Souvankham Thammavongsa

The Weed Woman (Junction Books, 2001)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?

I love bp nichol’s chapbooks. If you have one from him, you felt you were special in the world. I wanted to give my friends that same feeling as I was giving them a chapbook.

I like that chapbooks could be one-time things, things that can never happen again, and I love the feeling of being able to hand it over to someone choosing to buy it or receive it. I loved that I was in charge of everything about it. The things inside, the paper, how many to make, who could have it.

What’s the oldest play  in your chapbook? Or can you name one play that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

“The Weed Woman” is the oldest piece. It’s been fourteen years since I wrote that. The rest of the chapbook came just because I wanted to give the book some physical weight. I sat down and wrote three one-act plays just to put them in there. I remember how much fun it was to write plays. To control how someone said something, what they looked like, what they sounded like.

What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?

My chapbook is about language and how to balance and make sounds that signify sadness and funny. It isn’t similar to any work I’ve done before. I mostly made poetry chapbooks and this one was a collection of one-act plays. I suppose that there is only one speaker is how it is the same, and that I made each single copy by myself. The only difference was that the publisher gave me money to buy the paper.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?

I definitely wanted it to be small, like a handful of things. I wanted the title-play to be at the end of the collection. The one you read to get to. There was no other title. Once I decide on something it’s that way from the beginning.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

I submitted the title-play to a magazine contest and won. But I did not submit the chapbook manuscript to the publisher. He saw some of my writing in a writing group we went to, and I noticed his chapbook press had no plays, and I wanted to be the first writer to do that at the press. I told him I wanted to make the book myself, having all that control, and he was on-board.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I didn’t. I just made one sample and showed it to him and he said it was great.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

I sold them out of my school knapsack and gave them to friends. I also paid for a table at the small press and zine fairs in Toronto, and that’s how I sold most of them. When I was publishing chapbooks, there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter. I was just beginning to learn how to use email. Promotion and publicity came from talking to each other in-person.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a quilt for a friend of mine who just had a baby.

What is your writing practice or process?

I like to listen to how people speak, how they put together a sentence. And I look a lot at the shape of words and what they could mean on a visual level.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Have fun. It’s that simple. Nothing else matters if you’re not having any fun.

Recently, I was giving a talk to students at the University of Toronto and mentioned that I made over a thousand copies of my chapbooks. They were shocked at the thought of the number. I didn’t expect that reaction. When I was making chapbooks, the thing in front of me was just that one thing, that one page, and I loved making it. I forgot that I made that same thing a thousand other times. It’s like going outside to play when you are a kid. Suddenly, it gets dark and you hear your mother calling you. Whatever happened to the time?

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?

No. It’s a lot like eating. You have utensils you can use to eat the meal but what you use depends on what you are eating. A steak requires a sharper knife, ramen requires chopsticks, soup requires a spoon. Each thing I’ve made had its own needs, so I try not to go at it in the same way each time.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

I wish it would have been asked, “Do you think your chapbook, the book you are making now, will mean anything thirteen years from now?”

I would say, “I hope it does. I hope the energy I put into it, printing and binding each page, would bring like-minded readers. That after all these years, someone out there will be interested in asking me questions about it.”

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Do you like the movie Thor (the first one)? I’ve watched it 50 plus times.

How does the chapbook allow you to do things you wouldn’t normally do in a full-length collection? 

I get to meet each person I sell it to. I wrote my chapbooks not for a waiting readership but to find one.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

For me, it did. With a chapbook, I liked the privacy to work things out on my own, to proceed as I wanted to and by my own terms. I liked to see my name on the cover of my book. It was long and seemed to go on forever. And I was responsible for putting it there and for keeping it that way. No one had trouble pronouncing it because I was there to help them. No one made assumptions about whether or not I wrote in English, I would tell them, “Open the book and read it.” No one told me women or women of colour don’t get published because I was there. No one told me or cornered me into writing “Me Love You Long Time” or Miss Saigon plays to get attention or make money because the chapbook itself was a middle-finger to those things.

Do you remember the first time you showed someone your writing, and what was the experience like?

I showed it to my mother and she didn’t know what it said. She didn’t know how to read. It was just my name. I was six years old.

At what point in the writing process did you know you were writing a chapbook (as opposed to a longer-scale work, or “just” a series of unrelated plays)?

I know from the very beginning.

What role does emotion play within your creative process?

It is underneath everything I write. The trick is to keep it there, to get others to go there themselves.

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Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in the Nong Khai Lao refugee camp in Thailand, in 1978, and was raised and educated in Toronto. From 2000 to 2005, she wrote five poetry and one collection of one-act play chapbooks. She is also the author of three poetry books from Pedlar Press, Small Arguments (2003), Found (2007), and Light (2013). Found was made into a short film by Paramita Nath and screened at film festivals worldwide, including TIFF, L.A. Shorts Fest, and Dok Leipzig.

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www.souvankham-thammavongsa.com

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See them ladies over there? (Stops dancing and points.) There, sittin in their yards, plantin them silly roses. Sure are pretty, them roses . (Twirls piece of hair.) Thing is, they die. (Pause.) Them pretty lickle things, they die. I been down ere a long time. Long time, I tells ya. (Casts eyes to ground.) Birdy gone down and pooped me ere. Like ma mama says (Sadly.) I’m a mirickle child. (Quietly.) I’m a mirickle child.

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