Performance poet Bao Phi was born in Saigon; his parents emigrated to Minnesota, where he grew up and still lives. His poetry is rooted in Asian American immigrant experience, especially in Vietnamese American experiences, and speaks of racism, economic hardship, cultural difference, and the legacy of the Vietnam war. The collection is divided into four sections, each preceded by a quote from another (usually Asian American) writer. Four introductory poems set the tone for the poet's project of "refugeography" (from "You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me", p. 9): recognition and celebration of the variety of Asian American lives, and anger at exploitation - both economic and cultural: "They box our geography / And sell it in bougie boutiques / Our culture quite profitable / But can somebody tell me / How our culture can be hip / And yet our people remain invisible?" ("For Us", p. 1)

In section 2 (The Nguyens) 14 poems highlight the lives of a variety of unrelated individuals and families across the US who have the same family name. "They are one story for every Viet body, one song for every voice that sings or otherwise" (p. 17). Many are angry and bitter. There is the Sacramento girl who grows up, makes good, and wants now to get even with the white boy who pushed her down and called her "gook" in ninth grade: "where is your wheat- haired crown now, / where is your Made- in- America tongue: / a slide of spit to take me back to where I came from / now that I am ready to show you / show you / where I come from" ("Vu Nguyen's Revenge", p. 20). There is the chef who had once worked in the kitchen of a restaurant where the waitstaff was white only: "let me tell you that the white people / can choke to death on their lychee martinis" ("Fusion", p. 24). Others are reflective - such as the soldier in Iraq who meditates, "let me not tear apart a people, a country, causing Iraqi food to / become the nouvelle cuisine in 25 years back home" ("Mercy", p. 29).

Some wrestle with generational misunderstanding: Dotty from Dallas whose mother "hid the food stamps by holding [her] hand out like a fan of shame at the checkout line" and later kicked her out of the family, accusing her of being a "Commie" (p. 45). There is tongue in cheek irony, such as in "The Nguyen Twins Find Adoration in the Poetry World" (p. 40), about two vastly different poets - Joan, who has an Anglo boyfriend, publishes in respected traditional literary journals, includes in her work Vietnamese sentences "she never fails to translate" and who won the "safe ethnic poet award"; and Jesus, whose poems are "system fascist overthrow racism working class" performed on Def Poetry Jam where he mispronounces all three of the only Vietnamese words he uses in his poetry.

Numerous poems in sections 3 and 4 address racism. "Reverse Racism" (p. 59) imagines the tables being turned on whites: schools that teach only Asian-American history and suspend any student who questions it; jobs that "stick white men in middle -management hell, then put them on a pedestal as an example of how whites can be successful", and "when white men form their own groups to protect themselves, I'll accuse them of being separatists and reverse racists". "Dear Senator McCain" (p. 65) begins with a quote from the year 2000 in which the senator (who had been imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war) says, "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." The poem issues a challenge: "I am that gook waiting in your nightmare jungle / that gook in front of you with 17 items in the 10 items or less lane at the supermarket / that gook born with a grenade in his head / that gook that got a better grade than you in shop class" and ends, "Senator / what's the difference / between an Asian /and a gook / to you".

Another poem ("8 [9]", p. 93) is based on the 2006 killing of a 19-year-old Hmong American by a white policeman in Minneapolis. There is despair ("For Colored Boys in Danger of Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome and All the Rest for Whom Considering Suicide Is Not Enuf ", p. 82 ). There are also poems of self-awareness, for example, of the dichotomy of an earlier ghetto life and a later "fancy college" experience ("Called [An Open Letter to Myself]", p. 76); intra-ethnic suspicion and misunderstanding ("Everyday People", p. 99); energy and pride ("Yellowbrown Babies for the Revolution", p. 86).


Embedded in performance art, these poems are rhythmic and colloquial, but they need not be heard to be appreciated as arresting and powerful. Bao Phi is a community activist and organizer; his poetry reflects the engagement inherent in those activities. Yes, he is angry, and has a political agenda, but his poetry is socially and self -aware and provides a perspective that is both informative and moving. Anger is tempered by a sense of humor and a deep interest in those who are struggling against circumstances not under their control. His poems remind me of Gary Soto's poetry and stories of the California Chicano experience of his youth, and could be paired with some of those works.

Texts of two of the poems in this book ("The Godzilla Sestina", "8 (9)" and other poems, as well as a video of the poet performing "You Bring out the Vietnamese in Me" (in the book), may be found at: performance video of the poem "Mercy" is at: At the Coffee House Press site is a performance video (the second video) of excerpts from The Nguyens:


Coffee House Press

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