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Two poets exploring, not explaining

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Lee and Phi
Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi have been fixtures on the Minnesota poetry, spoken word, and slam scenes since the 1990s. Now the Minnesota poets are both releasing collections exploring the Asian American experience.
MPr photo/Euan Kerr

Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi say they are pretty much done with explaining: now they want their work to be exploration.

The two nationally-recognized Minneapolis poets have been fixtures on the spoken word and poetry slam stages in the Twin Cities for years. This weekend they each celebrate the release new poetry collections. Their respective works explore the Asian American experience — with a very Minnesota perspective.

Bao Phi and Ed Bok Lee sit in the banquet room above the Rainbow Chinese Restaurant in South Minneapolis. The place is richly decorated with lacquer screens, dragon-entwined vases, and even a rickshaw, but there is still something solidly midwestern about the room. The Rainbow is in the midst of Ed Bok Lee's stomping grounds.

"So, this street, I think, and I live on this street, on Nicollet, it's I feel like this is a main artery," Lee said. "It's kind of the only, kind of China — I don't want to say Chinatown but Asian concentrated business section in Minneapolis."

Lee and Phi have lived around here for years. It was just up the street in the 1990s in a back room at the distinctly German Black Forest Restaurant where their slam collective, Mongrel rehearsed.   

Now, years later they are preparing to read together at a publishing party at the downtown Minneapolis Public Library tomorrow night.

These two know the others' work well. As poets they weigh every word they use so it's striking to hear what one will say about the other. Boa Phi just lays it out.

"With Ed's work, I think he is just one of the best poets in the English language," Phi said. "And I think he is able to write very clearly, and with a great deal of poignancy, but in a way that isn't precious, if that make sense."

Lee is equally direct about Phi's poetry.

"I think he's, if not the, one of the first poets who raised the hair on my head, and all over my body," he responds. "You know when I first heard him read — he goes to places no one else will go."

Race, class, gender, nationality. Humanity. These are the topics interlaced in Bao Phi's collection "Song I Sing."  This new book contains a series of character poems about people with the common Vietnamese surname Nguyen. He reads "Changeling," about a young woman with the nickname Cutty, which can mean different things to different people.

"Cutty as in Cu Chi, traitor in a tunnel rising snakelike from a hole you never expected in the earth, innocent dirt you could turn your back to suddenly now the slant-eyed succubus stabbing you with a chopstick she took from the bun in her hair.

Cutty as in never quietly, but seldom heard, as in Cutty who gives a (hell) what you think anyway, Cutty as in I need to be, as in Cutty is not my name it should be obvious but you never asked."

Phi says Asian Americans often find themselves in the difficult place of being acknowledged by the larger society, but not completely.

"People are very used to the Asian tragedy, you know, the story of our tragic sorrowful lives, like going through hardship," he said. "But people are not quite ready to consume or accept our anger."

For his part Ed Bok Lee finds it troubling that he as an Asian American writer is expected to explain his cultural references, a task which White writers seem to have been excused.

"I'm not interested in explaining," he said. "I'm interested in exploring and discovering." 

Lee's new collection is called "Whorled" and explores everything from history, science and the death of languages to dreams of winning the lottery. 

He writes about the Chai Vang case: the 2004 hunting season confrontation in Wisconsin between a Hmong man from the Twin Cities and a group of White locals which left six people dead. And he writes of the love between his parents, and compares it with his own, and his habit of making iced coffee with condensed milk.

"Musical ice cubes
in mugs for me and her.
As my father once

loved to sweeten
my own silly
tears."

Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi say when they were young they didn't really think there was a living in poetry, but now are surprised to find perhaps there is. They certainly both intend to continue to write and perform. 

And explore.

The two poets will read a selection 8 p.m. Saturday at the Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall.