Bao Phi spends a week at Canisius

By Steph Wetzel

Features Contributor

The poet and writer of Thousand Star Hotel, Bao Phi, has spent the past few days at Canisius attending a pizza party held for him this past Wednesday, speaking at Q&A session for a several English classes, and conversing with students at a dinner and reading this past Thursday. These event are all made possible thanks to the Contemporary Writer Series that brings Canisius several diverse authors every year.

Bao Phi spoke a lot about his writing and what inspired the theme of most of his poems during the Q&A session with the English 101 students. He started out the session by sitting in front of the students, wearing bright blue shoes that fits with his bright personality very well, and mentioned that he tried chicken wings from Gabriel’s Gate because he heard they are the best in Buffalo. He lightened the mood by sharing his sense of humor before reading a couple poems and answering questions.

Phi was born in Vietnam and grew up in a rough neighborhood in Minneapolis. He told the students he tried hard to look tough when he lived in that neighborhood. He said that his attitude changed once he became a father.

When he began reading his poems, he spoke much louder and with more emotion He made eye contact with the students, having parts of his poems memorized. He read one poem that was based on him when he was younger delivering pizzas and going through a hard break up. He laughed and said that when you’re older, what you eat becomes more important than a break up. “She did it over a land-line,” he said, which is also the first line of the poem. After each of the poems he read he would grin and say “Yay poetry.”

Right before the Q&A session began, Phi made it clear to the students that he was open to answer any questions they have. “You can ask me anything,” he said. “Even about football.” He then began talking about the Bills and the Vikings and how they are the underdogs of the NFL.

Poetry was not the only outlet Phi used when he was younger to deal with his family’s financial situations and the hardships of war around him. He tried martial arts as well as other sports, but claims he was not good at those. “You can argue I’m not good at poetry too, but (expletive) it, I’m still doing it,” Phi stated. Phi was a book nerd. Even though he didn’t grow up in the best neighborhood, he discovered a library there. He mentioned he loved and still loves Dungeon and Dragons and loved reading comic books. At the dinner that was held for Phi, he told the students that his love for reading began when he was five years old and received a book about dinosaurs as a gift. He has a diverse palate of reading tastes, ranging from superhero comics, nonfiction work, poetry, and interesting New York Times articles.

Phi was drawn to poetry as opposed to other forms of writing because of how creative poetry can be. He said he realized that poetry can be anything. Many of his poems, specifically the ones in Thousand Star Hotel, are about personal hardships that he and his family have been through. “I should have gone to therapy a long time ago,” Phi said.

He spoke about how his family’s property was vandalized when he was younger and that his family would try to fix it themselves because it was cheaper. Earlier in his life, when the Vietnam War was going on, him and his family got onto planes to leave Vietnam while other planes were being shot at. The plane Phi and his family were on did no get shot at. He is glad his work is associated with Vietnam and the war.

Several of Phi’s poems, and even his second children’s book, are based on his eight year old daughter, Song. He even has her name tattooed on his arm in addition to his other tattoo that is a quote regarding battling depression. Phi explained that his daughter is ahead of her classmates in both reading and writing, although Phi claims he was hoping she’d become a scientist when she is older. She has already read the first three books in the Harry Potter series and is proud of her disliking of Donald Trump.

He has tried to protect his daughter from the outside world and it’s stereotypes. Even though he is a single parent, he and Song’s mother have both tried their hardest to not “gender” her. “We tried to expose her to a lot of things and let her choose,” he said. Phi also mentioned that even though he and his ex-wife are trying hard to shelter her, it is impossible for the outside world not to have any influence on her. “Being a parent is so hard, like being responsible for another little life in this (expletive) up world is like so hard,” Phi said. “But it’s also great.”

When asked what advice he would give to aspiring writers who are trying to find themselves, Phi responded, “Don’t give up.” A mentor of his and a poet as well told him when he was younger that it seemed like everyone was aspiring artists. When his mentor got older, he realized those same people did not end up staying artists, and that the ones who were still pursuing art were not necessarily the most talented, but were the ones who didn’t give up. “Talent is important,” Phi said. “I’m not saying it’s not, but not giving up is almost more important.”

 

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