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poetics.ca issue #1
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Interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa

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I first contacted Souvankham to inquire more about what had drawn her to small things. She answered, “When you meet me you will understand.” At a restaurant, I encountered a diminutive woman in a full-length black winter coat (she told me she’d entered a boutique on Queen Street West and asked the saleswoman, “Show me a lady-coat”). The waiter brought me a glass of water with a bug in it. “How appropriate,” giggled Souvankham.

I recorded an hour-long interview – and then at home my trusty recorder mangled the tape as I tried to play it back. I spent a few frustrated hours bending over its carcass, trying to untangle its entrails and rethread them – to no avail. It feels oddly apt that I would have lost our first interview, and that there would be a process of recovery, reconstruction and discovery in our second. This correspondence took place over e-mail between December 2004 and January 2005.

* * * *

Soraya Peerbaye: What do you think, how do you feel, when you hold a copy of Small Arguments in your hands?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: That it is done. And I did it alone.

I think about the people who turned me away, who didn’t believe in what I was doing. I think about how I was not supposed to be here, or have this. I came from a home without books, from a language that wasn’t mine. I did everything that you could ask of me, and I did it well. And I did it alone. I think of all the chapbooks that I printed and bound myself. They were to me as the paper cranes were to Sadako. When I look at the book, I feel real. This is my first book, my first stance, and no matter what happens, no one can take this from me.

SP: Tell me more about this analogy to Sadako – how the making of poetry makes you feel real. Was this your intent when you wrote “The Frog” at 16?

ST: The frog poem was meant to be my last poem. We had a bomb scare in our school, and I was in the biology room next to this display case with dissected insects. I thought that if this were to be my last moment here, I didn’t want to go out without it being my choice – or at least without an argument. I was angry. And I wrote the poem as if it were my last, not understanding that it would actually be my first real one.

I talk about Sadako’s story only as the act of making chapbooks is like the making of paper cranes: the final, physical product, not so much the writing of the poems. When I talk about feeling real, I’m referring more to the Velveteen Rabbit: “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you.” The physicality of the book makes me feel like I am real, or whatever is supposed to happen to make you real, has happened. You see, I was never given a birth certificate when I was born. It was a refugee camp, and anyone born there isn’t exactly staying. So you aren’t recognized as a citizen. In grade seven, we had to write our autobiography. Our projects were displayed in the classroom, and mine was the only one without a birth certificate. We need documents to prove that we are alive and real. It isn’t enough that I happen to be right here – a piece of paper needs to prove this. Small Arguments makes me feel real in that sense. It feels like I’ve been granted a place of belonging. And no other thing I’ve had has given me that sense.

SP: This collection is filled with stories of things that can be held in the hand, like Sadako’s cranes. I am thinking not only of the creatures and fruits, but also [of] salt, water, rain. Even the tree is made of hands, “split and splayed.” Even the book is the size of an open hand. Can you talk about hands, about their role in the relationship between the “you” and the thing, or between the reader and the writer?

ST: I am interested in order, in design. All things in Small Arguments have to do with design and order: how things [are] made, [the] evidence of a maker, or at least asking if there is one. This is why the whole book starts with “Materials.” This tells people how I was ordered, designed. It’s also about trust: trusting the reader to read right and not to dismiss the work. For Sadako, it was in the folding of paper, its design and order, that she places her hope and faith. And for me, it was in the making of Small Arguments as a chapbook, before it became a full book. Folding each and every page, gluing each and every spine. Then I found a publisher who saw the work and kept it as I had intended it.

The insects, especially, draw out my interest in order and design. They are such tiny creatures and they are built so perfectly.

I see what you mean about hands. They, too, are about design and order. We use them to feel out and make sense of our place in the world. And Small Arguments is about that. Trying to make sense of my place in the world. Each poem calls on your sense of the world first. The reader comes to each poem knowing what snow, or a dragonfly, or a firefly is, but then I lay out what I see, and build each thing out of its own materials.

SP: What you write about trust reminds me of Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces – where the narrator, who has survived the Holocaust, asks how we can know to trust someone. It is by looking into their face? No, it’s in their hands, in their hands…

ST: Yes, I read Fugitive Pieces when I was 16. My creative writing teacher taught the book to our class because Anne Michaels used to be her student.

SP: Do you think that writing to “you” assigns greater responsibility to the reader, to “look here,” as you’ve said before, or to handle these things with tenderness?

ST: I’m not about handling things with tenderness. I know it’s what people take most from the book. They talk about how fragile things are, but that is because there was so much violence. Small Arguments is a work of violence. There is a delicacy, but it all comes out of violence. The insects are dead or dying or being ripped apart, the fruit are being hacked open or gutted to seed, the snow is tossed aside, the rain is coming into a world that doesn’t want it – this is violence. The language too is violent. Minimalism is a work of violence. It targets the fluffy or meaty stuff of language and rips it out. What we are left with is something bare. It places a great deal of responsibility on the words that are used, the ones that stay. One word has to do what five more words could do, but must do it alone.

