Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, Souvankham Thammavongsa was raised and educated in Toronto. She has written three poetry books, Light (2013), Found (2007), and Small Arguments (2003), all published by Pedlar Press in Canada. Her first book won the ReLit prize, her second book was made into a short film by Paramita Nath, and her third book won the Trillium Poetry Prize.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
Yes, I was in charge of the Poetry Club at my high school. Most times no one came to my meetings, but I showed up anyway. When I was a teenager, I loved Walt Whitman’s “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing.”
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I can’t remember now. I just remember writing anything was really difficult. I think before you write poetry you have to notice things. I noticed things but didn’t always sit down to write what I saw right away. Or I didn’t know it could be a poem, until many years later. Was it the noticing that started it or was it the writing?
It’s hard to say when I started thinking of myself as a poet because that thought isn’t a fixed thing for me. It changes all the time. When I read other poets, I don’t feel like I’m a poet like they are. I feel like a poet when I’m writing, when I have a poem or poetry book published. That certainty that I am a poet is never there. I may have been one a few weeks ago or a few years ago, but am I one now? It’s a question that’s always there, for me.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
To figure it out, and to never be certain about it or to be certain and to keep proving it. And to laugh about it all.
What inspired you to write “Gayatri”?
A real photograph. I found it in a shoebox and wondered why I had taken it and kept it here. There was no one in the picture, except the ceiling. I had taken it with one of those disposable cameras. Back then, you didn’t see how your pictures turned out, you couldn’t pick and choose your best photographs. You took them and hoped for the best. I wanted to say something about time and the way we keep it. I wanted to show how this photograph brought back the time I tried to capture then in details that weren’t there. 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. The way photographs were taken said something about the friendship, the time, and the future itself.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
Marianne Moore’s “The Fish.” When you memorize a poem, you pay attention to the words and how they are made, their particular order and count. It makes you feel responsible for it in a way that you don’t when you are reading it on a page. Who you are, how you care and what it means to you — it’ll show in how you say it.