Trust the Process: An Interview Poet Bao Phi

Award-winning poet opens up about his latest collection 'Thousand Star Hotel.' By tk lê.

Photo Credit: Anna Min

Bao Phi is a performance poet and writer based in Minneapolis. His second poetry collection, Thousand Star Hotel skillfully weaves a range of topics -- police brutality, Asian American representation, masculinity, fatherhood, and his immigrant experience growing up in Minnesota, to name just a few. In this interview, Bao talks in-depth about what the process of writing this book has been for him and elaborates on some of the heavier subject matter. Also, kittens.

It's been a few years since your last collection of poetry, Song I Sing. And even though you approach similar subject matter -- fatherhood, growing up Vietnamese American, Asian American masculinity, police brutality -- the work feels different. How do you feel your writing has developed on these topics, and did anything in particular bring you to start Thousand Star Hotel?

It's never one thing, but if I had to identify one turning point, it was when my then-partner and I had decided to have a child together and went to a clinic. They asked a series of questions -- is there a history of cancer, high blood pressure, etc, in your family? As a way to anticipate any challenges you may pass onto your children. And I remember vividly, one of the questions was, have you or anyone in your family been traumatized by war? And it was like a flip switched in me. I'm in this strange position where I was physically present for a lot of the things I write about regarding the days we escaped Vietnam, but was too young to remember the details. Much of it was passed on to me by my family, and I wanted to pass that history along as well. There is so little education about Vietnamese refugees in this country -- all people really get is Miss Saigon. I wanted to contribute in my own small way.

What was the process for writing Thousand Star Hotel? What was the easiest poem to write, and which one was the most difficult?

The entire book was difficult. It's my most personal work to date, and I find writing about family, my upbringing in Phillips, and my own flaws and contradictions to be pretty exhausting and demoralizing.

"Thousand Star Hotel" is also the title of one of your pieces. Because you write about so many different things, I'm curious to know how you decided on this to be the title of your collection.

It was just something that resonated with me, and I was reminded of the saying while I was reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. It really strikes me as very Vietnamese: sly, humorous, and ultimately about survival. When I went back to Vietnam in my early 20s, I saw a bomb crater that someone had turned into a small rice paddy. Vietnamese people making the best of what they got -- it just fit.

As you were writing the pieces, who was the the audience you had in mind?

Maybe instead of writing for an audience, I was writing in opposition to this feeling of dismissal and erasure? Asian American history, we are constantly ignored, erased, dismissed. Generally speaking, no one thinks about us Asian Americans unless we're either being this illusion of the model minority or being problematic. While no one should be above criticism, and Asians can and do participate in white supremacy, it seems like the only time anyone pays attention to us is when we're either being falsely held up as proof that racism doesn't exist or when we're the villains. The audience for this poetry would be anyone willing to listen to an alternate reality where Asian American lives, stories, and souls go beyond the ally/villain dichotomy.

It seems you are grappling with intergenerational trauma, especially it relates to the intersection of violence and gender. For example, in "To Combust," you write of a father (presumably yours) hoping to defend his son, "He wants to kill someone, / the language he is always reminded / he understands." In "Lead," you recount a story in which your father instructs you to "...look around / for a shooter / like it's the DMZ." These lines about fathers feel much different than lines that describe your mother, like, "She sends me home / with bags of food / she made herself." Was this something you recognized right away? What do you think of these different manifestations of similar trauma?

I tried to be as true to those memories as possible. Both my mother and father had different coping mechanisms at different times, and they were inconsistent. For example, there were times my mom, a devout Buddhist, would believe life is suffering and try to brush things off, try to nurture. But there were also times, such as in "Frank's Nursery and Crafts", where she stood her ground even when she knew everyone around her was being racist. Similarly, there were times my father reacted out of this heartbreakingly sad anger. But there were also times when he felt we were lucky to even be alive, and we should let all this other stuff go. Life is contradictory and inconsistent, and I tried to be true to that.

Photo Credit: Thaiphy Media

In the same vein, you write about your daughter and your conscious efforts to stop passing on these gendered traumas. How do you feel these traumas come up in terms of love and fatherhood?

Maybe it's more about trying to educate her and prepare her as best I can. I can't shield her, can't protect her from the world and what it is. The big part of why I was hesitant to have a child in the first place is because of how horrible the world is. She has a great mother, and a great community, and she has a flawed loving vessel in me. We can only stumble along with intention and love.

