Call and Response—A Review of Bao Phi’s ‘Sông I Sing’

BiblioPhi-lia! Here diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill reviews Bao Phi’s debut poetry collection Sông I Sing, released in October by Coffee House Press. On November 7, 2011, diaCRITICS also published Kim-An Lieberman’s interview with Bao Phi, in honor of his book release. 

‘Sông I Sing,’ the debut poetry collection by Bao Phi, with cover art by Binh Danh


Vina turned to their pale defeated opponent
because Vietnamese women always got to get the last word
and said
in case you haven't noticed,
this was all a
and you lost.

"Race," the closing words of the closing poem of 'Sông I Sing'


Spoken word is a perfect poetic medium for Bao Phi. His own hardscrabble truthtelling and his deep playfulness as an artist is encouraged by the genre’s imperative to bring poetry back to the people. And so when you see this man before you live, it’s obvious why he’s so rocked many houses as a performance poet and spoken word artist since age 15, racking up slam championship titles at the Nuyorican, Minnesota Grand Slam, and the Macalester Cultural House Poetry Slam competitions. Phi also appeared in 2003 on HBO’s Def Poetry, delivering a love letter to Việt culture and embodiment (while wearing his “Việtnamese Phở Ever” hoodie)—‘You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me.’ I’ve actually heard Bao Phi perform twice in San Francisco, in 2008 at Fort Mason as part of DVAN’s San Francisco Vietnamese Poetry Festival of the Diaspora and in 2011 at SFSU at the Re-SEAing Southeast Asian American Studies conference, previously reviewed by guest columnist Valerie Soe. Both times I saw him onstage I was impressed by his integrity, intensity, presence, and power as a poet and performer. His wordsmithing is quite beautiful and incisive, with carefully crafted alliterations and sensory details. His words retain the immediacy, cadence, rawness of voice and breath, even in print. His bittersweet truths are crisscrossed with scars and yet peppered with affection, as in his vignettes on ‘The Nguyễns.’ How could anyone in attendance forget his reading of The Nguyễns at Fort Mason? How the audience howled with appreciative laugher upon hearing that his character Việt Nguyễn, “Vietnamese as fuck,” dates only Vietnamese people and is bisexual “so she can be attracted to twice as many Vietnamese people”?! That’s some righteous commitment, Việt Nguyễn! (And no, it’s not the same Viet Nguyen who’s the editor for diaCRITICS.)

Bao Phi’s long-awaited debut collection Sông I Sing brings poetry back to the people like nothing else I’ve seen in Vietnamese American culture. Although he’s dedicated it “for my Asian American people” and he’s clearly attentive to concerns of the entire Asian American community, the double entendre of the title’s first word shouts out to the Việt community in particular, as sông means river in tiếng Việt. His references to Sông Hương and Sông Mê Kông in “You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me” recollect the main rivers of the motherland, reminding us that this collection stitches the refugee’s ‘over there’ past with the ‘over here’ present via ‘within here’ simultaneity. As William Faulkner quipped, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” For the Vietnamese American community, this wisdom resonates. In Sông I Sing’s opening poem, “For Us,” Phi writes—

This is for you, whose homes are turned upside down
While men and women debate the sorrows of war
Safe from the scars of barbed wire
For you, whose lands are painted in smoke and bone
Neon bullets ripping through green
Your heart the same shape
As the whole you buried your family in.

Just this one evocative stanza summons so much for those whose families lie in ruin or fragments as a result of war, whose ghosts are unshakeable reminders of loss, whose displacements dismember. We are among family, when we hear him put it this way, knowing  that his own “men and women debate the sorrows of war.” And so we lean in closer to listen to his salve, his own sense of restorative justice through narrative, his breaking silence and his speaking the unspeakables. Word.


