“I feel like my life in publishing is me stumbling into things,” the poet Bao Phi said, during a recent conversation with PW at Open Book, the building complex near downtown Minneapolis where Phi works as program director of The Loft Literary Center. In August, Capstone Books for Young Readers will publish Phi’s first picture book, A Different Pond, illustrated by Thi Bui. Bui’s graphic memoir about her family’s escape from Vietnam in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, was published by Abrams Comic Arts in March.
A Different Pond tells the tale of a Vietnamese father and his acclimated young son, who live in Minneapolis and spend early mornings fishing for food for the family on the city’s lakes and ponds. The tale was inspired by Phi’s own life story: his family fled Saigon in 1975, when Phi was three months old, and immigrated to the U.S., settling in Minnesota, which is nicknamed “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” A Different Pond received a starred review from PW.
Among the Twin Cities literati, Phi, who has been a performance poet since 1991, is legendary for becoming a published author after being approached years ago at a poetry slam by the late Allan Kornblum, Coffee House Press’s founding publisher. Kornblum asked Phi to submit a collection of his poems for consideration to the press, which has long been known for its nurturing of Asian-American writers.
Phi’s debut collection, Sông I Sing, was published by Coffee House in 2011. Last week, Coffee House released Phi’s second collection of poems, Thousand Star Hotel.
Just as Kornblum approached Phi years ago, wanting to publish his poetry, Capstone approached him, inviting him to write a children’s book. Capstone editorial director Beth Brezenoff and senior editor Kristen Mohn recalled that they were first introduced to Phi’s writing when they read his December 2014 blog post praising a picture book, Here I Am by Patti Kim and illustrated by Sonia Sánchez, that Capstone had published in 2013. The blog post was, Mohn declared, “poetry in itself,” and she contacted him to suggest that he consider writing a children’s book and submitting it to Capstone.
“It was great timing,” Mohn said, as, motivated by fatherhood, Phi had begun working for the first time on autobiographical material, including a poem written for an adult audience about fishing with his father that, after considerable tweaking, morphed into the story line of A Different Pond. Also, now that he has a seven-year-old daughter with a multicultural background, Phi noted, he has become more cognizant of the importance of diversity in contemporary children’s literature, “not just for my daughter, but for all children. I want my daughter to read stories about characters who both look like her and those who don’t.”
The collaboration between Phi and Bui was, Phi said, a learning experience for a poet accustomed to creating imagery through language. “There are some things I didn’t have to use words to describe,” he said, recalling that Bui would tell him to delete certain descriptions, as she “was going to draw it.” Although Bui grew up in California and now lives in Berkeley, and Phi has lived in Minneapolis since he was a baby, the two had much in common regarding their cultural experiences, resulting in a smooth collaboration.
Both of their mothers, for instance, made their own fish sauce and poured it into (empty) mayonnaise jars. “She got the cultural things,” Phi said. “I didn’t have to explain [that] to her.”
But Phi found that he had to explain certain aspects of growing up in Minnesota, as well as its flora and fauna, to Bui. “She’d want to know what tree, what pond, what was in the background,” and asked him to take photos of certain landmarks in the neighborhood in which he grew up, such as a bait store on Lake Street that he and his father frequented.
Now that Phi has written his first book for children, he’s eager to repeat the process—next time, basing the protagonist on his daughter. At the same time, despite his previous successes in the literary world, he takes nothing for granted. “Every book I publish, every show I do, I assume it’ll be my last. I come from conflict, I have never had any false notions that I am untouchable or that whatever platform I have will be forever. I’ll keep creating for as long as I can create.”