Beautiful Books: Light by Souvankham Thammavongsa

September 18, 2013

As most book lovers will tell you, there is something about the physical book object that is such a beautiful, delightful thing to hold, own, and explore. In the latest column on our blog, we'll be turning our focus to some of the beautiful books our members create and the stories behind their inspiration. For our inaugural post we have Beth Follett, publisher of Pedlar Press, sharing with us the story behind the subtly captivating cover of Light, the new poetry collection by Souvankham Thammavongsa.

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As most book lovers will tell you, there is something about the physical book object that is such a beautiful, delightful thing to hold, own, and explore. In the latest column on our blog, we'll be turning our focus to some of the beautiful books our members create and the stories behind their inspiration. For our inaugural post we have Beth Follett, publisher of Pedlar Press, sharing with us the story behind the subtly captivating cover of Light, the new poetry collection by Souvankham Thammavongsa.

*****

Light

❝There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck
you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk
so lightly. Lightly, my darling . . . Learn to do everything lightly. Yes,
feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.❞  — Aldous Huxley

 

Writing here at my old table in a reconfigured study that was once a small second-floor bedroom in this 1890s saltbox house from which I operate Pedlar Press in the summertime, I got as far as the epigraph when a car, driving onto the lawn below my window, caught my eye. This is outport Newfoundland, and here as elsewhere, when Canada Post has an expedited parcel, the worker must deliver it to the door. Until this delivery—which, as it happens, is books—Souvankham Thammavongsa' new collection, Light— I didn't think the postal workers had a clue where I live, my mail usually delivered to a post box and the house addressless.

The significance of this coincidence—sitting down to write about a Pedlar book I had not yet held in my hand, the next minute holding it in my hand—it is gorgeous!—belongs to Souvankham, this work of hers and its series of coincidences, which I had sat down to write about. The timing of this most recent coincidence only adds to the grace of Light.

The release of her new collection, a happening akin to a small riot, according to Canadian poet Kevin Connolly, marks Souvankham's third book with Pedlar Press. I have been blessed by Souvankham's friendship over ten years, having been her editor and publisher since 2003. Anyone who has read her poetry will know how masterfully yet lightly she bends toward the small, the easily overlooked. Attempting to honour the light touch she brings in her poems to some of the deepest questions confronting the human species, her first two Pedlar books had only very slight marks on their covers, a practice I expected to follow with her third book.

Yes. And no. Here's the story.

My partner, Stan Dragland, by now has read aloud to me almost all the brilliant works of UK writer Jane Gardam. Phil Hall introduced us to her work, with a novel called A Long Way From Verona, which he gave us because we have spent much time at a lake near the town of Verona in Ontario. After listening to Stan read aloud four Gardam works, I went searching online for information about her, and in my search discovered that her daughter, Catharine Nicholson, had been one of the foremost botanical artists of her time. Nicholson completed fine pen and ink drawings, examining in minute detail subjects that were in decay. She was an artist very much interested in ideas of transformation. Sadly, she died of cancer a few years ago.

Reading the biographical sketch on Nicholson's website, I felt that I had come upon a woman whose artistic practice was akin to Souvankham's own. I found an image of hers that appealed to me for the cover of Light, and last September, with some trepidation, sent it to Souvankham for her consideration. After looking at the drawing, I received astonished word from Souvankham, that her manuscript had come to be complete at forty-two poems, that she had counted and found forty-two acorns in Nicholson's picture, forty-one of them fatally diseased and just one viable. (The picture was completed as Nicholson battled with her cancer.)

We agreed that this was the perfect image for her book.

Here is the word I received from Souvankham on first seeing The Viable:

    I love it. I went to Catharine's website to take a look and love it even
    more. I have been thinking of a sculpture by Donald Judd that I saw in
    Marfa, Texas, the exact same material used, all shaped like a box but
    upon closer inspection, each box a slight variation of the other. That
    was how I modeled Light. I wanted to use the same material, but vary it
    in some small way. . .a difference, no matter how slight or small, is a
    difference that changes an entire being. I always saw Judd's piece as
    being very organic and of nature even though the process was industrial.
    Oh, how I love the description at the website about these acorns! That's
    my entire book in visual form—every single poem is different but they're
    all about light, have something to do with light—they all use light
    differently, like these acorns. It's just so fitting.

I wrote to Christopher Nicholson, Catherine's widower, who was delighted to be a part of the project and gave Pedlar his immediate permission to use the image, then I gave the image and the final manuscript to designer Zab Hobart, who worked her usual magic. The book I am holding in my hand today is exceedingly beautiful, "the most beautiful book I have ever seen," according to Souvankham. It isn't every day that a cover's backstory is a small and perfect jewel to bring into the light, alongside the book. But that's Souvankham Thammavongsa for you. Nothing everyday about her.

*****

Sou

Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in Nong Khai, Thailand, in 1978. She is the author of two poetry books, Small Arguments (Pedlar 2003), and Found (Pedlar 2007), which was made into a short film of the same name by filmmaker Paramita Nath and screened at festivals worldwide. In 2004, Small Arguments won the ReLit Award for Poetry. Thammavongsa's exquisite work has been championed by Canadian poets Anne Michaels, Dionne Brand and Michael Ondaatje. She was named Best Beloved Canadian Poet by readers of the literary periodical The New Quarterly.

*****

"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."  —Anne Michaels

"Each Souvankham Thammavongsa poem feels like an event, which makes a new collection akin to a small riot. In Light, she does what only very good poets do: sees the things others miss. This is the work of a poet at the top of her game."
—Kevin Connolly

*****

Thank you, Beth, for sharing with us the story behind the beautiful cover of Light!

_______

Edited from the original post, published on the LPG blog


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