This Friday (5/3), we’re thrilled to welcome performance poet, author, and activist Bao Phi to Carleton to give his convocation speech. Phi’s presentation is titled “Thousand Star Hotel: A Vietnamese Exploration of Race, Class, and Colonization Through Poetry.” In anticipation of his visit, the Miscellany had the privilege of speaking with Phi about his work at the intersection of art and activism. Read on for the interview, and be sure to catch Convo this week!
Your convocation presentation is titled “Thousand Star Hotel: A Vietnamese Exploration of Race, Class, and Colonization Through Poetry.” Thousand Star Hotel is also the title of your second book of poetry. What significance does the phrase hold for you, and what threads tie these two conversations together?
I believe the phrase is from Vietnamese people. It’s usually said in this context: I don’t need a four star hotel, I sleep outside in a thousand star hotel every night. It’s meant to be funny, but also represents the perseverance of Vietnamese people. Thousands of years of colonization, exploitation, civil war. And yet we’re still here.
You’re a spoken word artist, a published poet, essayist, and author of children’s literature, just to name a few of your projects. What compels you to explore ideas and communicate to people using a diversity of forms and media?
I try to follow my gut. I’ve been a poet since I was in high school, on speech team. It was a direct, inexpensive way for me to express my opinion and interrogate injustice. And since there is the creative aspect of it, I find it more fun, or maybe more energizing, than the alternatives. I really don’t like writing essays, but sometimes it’s the most direct way to engage. And the children’s book – well, I’m a father now, and I wanted my daughter to have something that reflected working class Southeast Asian refugees. In particular, honoring her grandparent’s generation.
I’m really interested in your children’s picture book, A Different Pond (illustrated by Thi Bui), and how you translate your work in race and community activism to a message that resonates with younger readers. What was that process like, and do you see unique challenges or potential in engaging children versus adults?
What I like about writing books for children is, there is no pretentiousness about writing towards your audience. And I think kids growing up in the world today, they’re going to see and learn about things like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, imperialism. Unfortunately, that’s our world. So the challenge is engaging young readers in these things they already see and might not yet understand, without scaring them too much.
As Program Director at The Loft Literary Center, which you’ve supported for years, you organize workshops and classes for a growing community of writers. What’s your approach to mentorship, and what kind of mentor do you aspire to be?
I don’t consider myself a mentor, really. My job at the Loft is to create, administer, and manage programs that serve the development of writers and writing communities. I strive to keep my ears open and, in the position I am in, really rethink and interrogate a lot of the gatekeeping that has occurred throughout the years. I honestly believe we can all learn from one another – but the problem is, straight white men’s writing has been considered the gold standard by which the rest of our work is measured. Part of my work is breaking down those frameworks and modes of thought, and trying to think of ways to create and maintain equity.
What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had given you as a college student, looking to make a change in the world?
Progress is not linear, and it’s not going to happen if you’re by yourself, some righteous woke hero or whatever. Meaningful change is about collective struggle. It’s slow, and it takes a ton of work. I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit’s recent article about this.