Minnesota’s most prolific Lao artist travels the state to unpack her people’s past
Saymoukda Vongsay first generated buzz with her poem “When Everything Was Everything” in 2010. After taking a break from poetry to pursue playwriting, Vongsay has shifted her focus back to spoken word in 2017. She sat down with The Wake to discuss her newest project, which recently received funding from Intermedia Arts’ VERVE grant, and the Loft Literary Center’s Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship.
The Wake: What do you plan to do with the money you’ve received from the VERVE grant?
Vongsay: So basically the project is, I would be travelling the state of Minnesota, and I’m going to interview ethnic Lao survivors of the Vietnam War. Get their stories, learn about their life back in Laos, and then learn about their escape and resettlement story; create poems out of those stories, and then work with a speech coach, create video poems, and have them on my website so that they’re accessible. At first I thought about having a book. But I don’t think books are that accessible for my elders. They’d rather watch me than read, because written language is not always as accessible. And for that same project I also got the Loft Literary Center Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship. So that means doubling my efforts, and being able to pay the interviewees more than what I initially was going to, so that’s good.
The Wake: You said recently that you turned to playwriting for a bit because poetry didn’t want you.
Vongsay: Yeah. Fuckin’ poetry. Poetry is picky, man, it has standards. Poetry was my first art form. It’s the most accessible form of literary arts for me, mostly because I only write in free form. And when you write in free form, there’s freedom, right? I did poetry up until 2011. I was submitting things for publication and nothing was getting published, like, barely. I asked for grants to complete this manuscript… nothing. And then a friend of mine asked me to join her playwriting collective for playwrights of color. I had never written a play before, and they told me to join anyways, and that they would help me learn about playwriting. And I’m like, I love that.
The Wake: You mentioned that when writing Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals you listened to Wu-Tang Clan. What about them inspires you, and what do you think about their sampling of corny old kung fu movies?=
Vongsay: I like hip hop culture, but I don’t know all the nitty grittys. But I know enough to get by. If you gave me a midterm right now, I could get like, a C. You know what I’m saying? I think I listened to Wu-Tang because it had the kung fu stuff. I love the sound effects. That was helping me picture the fight scenes and all that stuff. I’d probably say Ghostface is my favorite of the group. He talks about food a lot. And my play actually mentions food, like, a lot of times. If you looked at my script you’d see a lot of similarities.
The Wake: In your poem “Not Out Loud,” you mention that Simba awakened you sexually. Would you mind expanding on that?
Vongsay: I was definitely going through puberty at that time. Definitely. And then for some reason I was like yo, Simba, yo! Holla at you real quick. Not young Simba, but old Simba.
The Wake: I had baby Simba in mind. That had me fucked up.
Vongsay: [Simba] and Jin from Tekken. You know the game Tekken? There’s a character named Jin and I was like, yeah, Jin, yeah.
The Wake: Do you ever worry that the more successful you become, the more you’ll lose touch with your identity as a refugee?
Vongsay: No! I’ve only gotten more successful because I keep referencing my “refugenius.” I feel like Lao people are really shy about talking about their stories. There’s this emphasis on, “Oh, I’m no one, don’t interview me, go interview General So-and-So.” I don’t know if they’re humble or if they’ve been conditioned to fear speaking. The U.S. bombed my country. We had nothing to do with the Vietnam War. We’re the most bombed country per capita, and they’re not doing very much to go clean it up. To this day the bombs are killing people. I know a lot of people feel grateful coming to this country, you know, having political asylum, but that doesn’t erase the fact that we’re here in the first place because this happened. You don’t want to clean up these bombs? Give me money to write a poem.