Bend What's Expected: Bao Phi's THOUSAND STAR HOTEL

Guest Article by: 
Ching-In Chen

Thousand Star Hotel, Bao Phi’s powerful second collection of poetry, wrestles with inheritance and lineage – the devastation of war, poverty, racism and the costs of masculinity. In the book’s opening poem, “Say What?,” Phi uses a repetition of the word “Ma” and the six different meanings in Vietnamese to conclude that “Vietnamese people have always been spoken word poets. How you say it/ is as important to the life of the word/ as the word itself.” This sets the stage for the poems which follow, treading the line between documenting in narrative form growing up Vietnamese American and poor in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis and experimenting to bend what’s expected. For Phi, the central struggle of the book is to “find a language/ to speak of the things/ that haunt me the most.”

One of the conversations Phi returns to throughout the collection is a consideration of who is unseen and unappreciated – often arising from the stories of those in the neighborhood he grew up in because they are poor and in the hood and family members because they are Vietnamese/American refugees. The speaker in “Lead” is ashamed of his father because he “see[s] the enemy hiding/ everywhere.” He doesn’t want to believe his father when he claims someone is shooting a BB gun at his back, despite the actual evidence that he is right. The son comes to understand in hindsight that “My dad had a son who thought he was just another gook/ who didn’t know what caused him pain.”

Though often painful in its witness to violence, these poems offer quiet celebration of survival and resilience, often from an older adult speaker looking back at his younger self. The title prose poem explains that “Vietnamese people joke that they don’t need a four-star hotel–even the homeless, sleeping in the wide open, are treated to a thousand star hotel every night.” Much of the pleasure in the book does come from listening to the stories Phi has gathered to share, starting with a minimum-wage cart pusher who teaches the younger poet about vulnerability – and who shows him “the vocabulary to overcome himself.”

As an award-winning spoken word poet, Phi is particularly attentive to the sonic nuances in his poems, often harnessing repetition and variation to his advantage in poems such as “Knockoff” and “Oriental Flavor.” However, true to the intent to break out of expected form, there is a range of style, voice and tone in the collection, as if the goal was to “rewrite the many veins of possibility/ that would shape how it would be seen.” Even the writing, which nods to traditional and hybrid form, pushes against the form such as “Villain/elle: Shimomura Cross Over in the Flat of the Night,” which shines with angry sarcasm.

Though the humor is evident in many of the poems, the most affecting of the poems are the tenderest – personal poems about a father’s relationship to a young daughter. In these poems, there are ghostly imprints of the trauma passed down from the speaker’s family, especially his father. In “Refugerequiem,” the speaker is trying to teach his daughter consequences for hitting him. The daughter, crying, chases her father and the speaker “wonder[s] if our daughter is not as far from the war as I hoped she’d be …. what ghosts made of gunpowder and spilled oil and jet stream live in her tiny muscles.” Many of the poems wrestle with what kinds of self-hate and violence he fears that she will encounter into a world in which there are “a thousand flashing neon signs telling her what she/ doesn’t have.” In this world, the best antidote may be to “let us write/ as if the world were paper/ and we our own stories/ to live tell.”


Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi/Red Hen Press, 2009) and recombinant (Kelsey Street Press, 2017). Born of Chinese immigrants, they are a Kundiman, Lambda, Callaloo and Watering Hole Fellow and a member of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundations writing communities.They currently teach creative writing at Sam Houston State University, where they are a poetry editor for the Texas Review.

They will be performing with Bao Phi for his event at Brazos Bookstore on October 27 at 3pm.

Thousand Star Hotel Cover Image
By Bao Phi
$16.95
ISBN: 9781566894708
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Coffee House Press - July 4th, 2017

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