Though she's also garnered enormous success for her acclaimed fiction (including last year's Giller Prize winner How to Pronounce Knife), Souvankham Thammavongsa began her career with poetry, with her sparse, tightly coiled, and powerful verse earning her both literary prizes and a devoted following.
So it's immediately intriguing to discover what she's selected for Best Canadian Poetry 2021 (Biblioasis), the influential annual anthology which invites a guest editor each year to take on the tough task of choosing Canada's finest poems to collect and celebrate.
We're speaking with Souvankham today to discuss her approach to searching out great Canadian poetry. She tells us about looking for poems that "got in there quickly and got out quickly", how she views the role of an editor, and the unique, poet-centric aspect of Best Canadian Poetry that she thinks makes it the best collection of its kind.
And for more on the Best Canadian Series from Biblioasis, check out our discussion with Best Canadian Stories 2021 editor Diane Schoemperlen.
How did you select the pieces for this book? What were you looking for when assembling it?
I read poems published in Canadian literary magazines and poems that appeared anywhere in the world and was written by a Canadian.
I was looking for poems that got in there quickly and got out quickly, who said things plainly and clearly, who had a sound we seldom hear. I didn’t care if they won prizes or had books. I read the words they put in front of me, and went with that.
How do you view the pieces in the book as speaking to each other?
They don’t. They speak for themselves. Their voices remain completely theirs. They are all so vivid and distinct on their own terms.
Are there any writers you discovered through this project? What, if anything, surprised you about the writers whose work you came to through this book?
After I selected the poems for the anthology, every writer wrote about their poem (what inspired it, what they had in mind, what they think it is about). I didn’t get to see this part until the book was published and printed. And I found this to be the most beautiful. This is what makes it best.
In this anthology series, which Best Canadian Poetry is part of, they also have Best Canadian Essays and Best Canadian Stories. I have been in them all, so I speak from experience here. The poetry anthology is different because it asks writers to say something about what they did and thought and lived. In the fiction or essay anthologies, the writers just have their work printed. The writers do not give more than that. With the poetry anthology, they do.
What surprised me was how generous and varied poets were in what they wrote about their pieces. They told us secrets, they pulled us up close and told us what makes them cry or laugh or angry or love or tick or stink. They told us about their jobs and families. They told us of their difficulties, their near misses. Sometimes they told us they didn’t know and were just trying. No one was the same. A poem can come from anywhere. It can come from anyone. It truly can be anything.
How do you view the role of an editor in relation to an anthology?
An editor is just there to say “Wow, look at this! And this! And THIS! AND THIS!” That’s all.
Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of five books: Small Arguments (2003), winner of the ReLit Prize; Found (2007), now a short film; Light (2013), winner of the Trillium Book Award for Poetry; Cluster (2019); and the short story collection How to Pronounce Knife (2020), winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She has been in residence at Yaddo and has presented her work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.