Found arguments in a poetic light

Toronto poet Souvankham Thammavongsa comes to town, offers a fresh take on writing and poetry

Souvankham Thammavongsa
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Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham Thammavongsa shies away from labeling herself a poet, but the 30-year-old Torontonian’s take on poetry rings with the same precise and graceful scrutiny that can be found resonating throughout her own writing.

Thammavongsa is the author of two books, Small Arguments and Found, published by Beth Follet’s Pedlar Press. Small Arguments was the winner of the ReLit Award—the top literary prize awarded to independent presses—and an Alcuin citation for its delicate and hand-crafted design. Small Arguments offers an intimate vision of the world, telling the tales found under rocks and in your lunch bag with a poetic magnifying glass. With a subtle and exact story-telling technique, Thammavongsa takes a knife to insects, fruit, elements and weather, collecting and organizing these ordinary objects into uncovered secret stories.

“I was mostly working with material.  How to arrange and organize it.  I held dear the idea that everything you needed to know about these poems is right here in front of you.  The pleasure derived from reading them wasn’t going to come from some master on a misty mountain or packaged into a neat little bow and tied for you—it was yours to work for,” Thammavongsa said in an e-mail interview with the Journal.

Found, on the other hand, digs a little deeper into personal family history as a source of inspiration and speculation.

“In 1978 my parents lived in a Lao refugee camp and, while there, my father kept a scrapbook filled with doodles, maps, addresses, postage stamps.  He threw this scrapbook away and when he did, I took it and read through it and produced Found,”she said 

“Found was more difficult for readers because it was too particular.  It was about a man no one knew and about a life no one knew.  I had a man’s life and I had to prove why it was worth caring about him even though he never invented or created or took down or built a country.  He was just my father.  I had a powerful story and I refused to coast on that story.  I actually wrote.  But unlike a fruit or an insect, no one knew who my father was and so they had little material to work with.

“It was written in Laotian and I don’t know how to read or write in Lao.  What I wrote about was built out of fragments, dots, doodles, maps and diagrams I found in his scrapbook.”

The story is still working its way out as Thammavongsa is currently working with filmmaker Paramita Nath to make a film interpretation of Found for Bravo. Nath conntected to Thammavgongsa’s poems and the two plan to give the story a life in another medium.

Taking words beyond the page and doing readings is still another way Thammavongsa brings her stories and observations to life. 

“I definitely think hearing the author read her own work is quite the thing.  It’s more intimate and clear.  The pauses and breaths they take in or push out, the mechanics of it in action are a must in the same way you would want to see a sports game live rather than just reading the statistics,” she said. “There’s an energy there you can participate in.” 

A main stage reader of Toronto’s Scream in High Park Poetry Festival in 2004, Thammavongsa disarmed the large outdoor crowd, reading her small arguments with a beautiful, almost trembling voice. The Scream, which takes place in CanStage’s Dream amphitheatre, boasts the largest poetry crowd for a Toronto poetry festival.

When asked why she writes poetry Thammavgonsa takes on a mixed reaction.

“For the boys … just kidding.  I’m afraid to answer this one because if I do then it means that I do indeed write poetry and that I’m a poet.  I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to call myself a poet and I’m not sure I have the right to say that, yes indeed, what I do is poetry.  It is so grand and so beautiful, I’m not sure I could say I’m that grand or that beautiful.  I do feel I’m still outside and looking in.  I love the minds that are drawn there and the minds that are there. I want to be part of their looking, of their creating.” 

Though reluctant to claim the title Poet, Thammavgonsa still creates a sort of honest poetry both on the page and aloud as language carries with it a conflicted and rich meaning in her life.

“I was a quiet kid whose parents worked a lot for very little.  My parents didn’t know how to read or write in English.  When I learned to read, my father often sat down with me to read the books I brought home from school—not because this time spent together was our quality time or he was nurturing my intellectual capacities but because he too was learning to read,” she said.

“Reading and writing, for me, was not just to fill out a form or to read a book for pleasure—it was also about knowing where I come from and where I stood.”

Souvankham Thammavongsa will be reading in Kingston this Monday for students in Carolyn Smart’s creative writing class and others in Watson 517 at 12:30 p.m. The event is free and all are welcome.

Please see “Interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa” for a full interview transcript.

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