During a tête-à-tête with Adam Dickinson, Trillium-winner Souvankham Thammavongsa reveals some of the back-story to her poem "Perfect."
It took me a long time to write “Perfect.” Almost twenty years. I didn’t want it to be a confessional poem. Too easy. I didn’t want the emotional weight to carry the poem. Too easy. I didn’t want the event to be the point. Too easy and depressing. We read not because we want to feel guilty or terrible about our lives. I didn’t want to do that to a reader. It’s so narrow—it’s not what I hope for from literature or language.
For me, this poem is about what happens to the word perfect. What light does to the word perfect. As a title, it is the first thing we see. Perfect. What is perfect. We are in the dark about what is perfect here. We continue because we want to get to the part where things get better. We, as readers, hope for that. And it takes a long time before we see the word perfect again in the poem. By the time we get to it, we’ve been through the things the person in the poem has been through.
I started with the question, if you knew this would be your life, that this is what would happen to you, would you choose it if you could? The question is a hopeless one because we know you don’t get to choose like that. We don’t get to choose what has already taken place. This is where all the sadness takes place. It isn’t the event at all.
The people in the poem are in the dark about where their lives will go, what will happen to them, even the person who asks, “How’d you get perfect?” is in the dark but the person telling this story is not. She knows this moment in time means something. She knows what light she gets will be hers to use. Light as a tool, as knowledge, as understanding.
The economy of the poem—the look of it, it’s dense with a lot of words, it’s visually heavy, it’s “rich” but what you read is actual poverty. It looks like a block of text and it blocks out light on the page. Not only do poverty and restriction form the structure of the book and the poem; they are also the very subject of this poem.