CanLit Rewind: Small Arguments by Souvankham Thammavongsa

October 7, 2015

Poet Souvankham Thammavongsa has published all three of her award-winning collections with Newfoundland-based Pedlar Press, led by Beth Follett. For the third instalment of our CanLit Rewind series, Beth's chosen Thammavongsa's debut,  Small Arguments, as a book that "didn't change the press so much as it changed me."

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This year marks forty years of supporting and celebrating some of Canada's finest literary presses for our parent organization, the Literary Press Group of Canada. To help celebrate, for the entire month of October All Lit Up will be highlighting books from our publishers that either helped launch a new voice in CanLit or made an impact at the press it was published with. Go on a CanLit Rewind with us to rediscover some backlist gems!

Poet Souvankham Thammavongsa has published all three of her award-winning collections with Newfoundland-based Pedlar Press, led by Beth Follett. For the third instalment of our CanLit Rewind series, Beth's chosen Thammavongsa's debut,  Small Arguments, as a book that "didn't change the press so much as it changed me."

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Small Arguments, Thammavongsa's first book, was championed by writers Dionne Brand, Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels. No other Pedlar debut garnered this kind of heavyweight support. Pedlar has reprinted the title five times. It has been adopted for six academic courses and is beloved by the poetry nation. Souvankham's collection caught the attention of Laotian American writers who continue to celebrate her achievements.

Souvankham and I have become very close, and I have been a fierce champion of her poetics, faced so very often with society's tendency to infantilize a small Asian woman and her capacities. Together we have made presentations to high school students and by so doing I have been witness to Souvankham's devotion to the life of a poet, because inevitably a student will ask how to be a poet and Sou will slash through all romantic notion about the life to arrive at its core, which is reading and thinking and learning the individuated Self.

I dislike the notion of canons [regarding the CanLit canon], believing there is room in the garden for every kind of flower and hybrid. But I do believe in mindful excellence. Today in The Globe & Mail I read an interview with Elizabeth Hay, who was asked,  What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? and who replied, It’s something I read in V.S. Pritchett’s book about Turgenev, The Gentle Barbarian. “When in doubt, increase the difficulty.”  Small Arguments and all other Thammavongsa works were created by a woman who willingly increases difficulties for herself. This first book was written and finished during her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto.

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Thanks a million to Beth at Pedlar Press for her heartfelt tribute to Souvankham's first book. To learn more about Souvankham, you can read an interview between her and Contemporary Verse 2, here. Her most recent work,  Light, won the Ontario Trillium Award for Poetry.


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