“When any kind of art is at its best it is often compared to poetry” | Q&A with poet Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham Thammavongsa has written three poetry books, the most recent of which is Light (Link to my review) which won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Her work is known for being insightful and brilliant. She recently answered a few questions for me via email.

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1. I know that your poetry works have won several awards but what has been the reaction to your writing by the reading public in general? Any memorable incidents you care to share?

I don’t think a lot of people know of me. I think most of the people who read my books bought copies before I won anything. They are mostly my close friends and family. Some have traveled with my books or keep them on the bedside table. Some have gone back to reread all three of my books. I can’t say anything about the reading public in general. I don’t know them. One memorable incident that happened recently, with the Trillium prize, was my father emailed me. He never emails me. I like that he didn’t use any exclamation marks or periods. Each thought is a line:

Congratulations

You my Heart

This is your way, I love it

2. Why do you use poetry to write? Is it a preferred means of communication for you?

When any kind of art is at its best it is often compared to poetry. That is to say, it isn’t poetry but it is close. I want to make something that isn’t close to poetry but actually is.

3. Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

There are so many. Right now, I am reading Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography. It’s hilarious, intimate, honest, entertaining. He knew James Baldwin! I like it when athletes know poets. It reminds me of a photo of Marianne Moore and Muhammad Ali. Just wonderful.

4. How do you like doing public readings of your works? Is it something you enjoy or hate? Have any of your works been the subject of any book clubs? If yes – what was that experience for you?

It depends. I don’t like to do readings in bars or on a public street. I don’t like to do readings that happen after 9pm or lasts more than twenty minutes. I don’t like to do any readings without a microphone because I have to work harder to draw people in. I don’t like it when people are just walking by, coming in and out, eating, talking. I like it when the audience is really big like in a theatre setting. The ones who hold their breath when you read. Those readings are my favourite ones. I don’t know if my books have been the subject of any book clubs. I do know that they’ve appeared on syllabi of a few English literature classes since the professors have invited me to speak to the class. After class, they all line up and ask me to sign their copies. Some of their copies are beaten up or barely broken into. My favourite experience has been with my new book, Light. What the students don’t see, that I see, when I read from the book, is how their faces light up from the orange in the book. It’s so beautiful. It’s like a little gift the designer, Zab Hobart, gave me that no one knows but me and her.

5. I recently met a poet who lamented that many people are disappointed that her work doesn’t “rhyme”  Do you find that poetry has a stereotypical image that may be keeping readers away?

That poetry is hard and that should be a reason not to go to it. Sometimes difficulty, the thinking through and inside and around that difficulty, is a wonderful experience. People are fickle and don’t always know what they want. Who cares that it doesn’t rhyme. She doesn’t have to carry the responsibility of that. I would say, there are so many poems that rhyme, go find the writers who do that! It’s a lot like readers who are disappointed that I don’t write about lotus flowers or about my “own country” or in “my own language” or wear a kimono. They don’t even know how that stereotype can keep a writer away or how limiting. There are also readers who say, “You can’t do that for living,” and still buy my books anyway.

6. Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you can share with your fans?

I am putting together a collection of short stories and have been writing a memoir about my childhood. I’m really interested in laughter. There is so much happening when people are laughing. The thing I’m working on right now is funny.

7. Your presence on the internet seems to be limited to Facebook. Does the internet play any role in helping or hindering your writing?

With what there is, I think there is too much available. More than I am comfortable with. I mean there is a poem I wrote when I was sixteen out there! I enjoy liking things on Facebook. I like to see the baby pictures of friends and to hear about what’s going on in their lives, where they’ve traveled, their weddings. I feel I get to know people in ways they want to be known or don’t know. I can begin somewhere with someone. I can sometimes get too self-contained and absorbed and mean so Facebook helps me get out of that. I get to meet and connect with people I never would be able to find on my own. When people like things they are very vocal about it and share it. But then, they are like that with what they don’t like too. I think the internet is fun and entertaining but when I actually write it has nothing to do with the actual writing. Writing is actual writing. The actual letters, the shape—there’s no room for anything else.

8. Has your writing changed since you started being published? If yes, how so?

This is a difficult question. I think my writing has been the same but who I am has changed. There has been a lot of time in between each of my books. A lot can happen in that kind of time. That’s the difference in each of my books—the happening to me. Some things I started with I care to be still. I care that all my books are beautifully designed and with the content in mind. I want each of my books to be self-contained works. I want the language to be simple and clean and clear.

*****

Link to Souvankham Thammavongsa’s website

Link to Pedlar’s Press website

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