Interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa

1. How did you first get into writing?

I was first interested in writing because of reading. Whatever it was there in reading—I wanted to be part of creating that experience for someone else.

2. Who or what inspires and influences you?

A lot of people and things inspire and influence me. I’m inspired by my parents who built a raft made of bamboo when they were 23 years old in order to get to a refugee camp in Thailand. I’m inspired that they took me home with them when the doctor said I wouldn’t survive without being put in an incubator. I’m inspired by my grandfather who at age twelve walked from Hanoi to Vientiane because his parents told him there was a war coming and they couldn’t take care of him. I’m inspired by my publisher Beth Follett for keeping things small and beautiful and gutsy. I’m inspired by the Black Mountain poets for doing what they did instead of looking like they were doing what they did. Florence Vale who made beautiful things. Blueberries. Yoko Ono. Concrete. Andrew DuBois. Paperclips. Staples.

3. There’s a real sense of the natural world viewed through a precise, scientific lens in your work, especially the pieces about insects and fruit. What sort of sparks this imagery for you?

I like making things and looking at things. I’m interested in how things are put together and how they come apart. I also like organizing things and the act of collecting. I’m drawn to insects and fruits because they can be worked with in that way.

I also like that everyone knows what a grasshopper or what an orange is because it means I have an image to contrast, to variate, to repeat.

Insects and fruits worked for me in the way a painter might choose only red to work with. It gave me limits and a great sense of discipline and a tremendous sense of focus. In the way a sonnet might require particular counts or movements or closures, insects and fruits had material that orchestrated how I was counting, moving, or closing. If I was talking about a grasshopper, I talked about where it was, what it looked like, every part that was particular to that tiny body was considered and looked over. I didn’t add in a plane in the sky even though the thought or actual looking might have included a plane in the sky. It was just the grasshopper.

4. What do you think about the trend of poets using scientific language in their writings?

I think the simple questions science produces about the world are really the simple questions every human mind wonders about once you start discovering the world around you: why is the sky blue, why do things that go up must come down, why am I here, why am I made this way, why are other people here.

5. Do you see this as creative or bridging the gap?

I talked to my friend Andrew DuBois about this very thing. I came from it thinking there’s a clear difference between what science is and was poetry is in the same way that when writers use philosophical language there’s a clear and distinct difference between what is philosophy and what is poetry. For example, you can’t just take what Kant or Descartes wrote and shelve it in the poetry section but you can say that it is like poetry or even that it is but it will still be in the philosophy section of the library. I think you can make use of the tools in philosophy, you can approach a poem the way a philosopher might work but you are clearly sitting down and making a poem—as in the elements and structures that govern poetry are going to be in use. I don’t think using scientific language or philosophical language is “creative” but I do see it as being resourceful and as an act of admiration, respect, and solidarity. Language—scientific, geographic, mathematic, philosophic—is material and what you pick and choose and how you arrange it all is to your own creative impulses. I don’t think the language itself is creative but how the writer works with it is.

6. Why do you write poetry?

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.

7. Tell me about your involvement in Big Boots? What is the publication? What’s your involvement?

big boots was a zine for and by women of colour. I was part of the editorial collective for a short while. I stapled zines. It was fun.

8. Tell me about your publications? What have you produced?

I have two poetry books from Pedlar Press. The most recent one is titled Found. 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. Found is similar to Small Arguments. In Small Arguments I took a series of things and looked at it in bits and pieces but in Found, I took only one thing and looked at in its bits and pieces. 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.

I’ve published five chapbooks on my own before Small Arguments. I was my own printing press. I printed and bound each copy by myself and sold them to people like Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip and my dentist. I also have a chapbook of one-act plays (The Weed Woman) published by Junction Books and in Vancouver, Green Boathouse Books published a recent chapbook (residual) that contained only four poems. Blah, blah, right?

9. What was the process of putting together Small Arguments like?

Putting Small Arguments together was not hard at all. I had made a series of chapbooks and Small Arguments is a collection of them. If you mean what was it like to get Small Arguments published, I would have to say frustrating. A lot of presses wanted what was already out there and when your book had similarities with what was out there they would pick at how you weren’t like what was out there—and, of course, I didn’t want to be like anyone out there so that was an easy thing to pick at. When no one has heard of you—and most likely as an undergrad at U of T, no one has—no one wants to publish you or look at your manuscript. It was only by making my own books, getting features or readings on radio, television, or festivals built credentials. Pedlar Press took a chance on me and chose me and gave me so much independence and trust. It was also the attention of Dionne Brand. She saw a manuscript of Small Arguments and suggested it to Beth Follett of Pedlar Press.

