A Fond "See You Soon" to Bao Phi

Banner image of Bao Phi standing in a packed Performance Hall

 

In 1975, the Loft Literary Center opened in the loft above Marly Rusoff's bookstore, and in 2000, the Loft moved to its beloved space in Open Book. That move nearly coincided with the hire of a new receptionist, Macalester College graduate and poet Bao Phi (Bao started at the Loft in 1999 when it was located at the Pratt Community Center). 

It's impossible to talk about the Loft without talking about Bao's effect on the organization. Bao has been affiliated with the Loft for almost its entirety, and during his time as curator and director of events and awards, he's introduced cornerstone programming. 

"Bao led the way in making spoken word something more than just competition poetry in the Twin Cities and designed a program (EQ) that had an impact on soooo many artists as well as the audiences that attended," said Loft colleague Beth Schoeppler. "Bao imbues his work with his deep humanity, humor, incredible intellect, and justified anger—both loud and whispered . . . his work is a gift to be cherished."

Marcie Rendon, a Minneapolis playwright, poet, author, community arts activist, and member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, also spoke of EQ: "Bao created Equilibrium—there is not a similiar venue outside of maybe New York that I am aware of—it has been a a beginning place for many new writers (his work at the Loft/Equilibrium) and a place for top notch bipoc writers from around the country. For a young guy, he is a 'grandfather' of the really good 'new' literary arts in this part of the world."

EQ isn't the only Loft program Bao is known for. Between the McKnight Fellowship, the Mentor Series, and the Mirrors & Windows Fellowship, Bao's leadership, support, and facilitation has opened doors for countless writers. In fact, in his tenure, these programs have championed more than 500 people.

Image of Bao Phi standing with other local authors

It may be Bao's intentionality for these programs that speaks the loudest. An Asian American man in what has historically been a predominantly white space—both the Loft and the Twin Cities lit scene—Bao has worked tirelessly to create a more equitable landscape and to find opportunities that will help shift these spaces to a more realistic representation of our vibrant community. 

"I once saw Bao read a poem about his experience as a Vietnamese immigrant growing up here in the Twin Cities. He was utterly transformed as he voiced his anger and hurt along with an incisive wit in interaction with some of his white neighbors and classmates. He'd always presented as calm and easy going and I'd never seen him like that. I thought, that's the power of good storytelling and the ability to hold and share the whole of one's truth," recalled Arleta Little, the Loft's current Executive Director. 

"The Loft is forever changed for the better because of Bao's deep, consistent efforts to grow its inclusivity and accessibility," said Loft colleague Lynn Casale. "He has helped to shape us."

"At the Loft, Bao made sure that artists of color were consistently and prominently featured and helped the white leadership of the Loft (including me) understand the differences between inclusivity and equity before either word was part of the zeitgeist," added Beth Schoeppler.

"I first met Bao when I was a board member of the Loft around 2015," said Jocey Hale, former executive director of the Loft. "He and another staff member confronted me on terminology we were considering in the strategic plan. I admire anyone who speaks truth to power."

"Neither the Loft or the Twin Cities literary community would be as diverse, open, and powerful without Bao's work," said David Mura, author, poet, playwright, and performance artist. "He has been absolutely instrumental in bringing both local and national BIPOC writers into the Loft. He has helped the BIPOC writing community to see that there is a place for us at the Loft, and he has absolutely diversified and empowered this community of BIPOC writers; in the process, he's awakened white writers to the diversity here that, prior to his coming to the Loft, was certainly neglected or placed in a marginal position not just at the Loft but in the greater Twin Cities literary scene. Moreover it's important to note that Bao is vitally connected to a national community of BIPOC writers, particularly the spoken word community and the Asian American community. To many, he is the hub, the one we look to to alert us to relevant issues and causes, to new writers and new ways of thinking. He connects people, locally and nationally, and in that way he is both a local and national treasure."

This seems to be a theme throughout his adult life, at least according to Marcie Rendon: "Bao was a student at Macalester College, and he organized a poetry reading for writers of color to 'talk to other poets of color'—rather than just addressing non-bipoc folks. His idea was way ahead of the times, and I was so impressed with his brilliance." 

"The Loft has been more representative of diverse communities because of Bao's work and the he has made the Twin Cities literary scene more vibrant and inclusive," says Arleta Little in reflecting on Bao's legacy.

But if you ask his friends and colleagues about Bao, while they'll certainly speak of his poetry and welcoming presence and critical societal eye, chances are they'll soon turn to one of two other topics: food and pop culture.

"Oh, it has to be the croissants from Trung Nam," said Lynn Casale when asked about his tastiest contribution. "Unforgettable."

Beth Schoeppler had a similar sentiment: "Definitely Trung Nam plain croissants!"

"Whenever Bao recommends on Facebook a movie or series, I watch it," said Jocey Hale. "There have been many. I appreciate his ability to shift from 'high art' to 'low art.'"

It's not just his suggestion of good entertainment, though; according to previous Loft executive director Linda Myers, sometimes he offers the entertainment himself. "After Li-Young Lee’s reading at the Loft, he and Bao wowed members of the Loft staff with their knowledge—and their singing!—of the lyrics to all the hits of The Carpenters!"

"Beau Sia, the AA spoken word collective 'I was Born with Two Tongues,' the Angry Asian Man blog site" were what came to mind for David Mura, and Loft colleague Savannah Brooks fondly recalls work conversations that quickly devolved into their shared love of martial arts and martial arts films. You can even see his love of all things Star Wars in a blog post Bao wrote to promote a Loft event back in 2019. 

Black and white image of Bao Phi reading at the mic during an EQ event

Luckily for us, his Loft colleagues, Bao isn't going far. Luckily for the Twin Cities community as a whole, his work will still be centering local writers. As much as we'll miss him, his work, and his choice of croissants, the McKnight Foundation will be that much better for his presence. We wish him all the best and can't wait to see the new ways his brilliant leadership reforms our artistic topography for the better.