A short interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa
Souvankham Thammavongsa has written three poetry books, Small Arguments (2003), Found (2007), and Light (2013), all published by Pedlar Press. Of her most recent collection, The Globe and Mail said “[t]his new collection confirms Thammavongsa’s place as one of the most interesting younger poets at work in the country," and the Trillium Book Award jury, awarding her the prize for poetry, called the collection “a landmark in contemporary poetry.” Her first book won the 2004 ReLit prize. Her second book was made into a short film by Paramita Nath and screened at film festivals worldwide including TIFF, L.A. Shorts Fest, Dok Leipzig and other places. She has been in residence at Yaddo. Souvankham is working on a collection of short stories and a memoir of her childhood, some of which has appeared in Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s Learning To Love You More project and in Women in Clothes (Penguin, 2014), a collaborative book by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton + 639 others. Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand in 1978 and was raised and educated in Toronto.
Q: I’m curious about your movement from poetry to prose, shifting from the dense precision of your poetry to your current works-in-progress: a collection of short stories, and a memoir. After three poetry collections, what do you feel prose is allowing you to explore that might not have been possible otherwise?
A: I don’t think of it as movement. I am not moving from one thing to another. A reader is doing the moving based on what’s been seen. It is like looking at a blade of grass and then looking up at the sky, realizing that it is part of the landscape too. That it had been there all along.
Poetry has always allowed me to explore possibilities. I don’t feel limited by it. I don’t think I am making a distinction between the poetry and prose, but I know I am thinking differently when I think of each. It isn’t so much “poetry” or “prose” that is different or that I think is similar—it’s the thinking inside each.
Q: So, would you say that in your prose you are exploring similar possibilities through different means? Or is it simply the shape of the result that appears different, adjacent to your three poetry collections?
A. I think the prose has the shape of a different voice. In the poetry, I am very precise, careful, closed, quiet but the prose is open and funny and doesn’t concern itself with line breaks or the shape of a word or how the words are arranged with the blank space. The prose is working off of and picking up some of the things I did with poetry. My intention is to make one thing know how the other is working within itself, within the three poetry collections.
Q: The way you describe your prose, it very much sounds as though your short story and memoir projects exist as extensions of what you’ve already accomplished with your poetry, allowing you to move deeper into your material. How do the two prose works-in-progress related to each other? Are you finding any difficulty in composing a fiction project and a memoir project concurrently?
I’m not sure how they relate to each other. It’s too soon to say.
No. I don’t find it difficult to write both of them at the same time. I find it difficult to write in general. I was working on them while I was writing the poetry too.
Q: I was about to ask if you were working on such, concurrently. Have your explorations into prose altered, in any way, how you approach the poem?
A: I have written a few poems but they are not near what I wish for them to be. It isn’t unusual. I just finished a poetry book in 2013 and usually I wait four or five years before I begin to see things coming together. I work this way because my poetry books have always been about something very particular. I was so focused and particular with Light that it’s been hard not to think of light, to always be looking and noticing it. I get myself into these lines of thought and I have to wait for myself to get out of it.
One thing I’ve always loved about poetry was no one could tell me how to write it or what to write. Some of it had to do with the economics of it, if there is one at all. Some of it had to do with the attitude around the review space in literary magazines or the bookstore shelf. I had the idea that I was only doing it for myself and it might be seen by some close friends. There is a privacy I get to have with my craft. This made me feel brave in it. I could write whatever I want. After three poetry books I feel the weight of expectations from myself to be a particular thing for a reader and I don’t like that. I want writing to feel new to me and I want to surprise myself and I want my voice to change. I think the prose is doing that to the poems.
Q: I’ve always admired the incredible density of your poem, composing out of such lyric smallness, comparable to works by Rae Armantrout, Nelson Ball and Mark Truscott. Who were your models early on, and how do you feel as though your poetry has developed?
A: I didn’t have books when I was growing up, and the only time I was exposed to them was in school, at the public library, or from Oma and Ernest (a couple who sponsored our family to Canada from the Lao refugee camp). I came late to reading. My mother didn’t know how to read and my father worked all the time that he didn’t have time to read with me—and the few times that he did, he struggled with the material too. When I read at home it was for serious matters like filling out forms or rental agreements or letters from the government.
I remember coming across poems at school and liking the poems of Walt Whitman. I use to write these long and winding things but I didn’t realize no one would give me the time or space to talk like that. It’s true that my poems are small, especially when they were first starting to be published. I tried them out at open mic readings in Toronto and you don’t have much time to impress anyone in that setting. I wanted to write something that could change the atmosphere of the room almost like a light switch. I think anything long would have lost the room’s attention. I think anything expected would have lost the room’s attention. The smallness also came from making my own books and selling them at the small press fair. Anything long would cost too much to print for me so I kept them small. I also had to carry these books around in my school knapsack and couldn’t have them be heavy. The making and selling of my own books added a real physical element to the writing. It determined its length, that’s for sure.