SP: Can you recapture some of what you’d talked about in our first conversation – words like “bone” or “skin” that had a particular meaning to you?

ST: The language of Small Arguments is built of ugly and hard tools. Notice how often “this” or “that” or “there” or “here” or “is” or “and” or “its” occurs in this book. In every single poems these words appear. There is nothing elegant or delicate about them. They are small or poor. They work to direct readers to turn, or to shift, or to make leaps.

I built the spine of Small Arguments out of these words. I went to a lecture on the sonata by Professor Woodland, and he said that the thing that makes a sonata remarkable is the composer’s ability to draw out material from the most simple and basic notes. When he said this, I thought about my own life, and about writing. I thought about what my parents told me: that when I was born, they could see my lungs, my heart, all through a very thin layer of skin. How small I was, and how my father wrapped me up in his shirt, thinking a life this small wouldn’t live. But all those little parts of me kept working, kept keeping me here.

You see, Small Arguments is a book of poetry, but it’s also my life, my body of real and hard work. It takes those very simple elements of language, and builds out of them a work. With a core set of words that appear by repetition or contrast or variation – working always. When I use a word, I like how it is built and the visual structure it makes on the page – its body. The word “bone” appears a lot because I like that the word “one” is right in there. What makes the word “bone” and the physical bone strong is that they hold together the word one, that the bone itself is one. I also like the sound it makes: drawing the sound “own,” as in “on my own,” gesturing a kind of loneliness, the strength in loneliness. Or look at the word “creature”: you also see the word “eat” at the very centre. The letters around it, taking it in and doing the job that it was set to do.

SP: This seems to be not only a question of language, but also of form – the way you lay out the poem itself also seems to suggest a skeleton, the critical organs. Sometimes you open the book and discover the symmetry of the body – though most often the words seem separated, isolated, dissected perhaps.

ST: There is an architecture to the making and reading and writing – the act of building from raw and mined materials, the act of picking and choosing material. Dissection is a good way of understanding how it works. You go into the work aware of that space. You go into it aware that a clearing has taken place. What you read is the result of cutting, shaping, arranging, building, clearing.

The poems of Small Arguments are pictorial tableaux. They are written in a very tight order and design. In two sentences, I have to be able to say something within the confines of the material. The glimpse takes place within two sentences. I know this doesn’t matter, but the poems are variations of the sonnet form: the second sentence is often where the turn takes place. A lot of people think they are little musings that resemble haikus. That isn’t true. They are the result of thinking – not musing – and they only use elements of the haiku.

SP: In the way you write about minimalism, I wonder – does destruction become an act of creation? Or creation an act of resistance?

ST: I don’t think minimalism destroys. I think it acknowledges the fatty part of language by leaving [it] out. I think writing this way draws out choice, the consequence of choice. Everything relies so much on something else. It must hold up. It’s about picking and choosing from very little. What you choose to keep or use or leave tells people what kind of writer you are, how your mind works, where you come from. It is about keeping things from being destroyed (as you say, resistance) because what you have on the page are the words that have been collected, kept in that picking and choosing.

ST: Small Arguments pays a great deal of attention to things, but it are not about things. It makes use of them. Although the book uses these things to talk about the world, it is very much about being human. You can see that the looking is human. The looking links these creatures or these things to being human. The rain does not have a mouth, yet you imagine one. There is a desire to understand this world in human terms because that is what we are, and all we know.

I think it’s funny when people ask me why I don’t write poems about humans. Only a human mind would look at a snail and try to explain that the shell is a cathedral and that the snail prays there. The truth might actually be that it’s a rock that some little worm decided to crawl into because it didn’t want to be eaten. The same goes for the grasshopper. Maybe the grasshopper is leaping into the air because it needs to get from point A to point B and nothing more. All these poems cast a shadow to a world without meaning, because we desire […] so much for it to have meaning. Maybe an orange is just an orange, or a grain of salt, a grain of salt. You know, when you read these poems, that the looking is the result of the human mind. To find meaning or faith that there is some reason or some sense of order - this is why we are looking, this is why we are looking at it this way. You asked me, once, what happens if we don’t see or notice these things. I don’t believe we don’t see, or notice. I trust that we are curious, that we want to explain, to know, to believe in something. This is why it was hard to answer the first time. It just never occurred to me that we would not see or want to see. [….]

SP: Hello Souvankham,

I’ve been watching the news on the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean – a friend of mine on the east coast of India wrote to me to tell me she saw a wave wash away a café she’d been in moments before. I hope your friends and family are safe and sound …

ST: I hope you are well too!

One of the things about the tsunami disaster is that people keep saying that temples are turning into morgues. That isn’t true, at least for Buddhists. When you die tragically, you need to take the dead body to a temple to bless it. It’s bad luck to be killed like that. Just as we speak about it being good luck that people survived or made choices that kept them alive.

