading. It’s different, it’s funny, it’s an unreliable narrator, and it’s not necessarily something that I think is really indicative of what I’m doing right now and where I am. But it is a part of me and it is something that I think is worth putting some air under.

You have a short story in Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, Is that part of a larger work?

When my friend Walidah was putting together the anthology she asked me to submit, and I said no. I love science fiction as a fan, but I’ve never — besides dabbling with some references in poems — tried it as a genre. But then I started thinking about it, and I had these ideas. So I wrote that short story. And from that, I’m trying to grow that short story into something bigger.

I’ve been very encouraged with the reception of the short story. I wasn’t expecting a lot of support from the public at large. I find it encouraging, so at least I’m going to try to find some energy towards a larger novel.  

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IF YOU GO:

No Star Where: Bao Phi's New Poems

7 p.m Saturday

The Loft Literary Center

Free