10. What kind of ideas were you working with when you wrote the poems in Small Arguments?

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 tie for you—it was yours to work for. I also wanted to make a statement about where I was coming from and how you should approach reading the material. The poem about salt tells you that there are no measuring cups to mark how much is enough, no scales to balance the weight one holds—there are no structured rules but that of instinct and individual choice that would govern and regulate what it was going to be here.

11. Small Arguments, physically, has an almost hand-crafted touch to it, did you feel this was important for the spirit of your writing?

Absolutely. I came from a hand-crafted background and I wanted to take those ideals and qualities with me.

12. Small Arguments won an award, which one was this?

Small Arguments won the ReLit Award. The ReLit award is described by the Globe & Mail as “The country’s pre-eminent literary prize recognizing independent presses.” It also won an Alcuin citation for its design.

13. Do you like reading/performing your poetry? Do you think the impact of a poem can change depending on whether it’s read aloud or read off the page?

I do enjoy reading my poems very much. It’s always interesting to see how people respond.

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. There’s an energy there you can participate in.

In my experience, I found that sometimes readers are distracted by the enjambed lines I have and they have difficulty moving from one set of words to another without stopping and losing what they started off with. Mechanically, this was important to me because I wanted people to stop, to go back, to pay attention at every set since the poems moved so quickly. The poems I write are usually built out of two sentences. If you don’t stop, if you don’t go back, if you don’t take things in slowly then you will miss the mechanics of it and leaf through each one with only the surface reading.

Having to stop like that is kind of distracting and so they have to read it over a few times. When I read my poems at a reading, I don’t work that out on your time. It’s a clear single reading. It’s fast and sometimes the mechanics of what I’ve done gets lost. When the venue allows for it, I show a film that Kelly Egan did that draws out what the words are doing.

With my poems, it can be challenging to read because they are built out of a series of blank spaces and silences—but that’s only if you approach it with the ideas of a conventional reading. If you come at it expecting me to explain and feed you a neat clean idea of the world you will feel what I’ve done has failed you—and it probably has because you came at it looking for something particular you wanted to see but that’s not how things work there. You have to approach it with the same kind of reading you would give to a painting or a film. You take what is there and you direct yourself where to look and how to look and how to put it together by paying attention to what’s within that frame, by participating.

That part can be challenging for a reader to read because how do you “read” a blank space or silence when 97% of what you get to read doesn’t ask this of you. I have to direct things such that the blank space holds its weight in meaning and as a performer I have to find a way to show that to a listener who might not have a book to draw from. At all times, I’m aware of what fails and what doesn’t. And I can only know this by going out there and presenting the work in other platforms.

14. Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I’m working with Paramita Nath on a film interpretation of Found, my second book. Found is inspired by a scrapbook my father kept when we were living in a Lao refugee camp in 1978. It was written in Laotian and I don’t know how to read or write in Lao. What I wrote about were built out of fragments, dots, doodles, maps and diagrams I found in his scrapbook.

After reading Found, Paramita felt a kinship to the work as a filmmaker and wanted to do something with it, give it another life outside its literary ambitions. She pitched the idea to Bravo and they gave her a grant to put it together.

Also, I’m working with Kat Burns (she’s also a singer/song-writer) on a film animation for Nuit Blanche. She’s going to make two pieces and they’ll appear throughout the night.

And, I’m planning on a trip to Italy. Eeeeee!!!

15. You say in Materials that language was your way in, what kind of role did writing have in your life growing up?

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. I remember reading the word “knife” with him and we pronounced the “k”. When my grade one teacher told me to read that word aloud she told me I was wrong, you don’t pronounce the “k” but out of pride and out of preserving the thought that my dad was invincible, I argued and argued to be right. I was sent to the principal’s office to calm down. I see that it was never about the word “knife” but about the consequence of it. How pronouncing it incorrectly brought shame to me and said something about where I come from, about my family. And I argued and cried for that first letter to be pronounced because I was arguing about our place, our home, where we come from. I remember coming home and telling my dad the first letter was silent and him asking me why it was if it is there and especially if it was the first letter. That order, of it being first, meant something. 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.

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