Bao Phi, by Charissa Uemura

Bao Phi was born into a South Vietnamese military family in Saigon in 1975, mere months before the city fell. In April 1975 his family fled their homeland, immigrating to Minnesota with the first wave of refugees from Viet Nam. From infancy Phi was raised in the United States, in urban Minneapolis St. Paul’s most impoverished and diverse neighborhood, Phillips. For Phi, his Vietnamese America is weighted and blighted by the bleak realities of lower income jobs, institutional discrimination, police brutality, and attacks from narrow-minded white kids. Within the uneasy intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality, in his work we see the haunting of the “ghosthood of honorary whiteness,” as Phi puts it. His work quickly defies dominant narratives about the desired assimilation of Asians as “the other white meat.” His work also contradicts the supposed apolitical passivity of Asian Americans. Instead Phi centers the aggravations, tensions, and struggles of being a brown/Asian/Vietnamese youth in urban midwestern America. “Racism and discrimination are pervasive. It affects every aspect of our lives and the lives of people we love,” Phi told Elaine Chen in 2005. “So I encountered racism from day one, but I didn’t know how to talk about it and I didn’t know what it was. Some kid would call me ‘gook’ and I didn’t know what it meant. I knew it hurt and I knew it was bad.”

Bao Phi’s family in the 1970s

Bao Phi’s family in Minnesota


In time Phi learned to fiercely articulate exactly how it hurt and what it meant. In his collection’s opening poem “For Us” he summons not just Vietnamese Americans and other “gooks” but the descriptors and insults at the sharp end of that particular stick—

This is for you, Celestial, Oriental, Asian, Asian Pacific American,
Woman, Man, Queer, broke, collegiate, young old gook, spitting chink,
Dog-eating dothead, faggot bitch slope

Throughout this poetry collection Phi also addresses those holding end of the stick of brutality—including Senator McCain, Gwen Stefani, the fraternity Delta Tau Delta at University of Gainesville, Minneapolis cop Jason Anderson, even ninth grade asshole Chavis Johnson. All are called out for their acts of violence and discrimination. Particularly heartbreaking is Phi’s poem 8 (9), which I heard him read this year in San Francisco. This poem is a lament against the exonerated 2006 murder of Hmong American teenager Fong Lee, shot eight times while killed by Minneapolis police—

An all-white jury found Officer Anderson not guilty of
     using excessive force

Put a blindfold on me
tell me who you fear
and I will tell you
your skin

8 (9) is a eulogy, a wake-up call to those unfamiliar with the case, and a testimony to the particular cruelty of Fong Lee’s death—the ‘coincidence’ that this child of refugees from war in Southeast Asia is gunned down in the ‘asylum country’ at age nineteen by cops who then plant false evidence and accusations that he’s a gang member. Phi puts it this way: “In the womb, in our parents’ arms / We’ve run / Chased by men with guns.” Phi identifies strongly with Lee, recognizing that he could have been killed just as easily as Lee. As Phi wrote in 2009, “He was someone’s son, someone’s brother.  He could have been me, or any one of us, who are unfortunately all too familiar with the devastation of violence, racism, police brutality, and systematic injustice that rips apart our families and our communities.” In his poem 8 (9), it’s unsettling and effective how Phi repeats the words “gang member” to replicate the circuitous lies spun by the Minneapolis police department to convince the public and the jury that Fong Lee wasn’t worth all this trouble to protect—he was merely a “gang member” after all. As Valerie Soe observed this past spring, “The poem captures the irony of Hmong Americans who fled persecution in their home country only to find more violence as well as flagrant racism once in the U.S.”

Bao Phi, by Charissa Uemura

By calling out those on the forceful end of the stick, Bao Phi condemns the institutional abuses of Asian Americans within the overall under- and misrepresentation of Asian Americans. His poem “Reverse Racism” actually re-reads and mashes-up Asian American history and legal restrictions so effectively you could teach an entire course around all that it evokes. Phi often interrogates why American racism is only acceptable when traveling in a certain direction. His character Vu Nguyễn asks of the ninth grade bully Chavis Johnson, who pushed Vu down the stairs and called him gook, “why the world is always ready for your kind of hate / but never mine?” Yet one could never mistake Phi’s debut poetry collection for a grim chronicle of Asian victimization within the US. With tenderness and ferocity, Phi fluently argues on behalf of love, connectivity, and creative resistance. And he’s not just addressing what threatens the community from the outside, but also its internal divisions. In “Everyday People” the community worker and investment banker (both Nguyễns at a hip party) never connect because they remain locked in their own self-conscious assumptions as “two leaking ships / trying to stay afloat / clinging tight / to what they know.”

