Courtesy of The Poetry Foundation

October 28, 2021

Refugeography: A Reading With Slam Poet Bao Phi

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Oct. 13, at 12:20 p.m. — The English lounge was packed with people sitting under a shroud of excited silence. They were all there for the Refugeography, Bao Phi’s introductory event to the Cornell community. Bao Phi, a Visiting Critic in the Department of Literatures in English for this academic year, has won the Minnesota Grand Slam twice, made it to the finals for the National Poetry Slam and has written three heavily awarded children’s books. After Bao Phi was introduced on stage, he confessed that this event would be his first time performing in-person since March 2020 — no one would have been able to realize. He jumped into a set of seven poems, ranging broadly in tone and topic. He spoke with sardonicism and from the heart, with profound hope and resolute sadness, about disappointment and about redemption. 

Bao Phi then talked about his experience with publishing children’s books, mentioning the similarities between children’s books and structured books. One of these similarities, as he described it, is how an average commercial children’s book is 32 pages and must be in line with the genre’s archetypical formula like the structure of a villanelle or sonnet. In answering the audience’s questions, Phi revealed how he transitioned from looking at anger as a means to solve injustice, to hope as a means to solve societal issues. Phi was inspired by becoming a father and going to therapy. After this, he turned his focus from destruction to utopic stories of healing. 

While writing from anger is about diagnosing a bad precedent to move away from, writing from hope is more powerful because it gives us a positive ideal to strive for. Phi demonstrated this method through reciting a poem which painted a picture of a world without anti-Asian violence, a world of future-joy where the suffering of the present has been extinguished. Grace Tran, an attendee at the Refugeography reading and a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell’s Migrations Initiative, said, “What I gleaned from Wednesday’s event is that even in the midst of this unprecedented time…you can still heal, and more than that you can still acknowledge the hardships and suffering of the Asian American and Asian community.” The benefit of work that focuses on transcendent ideals is that it is universal, because it sets a goal that stays constant despite ever shifting circumstances. 

During the event, Bao Phi touched upon his writing origin story. As a young child he would craft funny stories and this hobby evolved into fantasy-writing inspired by the game of Dungeons & Dragons and the author J.R.R. Tolkien, before his participation in his high school’s speech team heralded what would become his main craft in college: spoken word poetry. “All artists are trying to figure out what they have to contribute to a conversation, or to the world,” Phi replied when asked about the relationship between his art and his identity. “Your identity has everything to do with that.” He recounted how much of his art emerges from how he engages with his world, and how the issues of race, class and nationality are a part of that. “What I love about poetry is each poem can be its own self contained little world,” he continued. 

Now, Phi is currently in the process of working on his third manuscript aimed at adults, and a Vietnamese-American zombie apocalypse romance story. During his time at Cornell, he hopes to be of use to students, professors and all others in the community, spreading his writing knowledge to all who wish for it. Overall, Phi’s poetry embodies the multifarious ways of using story as a way to heal and teaches us that catharsis can be sung in many keys.

To learn more about Bao Phi, visit baophi.com or F.O.B. (Friends of Bao) on Facebook. Bao Phi is slated to give another poetry reading in November. He has published two poetry collections: Song I Sing (2011) and Thousand Star Hotel (2017), as well as two children’s books: A Different Pong and My Footprints.  

Sophia Gottfried is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]