April is National Poetry Month. Every once in a long while, even a poetry-dullard like me has a poetic WOW!-moment. Certainly I’m not alone … Bao Phi is a nationally-lauded performance poet, twice winning the Minnesota Grand Poetry Slam and twice winning poetry slams at Nuyorican Poets Cafe in NYC. He’s appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry (season 3, episode 6), and was a National Poetry Slam finalist in 2000. His poem, “Race,” was selected in The Best American Poetry 2006.
Given his credentials, that Sông I Sing is Phi’s first collection is somewhat surprising, as welcome as it is. [He did previously debut three chapbooks Last Name First (2005), The Way We Pay (2004), and Surviving the Translation: Collected Poems from 1993-2002 (2002).] Dedicated “for my Asian American people,” Phi’s work is racial, historical, political, sociological … most of all, even when he’s subdued and thoughtful, Phi is angry – powerfully, elegantly, justifiably angry.
Of the four sections, each prefaced by the words of a fellow ethnic writer (Lac Su, Julie Otsuka, Pablo Neruda, Joy Harjo, David Mura), the second and longest proves most resonating for its simplicity and complexity both. Titled “The Nguyễns,” Phi opens with a quote from Julie Otsuka’s astonishing When the Emperor Was Divine: “Who am I? You know who I am. Or you think you do … I’m the one you call Gook. I’m the one you don’t see at all – we all look alike …”
In the section’s 14 poems, all share the common Vietnamese name Nguyễn, they might have had a few similar experiences, but none of them ‘look alike’: Vu Nguyễn from Sacramento wants his revenge against Chavis Johnson “for pushing me down in ninth grade / and calling me gook”; Kaylee Nguyễn from Chicago who, as a chef, wants to tell you “that when I see the wilted attempts at vegan Vietnamese cuisine / made by white people in co-ops / I think of Britney Spears in an áo dài”; John Nguyễn who is serving out his ROTC in Iraq who insists, “let no one say I fought this war to make a better world / for our unborn children”; Katrina Nguyễn from New Orleans who “never heard my own name more often … [b]ut no one sees me”; Dotty Nguyễn from Dallas who pleads “Ask me anything, just don’t ask me / To stop calling you my mother”; and Vinh and Linda Nguyễn sharing a fire escape reminisce about going “to that f**ked-up poetry show / even when I told you I felt like watching spoken word / was like paying five bucks to get punched repeatedly in the face / and say thank you – .” Despite the anger, Phi surely knows how to laugh, too …
This week in DC is not unlike a Bao Phi-celebration. With the annual AAAS (Association of Asian American Studies) Conference in capital residence, you’ll have multiple public opportunities to see, hear, experience Phi in livetime:
- Wednesday, April 11 at 7:00 pm, at the University of Maryland Van Munching Hall with Ed Bok Lee (click here)
- Thursday, April 12 at 6:30 p.m. at The Big Hunt with Asian American Literary Review [AALR], Kaya Press, and Coffee House Press (click here)
- Saturday, April 14 at 12:30 p.m. at the National Portrait Galley of the Smithsonian Institution as part of AALR and APA Program’s “Asian American Portraits of Encounter Between Image & Word“ (click here for full schedule, 11:15 a.m. – 5 p.m.)
All you need to do is choose one … or more.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult