Pretending I Don’t Write At All: EVENT Interviews Souvankham Thammavongsa
Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in Nong Khai, Thailand in 1978. She is the author of two poetry books, one of which, Small Arguments, won a ReLit prize, and the other, Found, was made into a short film and screened at film festivals worldwide including the Toronto International Film Festival, L.A. Shorts Fest, and Dok Leipzig. Her third poetry collection, Light, is out this fall.
Elena Johnson was impressed by the careful structural aesthetic and sensitive approach in Thammavongsa’s individual poems, as well as in Found, her most recent collection. EVENT published Thammavongsa’s poem “Perfect” in issue 41.3, and Johnson took this opportunity to talk to her about the poem, her new manuscript and her other creative work.
E: “Perfect,” your poem in EVENT, begins:
When I am fourteen, my father will quit
his job and sell our house. He will use the money
to start a sign-making business. He will start
with buying computers and big heavy equipment
and we will spend nights sleeping in the van.
The speaker in this poem finds refuge from her home life at school, and in absorbing herself fully in her schoolwork, so much so that she gets perfect on her assignment. Can you tell us a little bit more about the context of this poem, or the process of writing it?
ST: I wanted to write about a time when things didn’t seem perfect, and to say that, for that person, though you don’t know it yet, this moment is perfect because it will set who you are. Whatever happens, no one can tell you who you are; you can define the idea of “perfect” for yourself.
One of the things this poem does is construct what happens in the past without leaving it there. It’s not about “then” but about how “then” means “now.” All of the work takes place in the tense. It’s about the past but that past isn’t at a distance.
E: Further along in the poem,
…The math problems are easy.
They are always about some guy who has to get
to the other side. There’s always an answer, a sure thing.
You just have to work your way there. (…)
I will keep my print small, filling up every blank space
I can find like a Captain fixing leaks in a sinking ship.
I wonder if you, in your work as a poet, feel this sort of compulsion—to start from a question/problem and work toward a definite answer, and to fill up every blank space. This poem, for example, contains no stanza breaks, is tightly packed with well-chosen words, and leads the reader to a clear and succinct ending.
ST: I do keep my print small. I do like to lay things out and narrow the definition of that thing such that there is only one, the one in this poem. I do fill up every blank space by putting to use that blank space. That blank space has a purpose, a meaning, a reason it is there.
Although “Perfect” seems like a long poem, tightly packed…I think we leave the poem with the same feeling as we would a two-sentence poem, or a poem with just a blank page. The feeling is there even if there aren’t words. A blank-page poem might even be longer than a whole-page poem filled with words because the real meaning happens outside of it, and it keeps happening.
I do like to present a thing and to go over it. I don’t know if that means that thing is a question/problem I would like to work through but I do know it’s a thing I want to think about in the poem.
E: Your second book of poetry, Found, explores a segment of your family’s history. Your father “…kept a scrapbook filled with doodles, addresses, postage stamps, maps, measurements” while your parents were living in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand, and you’ve structured the manuscript – artfully – around this found notebook.
You’re currently at work on a new poetry collection. Does the new manuscript revolve around particular themes/ideas? If so, how did this particular focus come about?
ST: I like small self-contained projects with a single-eye kind of focus. The fun is in how, as a writer, I can variate, juxtapose, compare, touch, gather up the things around it, think through, with, along it.
My new manuscript does this with the word light. The word light has such a broad definition and everyone knows what it is and what it means, but how do I curate and filter this thing and make it personal?
I don’t know why I was drawn to the word light. It was just a thing I wanted to use to shape what I wanted to do—the way someone might work only with plastics, or wood, or the colour blue.
E: I’ve heard that you’re also a visual artist. Can you tell me a bit about what you’ve been working on?
ST: I’m working on a series of photographs called “What I Saw After I Ate Everything.” And I have a PowerPoint presentation called “How To Pronounce Knife” that combines text, objects, drawing, photographs in the form of a slideshow; it’s going to be part of a small group exhibition called “Home” opening in June. I also paint with paper clips and have been doing so for twelve years. In 2011, four of my paperclip paintings appeared for the first time in a group exhibit called “Next” in Dallas, Texas.
E: What else—in writing, visual art, or elsewhere—is occupying your creative attention at the moment?
ST: I am working on a collection of short stories and making a bunch of quilts for a craft show. But mostly, I have been going to work every day for twelve years, on a floor of a downtown office building, pretending I don’t write at all.
Elena E. Johnson’s poetry has been nominated for the CBC Literary Awards and the Alfred G. Bailey Prize. Her work has appeared in literary journals across Canada, including recent issues of The Fiddlehead, ARC and PRISM international. She copy edits, proofreads and interviews for EVENT.