Poet Puts York Region on the National Literary Map By Chris Shanahan
A few years back, I had the pleasure of writing a local newspaper feature story about Souvankham Thammavongsa. I came away from the experience extremely impressed by the amazing life story attached to this talented writer, who’s generally regarded as one of Canada’s best poets. Her work has been described by one reviewer as “quiet, beautiful jeweler’s-eye lyrics.”
As a proud Whitchurch-Stouffville resident, Souvankham has helped put York Region on the map in national, and even global, literary circles. Her distinctive and at times quirky poems and verses have received high praise from many reviewers and Canadian writing heavyweights like Anne Michaels, who wrote: “This is the voice of a pilgrim, the one who bends to see, leans to hear. Thammavongsa has distilled her meaning from her details so masterfully and with such confident wisdom that she seems to be reading nature. Through her eyes, we can believe we see the true meaning in things.”
Pretty heady stuff for a 35-year-old Thailand native who began her life in a Lao refugee camp. From these humble beginnings, she has risen to great heights, recently earning the prestigious 2014 Trillium Book Award for English language poetry for her entry Light. The 42-verse book – inspired by Donald Judd’s sculpture of 75 aluminum boxes – earned the writer a $20,000 cash prize, which she’ll use in part to have the roof of her Stouffville house repaired. This spring, Light received the CBC Bookie Award in Canadian poetry.
Signed copies of Souvankham’s earlier Pedlar Press volumes, Small Arguments and Found, have a special place in my personal collection. I’ve also had the pleasure of attending a reading of her whimsical verses, which often employ minimal lyrics to describe everyday objects. Subjects range from strawberries, a grasshopper and a snail to the recent common theme of elements of light.
“I’m really interested in objects,” she told me. “I like to look at things and describe what it is, even if people already know what the object is…I think for me it gives me a sense of discipline in that all of the material for that poem comes from just that object…Working with one object pushes you to understand the mechanics of that object and also your own mechanics, and what you can do with that object with that limited set of tools.”
Found, made into a short film screened at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, is based on a scrapbook kept by her father while they lived in the Nong Khai refugee camp in 1978. It uses doodles, postage stamps, maps and measurements and other objects to create an impressionistic journey into this extraordinary past. The Thammavongsas were sponsored by a family in Canada and moved here when she was one.
Souvankham’s talent isn’t confined to writing. She’s an award-winning visual artist who has used a paperclip to create highly coveted miniature watercolours and other pieces. To learn more about this rising creative star, I recommend visiting www.souvankham-thammavongsa.com and www.foundthefilm.com.