A Conversation between Bao Phi and Jane Kim

[ full text available at Coffee House Press]

Jane Kim and Bao Phi

Jane Kim and Bao Phi

JANE KIM: First of all, congratulations on your first book! Your first book and your first daughter came around the same time.

BAO PHI: Thank you! Yeah, two major changes at once. Trying to raise my daughter has made the book, in some ways, easier. I have an easier time letting go of ideas than before. I don’t feel like I have to cram every poem I’ve written in this one book, you know?

Q: Most people know you as a spoken word artist and a slam poet champion. However, you have also done theater and work in arts administration as an organizer and curator. Of those, what have you enjoyed the most and why?

A: I love my job as curator and organizer of Equilibrium at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I created the series 8 years ago, and it’s my dream job: I curate and organize shows featuring spoken word artists of color, and connect them to local communities of color. The Loft, and artists and communities of color nationally and locally, have been really supportive and carried us through 8 years of stellar programming. That’s no small thing. We were one of the few arts organizations that has ever won the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ Anti-Racism Initiative Award.

Q: Part of why I love your work is that you have heart in everything you write and perform. You also seem to be on a mission through your poetry. You seem inspired to write beyond words. Can you talk about that?

A: Poetry has always been about more than the self. For me, it has to be. I am this unhealthy combination of self-hating and self-conscious, so writing about myself or for myself just isn’t fun or interesting. I’ve always found that writing comes more naturally to me when I’m compelled to write about something. Often, it’s been about injustice, or examining alternative Asian American stories. I mean, I think about Fong Lee, the injustice of it, and the community actions that have come from his wrongful death—how can we not write about that? How can we, as Asian American artists, let that story fall by the wayside of history? I just feel compelled. And we marginalized people are only allowed one archetypical voice, usually the least threatening one. I strive to challenge and explode the idea that there’s just one voice or one story to tell. People sometimes ask me if I am limiting myself—I always turn it back on them and ask, why do you think writing about Asian Americans is limiting? We are limitless. There are so many poems to be written—it’s really about whether or not I have the skills and endurance to keep doing it, not the limitation of a community.

Q: I often find that my role models are not necessarily in the field of work that I do. For example, two of my role models are Clifford Brown and Stevie Wonder, both musicians. However they inform and inspire my work as a Community Organizer and now as an Elected Official. I admire their dedication to the work, passion, love and incredible commitment and discipline to their art. Do you have non-literary role models that help guide/inform you as an artist?

A: There’s Yuri Kochiyama—not just because of the enormity of important things she’s done and continues to do in her lifetime, but also because of her genuine warmth and humility. She’s the one person who, when I got the chance to meet her, I had to hold back tears from being overwhelmed with my admiration for her. And I’m not the type of person who cries in public. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And there’s people like you Jane.

Q: That’s very sweet of you. I cry openly in public—in fact I have cried at your shows!

A: Oh! Thank you, Jane. Mutual admiration is the bomb! I remember being so moved, all the way over here in Minnesota, both times I heard you won your elections. I know that there was so much heart and so much effort in your struggle, and there was obviously so much community with you. Your victories were amongst the rare instances when the right thing happened. There are many community organizers and activists, like you, whom I admire greatly. People who work tirelessly for the community and whom I look up to. You, and folks like Tony Nguyen, Giles Li and Juliana Hu Pegues (though the last two are writers as well), and many more, are inspirations and role models for me. Community organizers and artists remind me that I’m just one voice, one poet. I’m a part of something much bigger and more beautiful.

Q: A lot of people accuse you of being angry and perhaps over-reactionary. I find your work to be so deeply based on love. How do you respond to naysayers and critics or people that just don’t get your work?

A: One thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is how other people can accept Asian people’s grief, but not our anger. Other people can accept, and in many cases consume, the stories of tragedies and sorrow from Asian and Asian American people. They have a harder time accepting, validating, or seeing our anger. Anger at injustice, at being silenced. I’m a person that accepts my anger, and is comfortable talking about it. Beyond that, there’s not much to say, really. I mean, I didn’t become a poet to make friends. I didn’t write about these things to be popular. If the goal was to be popular, I wouldn’t be a poet. I don’t invite hatred, and I certainly don’t enjoy being hated. But, as you say, the people who take the time to really read my work understand that it comes from the challenge of love, and with hope we can all be better. Including my own jagged, flawed self. To quote Kiwi, “these things I’m telling you, I’m trying to tell myself.” I am learning to really appreciate the people who give me their time, their energy, and their forgiveness, rather than focus on people who only have negativity towards me. Often those people who get really pissed off at my work, their reactions really say more about them than they do about me.

Q: Do you have a favorite poem or a piece that you truly enjoyed writing?

