Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Found: From Poems to Film, and How The City’s Smallest Poet Got Found

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Nathaniel G. Moore's Conflict of Interest column appears biweekly

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s poetry is larger than life; a broad statement, yes, but their impact, usually enhanced by her delivery on stage, is always memorable. Her 2007 collection, Found, published by Toronto’s Pedlar Press was recently adapted by filmmaker Paramita Nath to the short screen; that is, a short film has been made and will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. What follows is a piece that tries to connect the filmmaker and the poet through the creative process of adapting poetry to film, and to learn how the tiniest poet in Toronto made her way to one of the biggest film festivals in the world.

“I think it was Paramita who found me. I was on the stage reading my poems between Michael Ondaatje and Dionne Brand,” says Thammavongsa, about how the two artists found one another.

Filmmaker Paramita Nath says it was the quality of her voice and “the honesty of her poems” that attracted her to the idea of working with Thammavongsa. “I knew I wanted to work with her somehow. I got her phone number, called her up and we met for coffee. But I wasn't making films at the time so the closest I got to doing something was to present Small Arguments at a salon in my living room, with live music and a photo exhibit inspired by her work.”

Nath (born in Shillong, the quaint capital city of Meghalaya in India) has turned the poems into an impressionistic journey told through old photos, text, animation and home movies that documents the poet's family's escape from Laos in the 1970s. Nath moved to Canada in 1996 where she studied music in St. John's Newfoundland at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and more recently Interdisciplinary Fine Arts at York University. Found is Paramita’s debut short film.

Thammavongsa says the poems in Found had “a strong narrative behind it but the poems didn’t rely on that narrative to tell the story. It was the bits and pieces and blank spaces.” Adapting them to film wasn’t simply just reading the poems to visual accompaniment. Rather, the film, according to Thammavongsa, “also brings together my essays, interviews, and poems from my first book Small Arguments.”

Nath, who wrote the screenplay for Found, has her own take on the poems. “[The poems] are Souvankham's response to her exploration of the pages in her father's scrapbook. They are pure poems and not a ‘report’ of its contents. But through her essays, previous interviews and through speaking to her, I got to know about the personal narrative attached to this scrapbook and what it meant to her. I decided that I wanted to interweave this narrative with the poems and create a story arch.”

Gaining access to the author’s father’s scrapbook also proved useful, and was integral in the film itself. “The biggest challenge was how to tell a complete narrative in five minutes and do it justice. Souvankham's voice, which narrates the story, holds everything together tightly along with her powerful words.”

Thammavongsa’s pared down poetry seems like the perfect foil for film. “One of the interesting mechanics of my poems is that it sounds very plain, like someone just simply addressing you and telling you something. The language I work with isn’t interested in dancing or spinning around or looking very pretty. It’s simple and quiet and thin and a little tough. In poetry, its simplicity is its technical achievement. In film, it made an excellent narrative voice.”

The poet is steadfast to tell me she never intended any of her poetry to be on film. “I never set them up to be that way but filmmakers are often drawn to it. I think because it is so tightly directed on the page that it lends itself easily to a filmmaker. But also, I found filmmakers tend to not need me to explain my choices or defend them. They see it the way I set it out on the page and they bring out the mechanics of it.”

Please come out to Found's Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival:


15 September 2009: 5:00PM (AMC 2 theatre)
17 September 2009: 6:15PM (AMC 7 theatre)
18 September 2009: 1:00PM (Jackman Hall, AGO)

SINGLE tickets go on sale on 4th September.