Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: TO BE SELF-CIRCLING AND SELF-ENCLOSED - Pedlar Press in conversation with Souvankham Thammavongsa

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Special Feature: TO BE SELF-CIRCLING AND SELF-ENCLOSED - Pedlar Press in conversation with Souvankham Thammavongsa

Open Book is pleased to host an in-depth interview between Trillium Book Award winner for poetry Souvankham Thammavongsa, author of LIGHT (Pedlar Press) and her publisher, independent house Pedlar Press.

The interview was conducted via e-mail correspondence in August 2014. Several questions have been modified from Marilynne Robinson's Paris Review interview.

Souvankham speaks to Pedlar Press about her childhood in Toronto, how philosophy informs her writing process, writing poems on graph paper and much more.

Pedlar Press for Open Book:

When you were little, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?

Souvankham Thammavongsa:

I wanted to be so many things. An astronaut, a mailman, a school teacher, a gymnast, a Wall Street banker. My parents, even though they wanted so many things for themselves and the opportunities to do them, didn’t push me to live out their hopes and dreams. They just wanted me to have an education. That meant something to them. An education. Whatever I was going to be, my parents always made sure I knew I was not to be like them. My mother and father always owned up to their limits, and they would point to themselves, turn to me and my brother and say, “Don’t be like me.” That’s devastating for a child to know, but I knew it. I think, though, I became like my parents. I love to make things like they do. They make things. That’s not a bad thing to do, or be.

PP:

How did you approach creating the universal character of light in Light?

ST:

I didn’t have to. The subject itself was universal.

PP:

How did your family come to settle in Canada?

ST:

I am often thought of as an immigrant writer but I’m not. Immigrants tend to have skills that other countries want. They tend to be engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers in their own countries. My father carved patterns and faces into the temple doors, roofs, pillars. That’s not a skill that is useful in a country that does not have wats [editor's note: a wat is a monastery-temple]. My mother was illiterate. Immigrants also tend to know how to speak English really well in order to fill out the forms, do the paperwork, to do the interviews. They also tend to have money in order to make the move. My parents were refugees from Laos. They didn’t have an education or money and the people they knew didn’t either. They built a raft made of bamboo and crossed the Mekong river in that thing while being shot at, and settled in the refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. Sometimes people refer to me as a Thai writer just because I was born there. It makes sense. What they don't know is, if you are born in a refugee camp you are not considered a citizen but a stateless person. You don’t belong to any country once they title you stateless. After I was born, my family got baptized and the Catholic church in Canada sponsored us. We lived with an elderly couple, Olga and Ernest Kuplais, in their basement, in Scarborough. They helped my father find a job, gave us clothes, food, a place to stay until we were ready and capable of being on our own. In fact, they wanted my parents to save up enough money to buy a home of their own but my parents were young and wanted things the young want. They wanted a car to go downtown to see their friends, people who were from the same refugee camp, gather together for dinners, be connected to a community like themselves, speak their own language with people who knew. They moved out as soon as they could.

We loved Olga and Ernest. We celebrated our birthdays, Christmases, every major holiday with them. We kept in touch with them right up until their deaths. I was very close to them. They always had books around and would read to me. When I spent time with them, they’d give me a thousand-piece puzzle to put together. This was around the time I was two and my mother was giving birth to my brother. It was a difficult birth for her and my father worked long hours then. Olga, who I called Oma, watched after me. I think the puzzle kept her from having to run after me. I was never told by her it would be too hard for me and so I just worked at it all day. It kept me still and quiet. She would knit or read or listen to music. We would have sandwiches. I remember this time when I was caught trying to steal these psalms when I was about seven. They were bound like chapbooks and they were really small. I wanted to have one. And when I was caught, I was told I didn’t have to steal them; I could have them. They gave me all of them. When Ernest died, it was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It wasn’t choked-back tears that trickled out — it was full-out crying, sobbing out loud, his chest heaving. I never saw him like that before. Ernest was a stranger and his love and hope for our family was so grand and generous and without gain. Who, in their lives, ever gets to experience that kind of love? You don’t even get to have that with a real family member. It isn’t something you can even hope for. But there it was. There it was.

