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Saymoukda Vongsay

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Vongsay is an award-winning poet and playwright. Her critically acclaimed play Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals was named “Best Production of 2013” by L’etoile Magazine. Her work has been made possible with support from organizations as the Jerome Foundation, the Joyce foundation, MRAC, and MSAB. She has a show on MPR called “The Interpretor”.

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0:04:54

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please contact Immigration History Research Center staff for permissions not covered by this Creative Commons license.

Transcription

Recorded April 2014

Voiceover:

“When everything was everything.”

Hi, my name is Saymoukda Vongsay and I am a Lao American poet and playwright. A lot of the poems I have written in the past 8 years have been about me trying to figure out my parents’ journey and what their stories were like. And a lot of times they are not able to express how they feel about the war and what happened to them. So a lot of those stories I had to imagine and it got to a point where I was, sort of, trying to pull too hard of these stories that had to be imagined. And I figured, “You know what? Maybe I should just write about things I knew.” And so, I wrote this poem called “When everything was everything” and it’s basically snippets of my childhood growing up as a refugee in different parts of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

“Food stamps in my pockets. Two dollars worth of Now & Laters. Green saliva, couldn’t swallow quick enough. I’m standing nervous. Red light on Dale Street. Crossed the bridge over Hwy 94. Trekking back to St. Albans. Candy wrappers clenched tight. I waved good-bye to Tiger Jack.

Every Friday Bhet opens the screen door and announces, ‘Pahw mah la, pahw mah la!!’ All afternoon we’ve waited. In my father’s tan Izuzu truck we drove to Hudson. Mom buys lottery tickets for her, bags of Funyuns and giant Slurpees for us. Bhet likes the blue ones — they stain his tongue so good, he makes a point to show me every time. On the way home though, mom spends imaginary millions in out-loud daydreams. And blue-lips smiling, my brother Bhet tells me we are like kings in Dad’s gold chariot. I agreed.”

The poem was difficult to write because it was very honest and it may have not always shown my family and my upbringing in the best light but I’m very fortunate that my parents found a good balance between working hard, working in cucumber field and third shift jobs, but also finding time to get us into museums and going to public art events. It was a good balance.

“Bowl cuts. Red-handle scissors.

Holding my Korean blanket, rolled under my arms. Dad carried trash bags, everything we owned, slung over his shoulders. My tiny feet tired from walking, twelve blocks to our new home. Stopping every other he asks me, “Ee la, nyang die yoo baw?” Every time, looking up, forcing a smile, “Doiy, ee pahw.””

I’m very proud of this poem “When everything was everything” because it received the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry from New York in 2010.

““Mah nee, ee Thoun,” Bhet says. And I follow him to his first grade classroom, passing cubbies, water color family portraits, and a picture of Jesus Christ. He lifts up the lid of his school desk, no. 2 pencils with bite marks, color crayons, and two small boxes of Sun-Maid raisins. He hands me one and smiles, shows me his teeth.

I interrupted my class when I walked in, returned from an ESL session. Mr. Smith made everyone read out loud, stopping when they want to. No one ever reads more than three sentences from The Cay. They giggled and snickered on my turn. That day, I read two chapters without stopping to breathe. The snickering, ridiculing, and ESL sessions stopped after that.”

One of the things that I really love about this poem is because I think it gives people a very honest look into what it was like for not only myself but, for people like me who are – probably won’t consider themselves even first-generation American, people who grew up in poor resource neighborhoods and had to work really hard to get to where they are.

I wanted to make sure that the poem had very concrete images. I’ve always been a visual person so I felt like people would be able to connect with it more if they could imagine these images too.

“Be the first to line up in front of the food truck before its back door slide up, thundering over the murmurings. Everyone wonders if they’ll get a bag of frozen chicken this time. Or angel food cake, two days passed the expiration date. I go around and I exchange all of my cheeses for boxes of rice with anyone who doesn’t look like me.”