Souvankham Thammavongsa presents Small Arguments at York

On Feb. 9, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Souvankham Thammavongsa. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Souvankham Thammavongsa (right) opened the evening of Feb. 9 with the fragile strains of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” emerging from her hand-cranked music box. This simple music became a small argument against the cavernous silence of the lecture hall, setting the tone for her reading voice: “That was my opening act.”

As she pushed the lectern aside because it was “taller than I am,” it quickly became clear that there was a large presence behind this young poet. Souvankham’s public reading of her book Small Arguments (Pedlar Press, 2003) offered proof of the power, beauty, and complexity beneath the surface of the small and ordinary. Each of her poems and comments fashioned “tiny elegant speeches” that held her audience in rapt attention. 

In her beautifully designed book, fruits reveal deep secrets beneath their peeled layers and insects speak of their epic tragedies. Able to convey these ideas with few words and a lot of space, Thammavongsa told her audience, “I love the challenge of having to write something big in just two sentences.” She avoids writing in what she describes as “highfalutin’ language” and considers the impact of each word carefully, especially the little ones “because they have more responsibility”. The unwritten lines are just as important so she composes each handwritten poem on graph paper to see the spaces more clearly. Eschewing computers, she prefers the more tactile approach of the typewriter, saying,  “I like watching each key rise up and hit the paper, like it’s announcing itself.”

Thammavongsa actually grew up in a house without books. At seven years old, she started making her own books because,  “I couldn’t wait until I was 92 to get published”. Years later, she began making handmade chapbooks and when Small Arguments was published, she was involved in every stage of its design.

Of the Canadian literature section in the library, she said, “I wanted a place there too, to write something I’d like to read. The more people told me I couldn’t do it, the more I wanted to do it.” Especially because her first language isn’t English, she hopes to inspire others, saying, “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

Her book is dedicated to her parents who brought their family to Canada as refugees from Thailand  in the early 1980s. They taught her that big things can be said in small details, in the space of words unsaid. one thing she has learned on her own is that poetry “is not a business for sissies.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada. On Thursday, March 2, 2006, Ramabai Espinet will read from her novel The Swinging Bridge.