PP:

Was your family religious?

ST:

I have an unusual attitude about religion that I got from my family. I was baptized in the refugee camp and when we came to Canada we went to church and I went to Sunday school. I also went to the temple on Saturdays. I didn't feel I had to choose or that one was better than the other or that I was going to Hell. Temple ceremonies were often held in school gymnasiums or hockey rinks in the summer. It was funny to sit at centre ice without the ice and pray there. Even more funny to think of people in the empty stands. My brother played ice hockey too. I saw and experienced something people in schools, people who saw hockey games didn’t.

PP:

In your books of poetry you have used epigraphs from the works of philosophers. Do you think of your poetry as akin to philosophy?

ST:

No. I like philosophy and admire the thinking, the strict and clear thinking. I like how they can persuade you into a thought or they can convince that you don’t know what they are telling you because you have not put it that way. In Light, I had struggled with putting an epigraph in the book. I think the title itself directs readers how to enter the work — with their own idea of light. With Light, I wanted to say something about it myself. I wanted to put my own raw thinking at the centre of the language. It was a risk. Canadian poetry books tend to begin with epigraphs and mine didn’t. That’s unusual.

PP:

Are there any unpublished Souvankham Thammavongsa poems lying around that we don’t know about?

ST:

No. Every poem I’ve written has been published.

PP:

In one of Marilynne Robinson's novels, Gilead, a character says that in our everyday world there is “more beauty than our eyes can bear.” He’s living in America in the late 1950s. Would you agree with him today?

ST:

I suppose. I think things are ugly now. I don’t think what I do is about wanting things to be beautiful or trying to get them to be that way. It’s easy to notice beauty, to want to get there, to make an aim for it. It is a lot harder to try to do something with ugly. I use a lot of ugly words that hold everything together. I use words like “this,” “that,” “here,” “there,” “the,” “a,” “not,” “is” — these words are not beautiful and carry no meaning in themselves. If the poems are thought of as beautiful, it’s what this ugliness manages to do with what’s around it, what they manage to hold together long enough. These are the words that I make carry the poem, the ones responsible for the poem. I don’t think they are beautiful at all. I couldn’t bear it.

PP:

Do you believe in an afterlife?

ST:

I do. If energy is neither created nor destroyed...

PP:

Are religion and science two systems that don’t merge?

ST:

I think they are separate things. Both come from a desire to understand, to explain, to know. Maybe in that desire they do merge.

PP:

How would one learn to see ordinary things the way you do?

ST:

I don’t think I am looking at anything ordinary.

PP:

You use graph paper to compose some of your poems. Can you speak about this choice to work atop a grid?

ST:

It comes from high school math. I ran out of the lined paper and used the graph paper I had. It was also cheaper because there wasn’t a demand for it. I like that graph paper makes you responsible for space. Whether you see it or not, it’s there, that space.

PP:

Do you plot your poems?

ST:

Sometimes. I sometimes have a word and I circle around that. I did this with Light. I looked at how a word like light takes up the space it is in, in the real living world, in a sentence, in a meaning. Each of the poems in the book, if you were to throw them into a sieve, what would be left inside after some time is the small chunk I first circled around, the word light.

PP:

Does your poetic practice ever conflict with your “regular life”?

ST:

It is my regular life. A lot of people don’t understand that or no matter how I explain it’s not understood. So, I have to go and do things that seem regular like have a job and eat.

PP:

What is the most important thing you try to teach students when you attend academic classes?

