An Interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa

Jennifer Rowsom

QM: You’ve published three books in almost ten years, starting with your first, Small Arguments. What are you doing when you’re not writing poetry?

ST: Ten years is a long time to be caring about something, to be caring about doing something, isn’t it? In other fields, you’d have a lot of money by now.

I wrote and finished Small Arguments while I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. I knew it would take some time before there would be a publisher and I had to fill that time. I knew I was not going to go to grad school. I had no money to even pay for the application process. The thought of moving to another city or another country wasn’t an option. I wasn’t a talented student either. I didn’t like the students who were going to grad school. The thought of spending years with them and listening to them made me want to pass out.

So I got a job. It was in an office. It was a research assistant position for a publishing company that published independent financial advice. I didn’t have to deal with people or talk to anyone but my boss. It was mostly about numbers, reading them, typing them up, watching people get excited about them or change their lives as a result of them.

My first day on the job was September 12, 2001. I remember the emptiness in the office. I remember having to delete emails from financial advisors in New York. It was not a time of youthful hope and promise and adventure. I wanted to be at home with my family, to be safe. It was a job that started out part-time and then became a full-time position.

No one there knows I write and I prefer it that way. Even after all these years. It’s like a secret identity, a secret super power. When I am not writing poetry, I am there. In that office, with those people, with those numbers. Everything about it is grey. The carpet, the walls, the cubicle, the computer equipment. Grey. It doesn’t pay a good living salary. I won’t get a raise and there is no promotion. Most people would leave a job like that. How could you pay a mortgage, plan a family, go on vacation, save for retirement?

A friend asked me, “How can you stand it?” I would say it’s my education that helps me along. All the thinking I can do to see that I am a person of quality even if I don’t get paid that way. The real, invaluable pay is the time and room it gives me to write. I like to pretend it is a writer’s residency. One that pays a small sum and leaves you alone.

I have worked at my job for 13 years. I have been able to make decisions about my writing life that a job has given me — like I don’t have to give readings every time I am asked or be on panels for show. I don’t have to do embarrassing things. When a grant doesn’t get awarded, I will be fine. When I don’t want to write, I don’t feel I have failed. I don’t have to feel so tragic about things.

I try to get away from poetry all the time. I am learning how to drive. I have failed the test twice. The first time because my examiner said to me, “C’mon! We don’t have all day,” while I was doing the three-point turn and I couldn’t recover from this comment in time to focus on my skills. The second time, I made a right turn on a yellow light and the examiner brought me right back to the parking lot where we started.

I had a lot of trouble when I was first learning. I didn’t know where to put my eyes. I noticed everything. I noticed the lights and the signs and the other cars in the opposite lane. I noticed the people on the sidewalk, the little children. The life all around me. I wouldn’t just notice what was there but I would notice events that could possibly happen like accidents. I had trouble trusting other drivers to be safe and care for my well-being on the road.

This way of thinking, I blame on poetry. If I could just notice the things I need then I just might be fine. I try to get my head out of poetry and try to do other things. I took a quilting class but kept looking for patterns and variations. And that started to feel too much like poetry. I don’t think it’s something I am ever not doing even if I believe it is. I must believe it isn’t poetry that I am doing. I don’t want my life to be defined by it. I can do and go without it, and I will be fine.

QM: It’s tough out there for a poet. Why write poetry and try to publish it?

ST: I don’t think it is tough. The writing of it isn’t tough. I think publishing poetry books is tough. The venues for reviews, the small independent bookstores are closing, the avenues to reach readers and the right kind of readers. A publisher is the one who suffers, I think.

Maybe my expectations are different. As a poet, I don’t expect to be a writer on the cover of Time magazine or profiled in the New Yorker. I don’t expect to make above the lower end of the three-digit advance I get. I don’t even expect to get a review in one of the two national newspapers we have in Canada. That is something that happens to other people. I just want to write it. When you don’t expect those things, I think it’s easy to write it. There is so little at stake.

I also think to get the chance to do it is tough.

Last year, Beth Follett asked each of her writers with new books to answer the question, “What is the role of the writer to her society?” at a Pedlar Press festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Every time I write and a book is made, I think of what it took to get it to be that way. The question was not a difficult one for me. It’s one I carry with me all the time.

This is what I wrote to say then:

This question, “What is the role of the writer to her society?” was a question Wallace Stevens took up and his answer was: none. I like his answer. It frees you to answer for and to speak for people you don’t really know. It makes you responsible for yourself. And I think that’s the most important responsibility we have. The one we have to ourselves, to show the world as we see it, to sustain what it is we love about it, to build a voice and to keep building that voice. Writer or not, everyone here knows how hard it is to get here, to keep doing what each of us do.

I always say the hardest thing for a writer is never the writing itself but the stuff outside the writing. The stuff outside the writing that is constantly clawing to get inside, to scramble around and take down the small and quiet things we’ve managed to get for ourselves. What I mean by this is life itself makes demands on us if we are going to be in it.

Grace Paley was once asked in an interview why it was that it took her so long to come out with a new book and she said, “struggles and hard times.” She said, “You know struggles and hard times they take up a lot of time. They take up whole days.”

I always wanted to be a writer but I think I knew I was one for sure one year. One year, in less than a week, my family fell apart, the love I thought I had gotten for myself wasn’t real and showed itself then, my friends disappeared and all the money I ever made disappeared. I thought, “Well, got to get to work.” On top of the job I already had in an office, I took on a second one. I had only three hours to sleep, which I did, crawling under my office desk to do it.

I went to work five levels below the basement of a bank in downtown Toronto, the night shift, counting millions of cash dollars brought in from Christmas shopping. The money I was counting was coming from people who had everything I lost. They were families getting together for the holidays, having big elaborate and time-consuming meals. I felt it was their happiness I was counting, their wealth.

Everything about my life at this time said I can’t be a writer, that whatever it is I have done or believe I have done is not valuable in the world, that the “so much” I had given to writing wasn’t anything that could come and help me then. I had no time to read, or think, or consider, or look for beauty in the world, no one waiting for me to report it back to.

They say only the rich sit around and have time to think about art, what art is, what art could be, their role in art. I was poor in every possible way and still, there I was, four in the morning, five levels below the whole world, and I could not help but think of that world up there, to be in the sun again. I couldn’t think of anything else but how to get back, to come back and the words that had once been mine up there. I had published books then. Books, even when you have them don’t make you a writer — the writing, the whatever you do to finish it, to make it what it is, makes you a writer.

So, what then, five levels below the basement, what was my role to society? None. I didn’t have the writing, only the stuff outside of the writing, the hard times and the struggles, the things that take up time. Even now, standing here, the role, the responsibility, is just that: none. The only thing you can do and be sure of is to come back, again and again and again and again, against all the odds with courage.

Against all the odds. I want to come back again and again and again and again.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in Nong Khai, Thailand in 1978. She has written three poetry books, all of which are published by Pedlar Press. Her first book, Small Arguments, won the 2004 ReLit prize and her second book, Found, was made into a short film by Paramita Nath. The film was screened at film festivals worldwide including TIFF, LA Shorts Fest, Fargo Film Festival and Dok Leipzig. Of her third poetry book, Light, the Globe and Mail says, “This new collection confirms Thammavongsa’s place as one of the most interesting younger poets at work in the country.”

Quentin Mills-Fenn is the name Bruce Symaka uses when he’s interviewing writers. Otherwise, Bruce has been the publicist and audience development coordinator for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival for the last three years.