Then there’s the dictionary. I spent a lot of time with one because when I read at home there was no one to ask what it meant or how to use that word. So I liked to read the dictionary. I would look up words and read their meanings. I loved that kind of description. I am pretty loyal about what I like. Early on and now. I like William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, Donald Barthelme. Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright. Rita Dove, Louise Gluck. I was really excited to come across Carson McCuller’s Ballad of the Sad Café. Samuel Beckett. I loved the writing in stand-up comedy. I liked watching Richard Pryor. His delivery and material, what he did with fear and anger. I also liked to listen in to conversations at parties or weddings my parents went to. They would talk with their friends and the jokes could be nasty and hilarious, a real adult dose of things. The way their voices sounded. I never read stories about people like my parents or saw movies or television shows with people like us. I watched them a lot and listened to them. They fascinated me and made me want to get it all down on paper.
Little projects. I like I having little projects, making things. My books feel like that to me. My first book was about fruits and insects, the small. My second book was about my father and learning how to read. And the most recent one is about light. I feel though that I am always thinking of the other. Small Arguments deals with the small but it’s the idea of big that it really deals. The book about my father is about finding and foundations but it’s built out of loss and being lost. And it’s really the dark that defines the work of light. Without the knowledge or intimacy of the dark, Light would have been too one-dimensional and simplistic. I talk about one thing but it’s really an understanding of the other that makes the work what it is. That working to get to the other is what I’m really after. I think the way my writing has developed shows up physically in the books themselves. The font size and the book shape of the first two books are small—the print, the voice, the feeling. The third one has grown in terms of line length, font size, and book shape. A lot of people read my poems and call it minimalist but I don’t think I am. My poems are really bare and that is what the minimalism refers to but bare is the more accurate description. Sometimes they are read as being flat but if you’ve heard me read them, there’s a deep feeling and that’s what I’m making flat. I’ve always written with the idea of working within a small and narrow space and showing it isn’t small at all, or if it's wide and expansive it can be reduced to a pin-dot. That hasn’t changed.
Q: I’m always curious about writers who work in a language other than their first, which often allow possibilities that native speakers might not have considered, as well as the “deep intimacy” you speak of, given your years deliberately exploring the minutae of the English language through writing. What does knowing another language, or your experience of language, do to your poems?
A: I don’t work in another language other than English. I know how to speak Lao but I don’t know how to write Lao. I write the Lao words out with the English language, trying my best to capture what it would sound like with these English letters. In Light, there are Icelandic words too. I don’t know how to speak Icelandic but I can look at the two words that mean “light” and “poem” and wonder at how close they are to each other. Translating them is not enough, putting those particular two words together at the end of a line draws attention to how close they are. Wondering at that closeness is the poem. With my poem “Fie” I am thinking about translation and how inaccurate it is. I wanted to say something about how you must go back to the first word you know and build on that, the way you would pay respect to those who you believe are responsible for your being here. Anything that has light must acknowledge that first fire: fie mie, fie sang, fie mot. Whatever you do to light, you must mention the light. It would be correct to just say “fire” but it would not capture how it can be used or the attitude of the people who use the language. I am trying to use the English language to do that, to behave that way. I don’t think people who only have access to one language can’t know or wonder along with the poem. They might not know how to pronounce the words, sure, but what the poem means or does is right there.
In the poem, “Joule” I am writing about “jewel” and “joule.” In Lao, the tones of a word determines the meaning, where you place your tone makes the word have meaning. Anyone who knows English can tell the two words (jewel/joule) look different but it’s the eye that shows a reader the difference and the way they are used in the sentence for meaning. I think anyone who knows English knows this already, but sure, speaking Lao made me wonder about these two words in this particular way. It’s the same with the poem “The Box a Light Bulb Comes In” where “watt” and “wat” are compared. That comparison is an English language one but it is Lao that makes me think that way.
Maybe this thinking or attention might come from knowing so many people who struggle with the English language and watching them do it. I remember my father struggled with the word “knife.” He pronounced the first letter and when I learned in school that you do not pronounce that letter, it didn’t make sense to him, he asked “Why put it there? It’s the first one.” It made sense to wonder about the position of a letter. It’s just a word, of course, but not knowing how to pronounce it showed me I had no one to turn to, that I was on my own. It said something to my teacher about my home life. To me, in my experience of it, it’s not just a word. What I am writing about is just my experience of language, that’s what I have access to, that’s what I am understanding and comparing. Those “mistakes” we make when we are learning a new language are worth valuing. Having the experience of getting it wrong contributes something to how you get it right when you do. Maybe knowing English and speaking only it and being around people who get it right all the time, doesn’t give you that experience with it. On the other hand, being someone who is interested in playing, wondering, and noticing the English language this way is not unusual if you are a poet, or someone interested in linguistics.