ST:

That, hell, I’m not supposed to be there and we all kind of know it. They will spend three or five years there, and a face like mine, a name like mine, doesn’t appear on their syllabi. I think about the instructor a lot. Are they trying to fill something that is missing, do they know the work, do they care? Am I here just for show? To fill up some time? For ridicule? There is nothing worse than walking into a room full of students and have to spend the whole class explaining who you are and what you do. The students are open or closed or uninterested if their instructor is that way. Sometimes that is what I walk into, that uninterest, and I try my best to change that. I’ve been given an opportunity, a platform, and I might as well use it even if it isn’t open to me. I always tell myself, somewhere in that room is someone who will one day run a newspaper or magazine, become a literary critic, a writer of some kind, a publisher, someone who could end up in a position that will change my life and writing. I assume that person is sitting there and I talk to them. They already are someone, they just don’t know it yet. If there isn’t uninterest, I am amazed I get a chance to be there. I know I don’t sound like anything in the university so it’s easier to hear me. Also, what a wonderful chance for both me and them, to be able to ask each other questions! And to be alive together! It's a risk for the instructor too. Whatever they say about me to the students is on them.

PP:

What is your opinion of literary criticism?

ST:

It’s like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon that he’s just some kid who doesn’t know a fucking thing. He’s probably read everything about Michelangelo but has he been to the Sistine Chapel? Has he ever stood there and looked up at that painting? Does he know what it smells like in there? You can read and sound like you know things but that doesn’t mean you know them or the writer in particular. I think a good critic is someone who can situate you in the writing that came before you, can assess what you are trying to do and whether or not you’ve achieved that. Someone who knows things besides literature, like art, music, linguistics, respect. A small part of literary criticism is the review. In Canada, we only have two national newspapers. Two! That's so little space. My books have been around for almost eleven years and I got my first national newspaper review just this year. Most publishers would have dropped me a long time ago because of that. If I wasn't such a determined person, I would have given up right away. I wouldn't have continued writing. But, you know, I started off making my own books and stapling together zines and selling them myself. When you start that way, you kind of have a mindset that says: well, if you won't give me space, if you say I can't be part of that, I will make my own way. I think in terms of my books, my writing, there aren't a lot of interesting reviews. The knowledge isn't there besides the saying that they are good poems or what they are about, insects, fruits, my father, light, which is pretty easy to assess. I recently read a review of one of my books where the reviewer mostly quoted me—I thought it was hilarious that they used my interviews as their source material, to back up what they were saying. They were right about their assessment, of course. I do think I have to teach people how to read my books as well as being the writer of them. It’s exhausting. It also says something about the state of reviewing in Canada. How’s a reviewer supposed to know I’m doing something with the Lao language when all they know is English or maybe even French? I can tell there's a desire to speak about my work in terms of being an immigrant but that doesn’t quite work so the language around it isn't there; or reviewers don't want to ask why that is. To ask why would mean to make a work stand out and we don't like people to stand out too much. We want ourselves to sound like each other.

Also, I don’t sound complicated. A grasshopper is going to be about a grasshopper. It doesn’t require much thinking on their part, or explaining on their part. No one is going to be in awe that they see that in the poem. What they don’t review in a poem like that, or writing like that, is how it makes them feel. The poem is about feeling. Reviewers are reluctant to admit they feel something about the work. To feel something seems to be a measure of weakness or lack of credibility. We like poets and poems to be complicated, to require some explanation, to be responsible for us. I think my poems are complicated in a different kind of way. A lot of the writing I do isn’t on the page. It’s what I infer or gesture, what resonates. Those things don’t pop out on the page but they are there. Maybe they are like footnotes of a larger text you can’t see. How do you read what isn’t there? How do you do that kind of reading? How do you prove what is there except with your feeling? Feelings aren’t facts except to the person who feels them. Some of the most wonderful and useful reviews have been private letters to me, things outside the public sphere. I like those because they are private, free to feel, to get it right or be directed there. There are exceptions, however. I’ve been lucky. I've liked what Phoebe Wang did at The Puritan, Shawna Lamay at Canadian Poetries, and Jared Bland at the Globe and Mail. The Puritan gave Phoebe Wang this beautiful and unlimiting space—or she took that space and just ran into the open with it. Jared Bland had such a small space. That he managed to say what he did is really his skill as a writer. I am also deeply grateful for Anne Michaels’s reading of Small Arguments. She was brave.