SP: “…the looking is human. The looking links these creatures or these things to being human…There is a desire to understand this world in human terms because that is what we are and all we know.”

I think this is what moves me in these poems. I understand what you write again now asserting the act of violence in the act of writing, and what you wrote earlier, against tenderness. But perhaps…mercy, is there mercy here? Like bringing the dead or dying body back to the temple to bless it…

I mean, it was bad luck for the cockroach to be killed like that.

ST: Of course there is mercy. But only in human terms.

SP: In our first conversation you’d mentioned a few of your favourite poems – “the snail,” “the dragonfly,” “the snow,” “the grasshopper,” “the strawberry”…Why are these your favourites?

Choosing favourites has less to do with fairness and more to do with pride. I think you should be proud of what you make. You should have favourites. Favourites are the result of having a standard, a sense of what you want your work to be. I am skeptical of writers who love everything they write. There’s something wrong [t]here. When I like a poem, it is the same as a carpenter knowing and seeing how well a table is built. I know and see all the things I did right. It feels sturdy and no matter what anyone does to it or says of it, it doesn’t wobble.

SP: When we were talking face-to-face, you’d smiled when you talked about favourites…

ST: I smiled because I knew that in suggesting that I had favourites, you would think me vain since it is frowned upon to be proud, to speak proudly of your work. I remember we had talked about how people often apologize for their writing when they send it out, and how they hide behind a line like “I hope you like it,” so that if it isn’t good, they could at least be saved by their humility. I wasn’t smiling with excitement, but an evil delight in doing something that was frowned upon. I knew that in saying I had favourites, it would be risky, because it meant I couldn’t be saved by any humility.

SP: I want to return to the poem which opens Small Arguments, “Materials” - where you write about reading, "because I knew this/ this/ would be my way in." you've spoken often about coming from a language that wasn't yours. Can you tell me more about what you mean by that? How has your relationship to language changed through writing these poems? Has language been your way in?

ST: To survive, you have to learn English. Whether you want to doesn't matter -- it's how the world is and if you want to live in it, you've got to learn how to use its tools. English was not my first tool, my first language--it was handed to me. I needed it to survive.

"Materials" is placed at the beginning of the book. The first [poem]. It serves as a toolbox for the book. In the building of every poem, I kept this memory of what it was like to learn to read, this desire to communicate with a world I did not yet have a place in. Learning to read gave me another language where it not only could wrap glass or dry winter boots but it gave me another world where having both languages gave me different ways of thinking, different ways of survival. I remember how easy it was to lose this first language because the only place it was used was at home. I was encouraged to leave my first language behind but I knew that if I wanted to go anywhere I [was] going to take this first language with me. I [was] not going to leave it behind. Even if I wanted to, this first language would always be there. In my name, the colour of my skin. My first language locates me in a particular place and knowing English isn't going to remove me from there.

When people speak about the poor, they always speak about finding "a way out." This is very telling about the person who talks about "a way out" for the poor--it locates that person as already being "in" and I am not coming from that same place. What I do when I say it would be my way "in" is locate for the reader where this voice is coming from, where I am coming from as a writer and a person--and that is from outside. All these words to explain a single line: "would be my way in."

I was taught that a good writer is one who uses a lot of description or difficult long words. I thought language was just text and that it should be arranged in the shape of a box. But I learned in writing Small Arguments it doesn't have to be that way. It took a long time to see that it was all right not to do what I was taught because what I was taught can be found in every important book of poetry, in every literary magazine across the country, and it's what gets awarded in grant money and prizes. But this is how I saw my work and when I tried be like everyone else, it just didn't look or feel right. I learned the kinds of gestures space can make and how important it was to pay attention to the visual sense of words--their shape and size, their physical and visual gestures--and where to arrange them on a page. I learned how hard it was to try to put things in simple language without losing their intelligence. I learned how to get people to listen to language without jumping about the stage or screaming. This is a world where things are booming and buzzing and in your face and loud. I learned that a small, simple, honest voice could cut through all of that.

I'm not sure if language or writing has been my way in. I think writing places you outside of things you want to try to understand. And there, it's lonely.

 


Soraya Peerbaye is a writer living in Toronto. Her solo performance GirlWrecked was presented in 2001 in Toronto and at the ArtWallah festival of South Asian arts and culture in Los Angeles. Her poetry has been published in Red Silk: An Anthology of South Asian Canadian Women's Poetry (Mansfield Press, 2004) as well as by big boots and above/ground;
she has also presented work on CBC Radio 1 and the Deep Wireless Festival of Sound Art.

Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of Small Arguments (Pedlar Press, 2003). Her poem “Water” won the Lina Chartrand Award from Contemporary Verses 2. Her collection reveals the lives of the small, the common, and the overlooked, things that can be held or caught in the hand: salt, an orange, a frog, snow…. These poems are arguments in defense of existence. Spare, addressed to “you”, they invite the reader to handle these neglected objects. They are startlingly experiential, a vivid imagining of detail, and a determined invention of intent, impulse, and choice.



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