Courageously attentive to these internal divisions, Phi is unafraid to broach what’s often considered taboo in Vietnamese America, as he invokes the political progressives, the gender-benders, the queers, and the disowned. Sadly these folks are often not remembered within most Vietnamese American cultural forms, yet Phi challenges their usual absence from discourse. In May 2011 diaCRITIC Jade Hidle observed, “Phi’s poems call for multiple voices to testify to the heterogeneity of Vietnamese Americans. This is especially important as we continue to be reduced to refugees or ‘model minorities’ and our artistic productions are still expected to conform to one melancholy tale of war or ‘THE Vietnamese American experience.'” In Sông I Sing, his popular poem The Nguyễns presents an array of variations upon so-called authentic Vietnamese-ness, affirming, “They are one story for every Việt body.” In his own body of work, Phi challenges the taboos against radicalism, queerness, and nonconformity which have rendered many Vietnamese Americans unfit for full inclusion in family and community. Because there’s the tripling of expectations—family, community, society—all tangled up, all demanding an attempt at conformity and assimilation. Yet whom do we incorporate and accept within our “community” and how do we treat those who don’t conform to normative behavior and beliefs? Phi is wry and witty observer of the registers and markers of inclusion and exclusion, with a deep affection for those who are often violently and mercilessly excluded.

In turn, Bao Phi gives his underdogs bad-ass superpowers of deflection, down to the last stanza on the last page. For example, his character Quince Nguyễn mastered retorts using Prince lyrics (“There’s no sign I’m more compatible with“) to those who taunt him with “WHAT, YOU A FUCKING FAGGOT OR SOMETHING?” Obviously Phi admires Quince’s approach to “The zen of answering by not answering.” Far preferable to don’t ask don’t tell, right? There’s even a gesture to the collection’s title and to the defiant act of spoken word (as song) in the close of the Quince-centric poem “Prince Among Men”—

when people cover their ears at you
you live your life out loud

When it feels like no one
lets you live
at your own volume
You sing.

Sông I Sing is a clarion call for expressing one’s perceptions and experiences, despite the tangles, ruptures, and sutures evident from the outset. Bao Phi’s masterful  performances and now his first collection of poetry push us all forward into terrain that’s both uncharted and familiar. And his overall investment in progressive anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-sexist politics resonates quite strongly with me, as a 2nd generation daughter whose ethical and ideological leanings differ strongly from most of my family. Growing up in midwestern American isolation, many years passed before I met other like-minded Vietnamese Americans, and so when I find them I hold them close. This is how I feel about this book, Sông I Sing, and its creator. Also there’s something distinctively 1.5 and 2nd generation about this dynamic collection, a point-of-view which whispers conspiratorial worlds to me as a refugee’s daughter of the same generation as Bao Phi. Born one year after Phi, I simultaneously absorbed American culture in a different part of the midwest. Although I grew up in suburban Houston and Tulsa, as Phi grew up in urban Minneapolis St. Paul, we both consumed an Americana that defined our imagined community of American children/youth coming-of-age during the 1980s and early 1990s. We had Prince, Depeche Mode, Dungeons & Dragons, Robert Smith, Aqua Net, George Michael, Public Enemy, Nintendo, De La Soul, and Star Wars. When reading Sông I Sing I felt comforted and connected by these cultural references to our shared past, as they navigated alongside other familiar and rhythmically leaking boats—”The family photo clutched tightly to a chest / When all the rest of the world burns”—the (re)memories of war and grief, the institutional racism, and the uneasy contradictions between inclusion and exclusion within Vietnamese America.


Julie Thi Underhill is an artist, photographer, filmmaker, writer, historian and doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. She specializes in Cham studies, diasporic studies, Asian American film/video, Asian American history, and transnational feminisms. She is a managing editor for diaCRITICS. Her last post on Vietnamese American literature was a two part “intervu” with her childhood friend, Vietnamese American author Vu Tran.

Bao Phi, by Michael Tran

A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, ranked 6th out of 250, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. His “Race” poem appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. His poems and essays are widely published in numerous publications including Screaming Monkeys and Spoken Word Revolution Redux. He has also released several CDs of his poetry, such as the sold-out Refugeography and his newest CD, The Nguyens EP. Phi was also a featured listener in the award-winning documentary film The Listening Project. In addition to his creative work, he was nominated for a Facing Race Ambassador award in recognition for his community work, and has published essays in topics from Asians in hip hop to Asian representation in video games. Ash Hsie recently animated Phi’s poem “No Question” for the Asian American Literary Review. Phi maintains a blog for the Star Tribune. His first collection Sông I Sing, reviewed here, is available from Coffee House Press. Phi lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and works at the Loft Literary Center.


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