PP:

Do you mostly read contemporary poetry and fiction?

ST:

Yes, but I read everything! I read fashion magazines, the news about sports, manuals, fishing books, celebrity gossip, maps. I like to see what people do with what they have.

PP:

Do you have any writing rituals, habits, or peculiarities?

ST:

I ask that you, Beth, not come see me read if I read new things or am testing out new work to a reading audience. I want the whole finished thing to be a surprise to you. I also do not work out on your time every little detail of a poem with you. You have your own writing to deal with. I don’t want you to know how hard it was for me to get there. I want you to see that I got there. I want you to be amazed and to say, “How did she do that?” If I show you everything in the beginning then you won’t have that question to yourself, which I think, is part of the achievement. That wonder. It’s also not just you. I don’t show my writing to anyone at all. If I feel the desire to hear feedback then I know there is something wrong with the writing. It shouldn’t need that. I want to figure out if it’s any good on my own. I don’t want someone else to tinker with it. It’s like building a motor yourself. It’s amazing when you’ve not followed some manual or instruction or rule and somehow made it move—that move of magic you managed to get going for it. I want that for myself first.

PP:

Do you keep to a routine?

ST:

No.

PP:

Do you keep a journal or diary?

ST:

Yes. I have since I was twelve. I like to go back and read what I sounded like. I want to hear my voice, my young and hopeful and private and raw voice.

PP:

What about revision? Is it an intensive process?

ST:

Not when it is a manuscript. The vision I have for something never changes but the words that make up that thought do get revised. I can spend decades on a poem. To be self-circling and self-enclosed for so long is intense.

PP:

Most people know you as a poet, but you spend some of your time writing short fiction and painting watercolours with a paper clip. What led you to start writing short fiction?

ST:

I feel too serious when it comes to poetry. I like the feeling of not being known for writing short fiction. I felt free to invent, to enjoy creating again, to be whatever I want with the language. There was no one waiting for it. With poetry, I feel there are expectations. I don’t like that. Or that I set myself up to that. This is not to say I don’t like poetry; I just need some other thing to do.

PP:

How do you decide on a topic for your books?

ST:

I wait for a long time between my books. Five or six years.

PP:

By concentrating on the overlooked you write about aspects of the human condition that people tend to avoid contemplating: larger issues surface in your work. What is it about larger issues that we’re afraid of?

ST:

That we don’t know them.

PP:

Do you suffer from anxiety?

ST:

I just want to live the life I have. If I am doing that then what is there to be worried about?

PP:

Are you close with other writers?

ST:

No. I don’t want to read their manuscripts. I should correct that. I have friends who are writers but we never talk about writing. When we get together, we eat a lot and talk about books we read or how difficult something is. We don't talk about our writing. It's unbecoming.

PP:

Do you ever censor yourself in order to try to live up to a moral standard?

ST:

I don’t think I censor myself for moral reasons or standards. I don’t want the thing or the event to carry the truth. I want the language to do all the work.

PP:

Do you feel like there’s something you’ve missed out on in life?

ST:

I have regrets, certainly as much as anyone else, but I don’t spend time thinking about the life I don’t have. I’m interested in the one that I do have. I own everything that’s happened to me or it was given to me to own. And what a waste it would be not to know that.


Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in Nong Khai, Thailand, in 1978 and was raised and educated in Toronto. She won the 2004 ReLit prize for her first poetry book, Small Arguments. She is also the author of a second poetry book, Found, which was made into a short film and screened at film festivals worldwide, including Toronto International Film Festival and Dok Leipzig. Her third book, LIGHT won the Trillium Book Award for poetry. Thammavongsa was named one of “Best Under 35” writers in Canada in a special issue of The Windsor Review.

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