Doretta Lau speaks to Souvankham Thammavongsa, author of the poetry collection Cluster
Award-winning Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa has just released a book of poetry, Cluster. (Spoil alert, it’s great, just like her other books.) She is a winner of the 100th annual O. Henry Prize for her short story “Slingshot,” first published in Harper’s. Her fiction is just as powerful as her poetry. We caught up with her via e-mail.
Cluster is your fourth book of poetry. How has your relationship to poetry and your craft changed since the publication of your first book in 2003?
Souvankham Thammvongsa: I still write with a pen and paper.
It might be too soon to think of Cluster. A lot of time has to pass for me to see what I did. I can see with my first book that I made things difficult for myself. I narrowed any room I could have had to make mistakes, to write horribly and be embarrassed.
Do you think that for a poet just starting out that it is important to make mistakes and write horribly and to allow the work to be open and expansive, even at the risk of embarrassment?
ST: I think so.
I am happy with it. At readings, I like to read from all four books and not explain where the poems come from and why they are together like that. I like watching people flip through the pages wondering where the poem I read is. I had always been very clear about what I was writing about–a grasshopper is really about a grasshopper, a book about what I found, a book about the word light, but what would happen if I removed that point? That is something I wanted to try, to take away. It’s the same thing with the fiction I am writing. The poetry was a container for how I was thinking and how I might try and the fiction is doing the same.
So many readers who love your poetry are excited about your fiction! Your poems deliver so much emotion in a compressed space, and your fiction sustains that level of feeling: it’s beauty and brutality in perfectly honed sentences that get me every time I return to your work. You’ve had stories in Harper’s, Granta, Paris Review, as well as a story in The Puritan that I had the pleasure of selecting for publication. Next year, you have a collection coming out called How to Pronounce Knife (Little, Brown). What propelled you to bring your point of view and craft to the short story form?
ST: I think feeling, no matter what you do to it or where you put it, remains what it is. They’re mine and they’re there. I wanted to see how those feelings would change or survive in a different container.
The story you edited, “Mani Pedi,” was so fun to write. I had the characters and the story, but when I saw you were editing that issue I got it done in the hopes of surprising you. I felt a looseness I hadn’t felt about writing because I was trying something out and I was writing to a friend. I think there’s an ease and fun that shows in the story. It really was so fun to write the voice of Raymond’s sister.
You’re writing a novel at the moment. Can you talk a bit about your process?
ST: I wrote the first line of each chapter first, to get an idea of what it could be about or what might happen. It was like a poem because at that point, the novel was so distilled. And then I worked to fill in what happens from that first sentence to the next chapter’s first sentence.
I finished a first draft in six weeks.
I wanted to get it done and not think about it. I wanted to capture a pace and speed that was not made up. And, really, I wanted time to get it wrong, to write horribly because no one was ever going to see it, and I think a first draft is where that should take place so I just kept going. Some days I didn’t feel like writing and my mind wasn’t into how I was pushing myself. So I just wrote about how the sun sets or how dark the night was. We always gloss over those descriptions and I wanted to find different ways to say “The next day” or “Afterwards.”
After the first draft, I put everything away and took boxing lessons. I wanted the boxing part of the novel to feel true. My boxer is someone who didn’t make it and so I knew when I took boxing lessons I didn’t have to be great at it. I did want to know what it felt like to win. So I read Muhammad Ali’s memoir “The Greatest.” As I read it I said to myself, “This is what’s never going to happen for you,” so I understood emotionally what it was my main character wanted so much and what she lost. Then I read Stephen Brunt’s “Facing Ali” which is about boxers who faced Ali and loss. I am so interested in what it means to lose. We often value winning, but a loss is more long lasting and interesting to me. A loss is particular. Only you can lose the way that you did, and no one is going to come after it. You can be alone in it. When you win, someone is always coming after you. Someone right now is better, faster, stronger, younger, and they are coming for you.
A friend recommended that I read “Fat City” by Leonard Gardner because it’s a novel about boxing, and while boxing is there, it’s really about what it means to be a human being who wants something. And, of course, I carry Tennessee Williams’s “One Arm” around with me all the time. The language, the feeling, the people, the clean prose–that’s what I want to make. Right now I’m reading a book about “corner men.”
And that first draft? Well, it is still in a drawer. I haven’t shown it to anyone. I am alone with it and I want that to myself right now.