Interview With Laotian Poet Souvankham Thammavongsa [Culturelicious]

By Guest Contributor May Lui, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet

Souvankham Thammavongsa is a Laotian Canadian poet, author of the ReLit-winning Small Arguments and Found. Found was also adapted into a short film by Paramita Nath, which screened at film festivals worldwide including Dok Leipzig and Toronto International Film Festival.

Souvnkham has been published in many literary magazines and journals and has been invited to read at Harbourfront’s International Festival of the Authors 2011. Born in Thailand in 1978, she was raised in Toronto.

May Lui for Black Coffee Poet: Why poetry?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: It’s sort of like swimming in the deep end of a pool. You better know what you are doing there because it’s going to become very clear if you don’t. Looking good in a swimsuit isn’t going to help you out.

ML: Tell us about your writing process.

I don’t write everyday. Sometimes I try to do anything but write. I work for a financial newspaper full-time and have been there for ten years. I work with numbers all day and this allows me to think in a language that doesn’t have anything to do with words, to remember that sometimes words aren’t everything. No one at work knows I write poetry and I prefer it that way. I like that there’s a place for me there no matter what happens to my writing, whether it fails or if it’s successful. It doesn’t matter. I also owned a used bookstore with my husband and wrote short stories all day when it snowed and we had no customers, except for the ones who told us we weren’t going to make it or asked us what we were doing there or if the knapsack in our window display was for sale. I learned that there are people in the world who want nothing to do with books, that there are those who at the sight of a bookshelf start to slowly back up towards the exit, that there are those who would buy themselves a three-dollar book and tell their curious and bright son they don’t want to buy him a book of his choosing because they’ve already spent more than they’ve wanted. That was a learning experience for writing I don’t think I would have gotten by writing.

I always let my writing sit around for a very long time and I never show my work to anyone until it’s done. If I give a reading at a festival or at a reading series, I’ll write something new to surprise myself or someone else who has seen me read before. I read whatever interests me like articles about boxing in Sports Illustrated or about the latest fashions in American Vogue. I try to keep up with the Leafs or catch a baseball game. I take sewing classes and learn how to make skirts and quilts, go to the museum or art gallery, get my hair cut or get my nails done to see how other people outside of writing create. I read old diary entries from when I was twelve-years-old to remind myself where I come from and to just have a giggle at myself because I know exactly how things will turn out or I read books written by writers I want very much to be. I try to learn new things like new recipes or garden or swim or drive—so I have new skills or something to talk about that doesn’t have to do with writing but can have something to do with writing. I watch a lot of silly movies and listen to music. I watch Pawn Stars and American Pickers on television. I like to meet with good friends for dinner at Guu and talk for hours and hours. When I do sit down to write, I can do it anywhere: on my lap, in a noisy bar, in the kitchen on the stove (off, of course), on the wall, and only when I must, on the computer.

ML: Found is a remarkable book of poetry. Tell us about what it means to find poetry in everyday items.

ST: For me, to find poetry in everyday items is remarkable. What precisely makes a thing remarkable? I like how the remarkable can come from and is held by what is unremarkable.

ML: How many poetry books have you had published?

ST: I have had two books published by Pedlar Press.

ML: How do you select the poems for each book?

ST: I try to choose the ones that make the prettiest dots.

ML: How long have you been writing poetry?

ST: If I count from the time I was first published in a little magazine, then it’s eleven years—but that isn’t considered to be very much time at all.

ML: Who are your influences?

ST: I like Agnes Martin, Richard Pryor, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Bishop.

ML: What inspires your writing?

ST: Other writing. And people, how they behave. Or things. I like to look at things especially.

ML: What are you working on right now?

ST: I am working on a collection of poems about light. It’s about what’s in the world, how it’s been given to us, and what we take from it.

And a quilt.

ML: Is there anything you’d like to say to emerging poets and writers?

ST: I think emerging poets and writers don’t want anything said to them. Especially since they’ve already emerged.


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  • Kat

    I always do this squirrel-like “squeeee” sound and clap seal-esque at the screen whenever Black Coffee poet comes up. :)
    But how about a taster poem?