One line that struck me was, in "Kids," you ask, "How much energy will I spend trying to defend her against men / not at all like me / and exactly like me" and then remind yourself that "you can't protect her."

Earlier on in my life, I struggled constantly with a linear idea of progress and binaries. Was I mostly good, or mostly bad? What is the right position, and what is wrong? Where I am now, I understand that there are times I am complicit in the same harms that I fight against. I try to acknowledge that, and I strive to embrace that these contradictions and good intentions are simultaneous and unavoidable. Really, what I am trying to say is that I don't know very much at all, I am sure of very little. I try to be conscious of my social location and both the good and the harm that I can participate in.

You also write frankly about going to therapy.

I've struggled with depression for quite some time and now, an enormous amount of anxiety. When I said earlier about trying to embrace the contradictions, the unknown, all of that is counter to my personality. It is against how I'm wired. All of this now tied into being a father, it feels like stakes have never been higher. Therapy has helped me work through a lot of anxiety, insomnia, depression, fatalism. It's an ongoing process, though. As one of my therapists told me, the way the mind works is that thoughts flow down the beaten path. It takes a lot of effort and time to try and reroute your thoughts and let those well worn paths go over. And it's not a linear process. I am trying to be open and to learn and trust the process. I used to think therapy was for wealthy white people. But I realize now how many of us need professional help. Especially those of us who are from marginalized communities who are involved in any way with social justice issues -- it can be brutal, confusing, contradictory, heartbreaking, disappointing, exhausting.

Lastly, several poems reflect on desirability.

Yes -- that is pretty much neverending, and I had hoped that I wouldn't need to think or worry about this by now. And while I write poems about it from personal experience, I don't really have a stake in it in my personal life, mind you -- I've pretty much made peace with it in my own life, to the best extent that I can. What I've been interested in, and most interested in now, are how these racialized notions of gender and attractiveness effect and harm our people. Too often these discussions devolve into sexism, dismissal of racism, ad hominem attacks or a false notions of permission -- and I understand it on all sides, because it feels so personal. But really, I think we need to see beyond ourselves and break down these systemic notions of gender, race, and attraction and how they harm us and keep us from seeing one another as full human beings.

Many of the pieces in this collection read like letters to your daughter. Have you shared these with her?

I haven't shared the actual poems with her, as she's seven and she doesn't quite have the capacity to understand poetic abstraction quite yet. Plus she gets bored when I read my poems aloud. But what I have done is shared the stories and thoughts behind the poems. So for example, while I haven't literally read "Lights" out loud to her, we definitely sat down and talked about going to the circus, and my upbringing as it relates to class, and her reaction when we went together. I feel quite lucky in that my parents and my family used to tell me a lot of details about things I didn't understand or were too young to witness. I'm trying to pass that along to my daughter. Also, this country is straight up terrible when it comes to Asian American history. She is not learning about even the most basic Asian American historical events such as internment, the transcontinental railroad, etc in her classrooms. Her mother and I constantly try to educate her on the struggles of all people including Asian Americans.

You write about police brutality in your work. I like that it's deliberately woven into and between stories about your immigrant experience growing up in Minnesota. Would you care to elaborate on why you think it's important to write about this?

It was a part of my life and a part of many Asian people's lives that I witnessed in Minnesota -- not just police brutality, but structured violence and institutionalized racism. And yet I am puzzled when I hear Asian American activists say things like "we don't suffer from racism and police brutality." While I don't want to take away from the disproportionate amount of police violence against Black and Native American people in particular, I think its a disservice both to our own community and to true coalition building to erase our own people's struggle in this manner. But ultimately I wrote about these things because these things happened to me, and happened to us, and I don't want that experience to be erased or dismissed no matter what political spectrum that erasure is coming from. That erasure, that dismissal, is a form of racial violence that Asian Americans are all too familiar with.

I always like to ask artists who approach heavy subject matter: What brings you joy?

Good food. Good people. Forgiveness -- both giving, and receiving. Learning. Listening. Community. My daughter. My friends. Baby animals, including but not limited to fuzzy kittens. Music. Nature. Inspiring community organizers. Actual constructive conversations. Laughter. And, more and more -- true kindness. That there can be true kindness in this ugly world is beautiful, and to witness it, much less receive it, feels like a miracle.

What are you looking forward to?

One day I can feel free to write poems about kittens and ice cream.

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Thousand Star Hotel will be released July 5. Bao raised funds to tour his book, so check his his website for events near you.

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