Gayatri

Souvankham Thammavongsa

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I have a picture of us when we are seven

but we aren’t in it. At the time it was taken

 

we thought we were. We posed with our wide

grins and best-friends-forever certainty. I angled

 

the camera to capture us in front of a Christmas tree.

All the sparkling tinsel and dangling silver balls aren’t there.

 

There is only the ceiling and the tip

of the pine needle. There isn’t a star or an angel

 

on top. I have kept this picture of us for years,

the only one to remember and laugh at what happened

 

to us then. It was taken before a time when you could

see a picture on a screen, see how it turned out

 

and decide whether it was worth keeping. I think of you

now and again, the plain peanut butter sandwiches we ate

 

with apples. You said you were going to be a dentist

when you grew up, and with a fork and a spoon

 

you determined it was possible I would live

and sent me home with a bag full of Twizzlers and hair bands.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s “Gayatri” first appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Walrus, selected by Poetry In Voice Creative Director Damian Rogers in her role as poetry editor there. 

Dive in: 
  1. This poem captures memories of a friendship evoked by a photograph. Which memory stood out to you the most? Why is that one so remarkable to you? Can you relate to it?
  2. “Gayatri” is written in the second person (“you”) instead of third person (“she”). What effect does that create for you? Try reading the poem replacing each instance of “you” with “she.”
  3. Souvankham Thammavongsa says in her micro-interview with Poetry In Voice that she found this photograph in a shoebox, then wrote the poem to show how “this photograph with no one in it actually had everything in it, and it described my best friend and me more accurately than a photograph that would have captured us in it.” In your opinion, what are some similarities and differences between photography and poetry? Consider how each is made, how each captures its subject, and how a viewer or reader interacts with it.
  4. In stanzas 6 and 7, the speaker says, “It was taken before a time when you could / see a picture on a screen, see how it turned out / and decide whether it was worth keeping.” How do you think photography has changed the way we see the world and ourselves throughout time? (consider film photography, digital photography, and social media like Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat)? How many photos do you take before deciding which ones to keep or post online? How do you decide what to share and what to keep to yourself?
  5. If you were going to recite “Gayatri,” which tones would you use? (nostalgic, whimsical, sentimental, sad?) Is there a change in tones in the poem? Try experimenting with reading the poem in different tones, and see which ones suits it best.
  6. Write a poem inspired by an old selfie with your best friend or someone you’re close with. Mention concrete details that are in the photo (i.e. What were you and your friend wearing? Where were you? What were you doing?) but also mention sensory details that may not appear in the photo (i.e. What happened before and after you took the photo? What music or sounds did you hear around you? What were you eating?). Finally, reflect on then versus now (i.e. What has changed since then? Do you wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, eat the same peanut butter and apple sandwiches?).

 

Useful Links

Here is a brief but fascinating interview with the poet from Asian American Press, where she talks about her background, inspirations, and challenges as a poet: https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/166388/AAP%20Intervie...

 

Here is a conversation between Adam Dickinson and Souvankham Thammavongsa, the two nominees of the 2014 Trillium Book Award for Poetry: https://nationalpost.com/entertainment/books/the-trillium-conversations-...

 

Here is an interview with the author from Jacket 2, talking about her experiments with poetry and prose, and how knowing other languages affects her poetry: http://jacket2.org/commentary/short-interview-souvankham-thammavongsa

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