A: Good question. I’ve had favorite poems through the years, depending on where I am, you know? Recently, I’ve been working on persona poems with the Nguyen series, and it’s been tough. It’s been a tough series to write. I can’t say it’s been fun. I did write a poem about sex, race, and Star Wars which was great fun, and I do love reading it. But I often don’t get the chance to. I only read it if I’m in a crowd comprised mostly of nerds of color, which is kind of a rare population to gather en masse. I’ve also been working on a sci-fi story about two Vietnamese Americans struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse. I have absolutely loved working on that story.

Q: OK, so switching it up, if you could have any superhero power, what would it be?

A: I have a supernatural level of appreciation for ice cream.

Q: Okay. And which superhero would be your best homey and why?

A: I think I’d have to roll solo, as any other superhero would be more popular and look better in tights. My resentment would be intense and not conducive to selfless superhero work.

Q: Speaking of many of our childhood’s superheros, how has being a dad changed you?

A: It’s made me much more focused. There just is not any time or energy left over to do what needs to be done, let alone things I don’t want to do, you know?

When I get an offer or a request to read poetry or embark on a collaborative project, I have to really sit down with my partner, and my own schedule, and think to myself—do you want to do this? Because when you have a child, any project or endeavor you agree to, requires sacrifice, time, and energy—both my own and my partner’s. So I tend to focus more on poetry and have experimented less with other forms of writing. Also, I read a lot more children’s books.

Q: How has being a dad changed you in non-poetry ways?

A: My baby daughter reminds me, with much more clarity and frequency, to appreciate life and how lucky we are. When I was a baby, my parents held me in their arms in a bomb shelter as the Communist Party shelled us all night long. We were huddled with a bunch of other Vietnamese trying to escape before they rolled into Saigon, and the world was literally shaking from the bombs. Compared to that, I’m sweating whether or not we can afford a stroller?

Q: Yes. Often we, the second generation of Asian Americans, can find ourselves managing guilt over what our parents went through to raise us. How do you honor your parents and those who came before you?

A: Mostly I try to honor their struggle without patronizing it. There’s this loose idea, where I feel like I want to stand up for them. Not against any one individual but against a hundred small and not-so-small indecencies. The people who always assumed, and still assume, they can pull shit on my parents because they are economically poor and speak with an accent. Assume they can talk down to or take advantage of them and people like them because they are Asian and assume they won’t fight back, assume I won’t take their side. And racial exceptionalism—or tokenism, I guess you could call it—really bothers me. The powers that be will always accept one or two Asian people on an individual level, as long as they’re not threatening to institutional racism or willing to speak out for Asian Americans. I try to honor our communities, my own and those that came before us, by trying to understand the histories and what compels people. We really need to dig far beneath the assumptions placed on Asian Americans from all corners. Also, pragmatically I honor my parents by paying my own bills and trying to raise my daughter with love and due diligence. I do notice that my siblings and I tend to spoil our kids; I think we want to give them everything we were too poor to have when we were young, you know? Which is mad funny because, well, we’re still kind of poor.

Q: Did your parents have any good advice they gave to you on being a dad?

A: Contrary to the stereotypes, both my parents thought it was lucky to have a daughter—they both love girl babies. Mostly they told me my life has to change, so that I put my daughter before everything. They’re like, you can’t stay out all night and party anymore. Which is mad funny because, well, I pretty much never stayed up all night and partied. But they mean well. Sacrifice for your kids—that’s the idea they drill into us, over and over. Part of me wonders if they are quietly watching to see if my daughter will bring karmic retribution for my crazy, younger years where I gave them a heart attack every time I disappeared for hours on a skateboard.

Q: So, what is Sông’s favorite poem?

A: Sông, Get Your Hands Off of Those Chocolate Truffles. Her second favorite would be Are You Trying to Give Your Daddy a Heart Attack by Climbing On Top of the Dinner Table?

Q: How does she respond to your performances?

A: She actually likes loud noises and repetition, so I am lucky in that regard. She’s seen me perform before and clapped and laughed. But I don’t know if that’s because she likes my poems or she thinks it’s funny that the fat guy who feeds her broccoli is up there talking real fast.

Jane Kim is a member of the city and county of San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and is the first Korean American elected official in San Francisco. A civil rights attorney, Jane is also the former President of the San Francisco Board of Education.  Prior to serving in electoral politics, Jane worked as a community organizer for The Greenlining Institute, where she advocated for increased consumer protections for communities of color; and for the Chinatown Community Development Center in San Francisco, where she strengthened tenant protections, improved public safety, and directed a youth leadership program. In addition to her civic engagement, Jane has been involved in the arts. She was a co-founder and co-director of Locus Arts, an organization of Asian American artists and arts supporters dedicated to promoting community and consciousness through the arts. She also served on the Board of Directors for the Asian American Theater Company, and helped in the fight to save the Filipino community arts space, Bindlestiff Studios.