“Learning English in the Margins of the Masters” by Para Vadhahong is the winning poem for the 2023 Sappho Prize for Women Poets, selected by Guest Judge Evie Shockley. We’re honored to share this poem with you, as well as an interview with the poet.
“One of the things I turn to poetry for is to have my relationship with language renewed: to freshly feel its power and its limitations. Language is central to how we understand what we’re experiencing. This poem urges us to think about what linguistic and literary mastery means for those who have come to English through loss or imposition. Its lines dance deftly with danger and dispossession. I found its piercing questions and “turns of phrase” unforgettable.” —Evie Shockley, Guest Judge
Interview with Para Vadhahong
by AT Hincapie
AT Hincapie: Your winning poem, “Learning English in the Margins of the Masters,” emphasizes the sensory impact of each sound and syllable—or as judge Evie Shockley describes it, “…to have my relationship with language renewed: to freshly feel its power and its limitations.” What, if any, problems or limitations do you find when languages overlap? What benefits or power might there be when words blend across different tongues?
Para Vadhahong: When my native hold on Thai and my learned grasp of English overlap in unexpected moments, the results can feel like accidental poetry. I still phrase things in Thai with English sentence structures, such as saying that I “made friends” after a camping experience when I was a teenager. My mom amusedly pointed out that the phrase when worded in Thai makes it sound like I literally built my friends with tools, indirectly alluding to something of a Pygmalion situation.
I do think there is power in the ability to communicate in two or more languages; I risk vulnerability, which is the only way I can earn a richer vocabulary and syntax to express myself. The flawed yet intertwined relationship between Thai and English also means I can navigate my multitudes across different cultural expectations. I only speak Thai with my family, so I do feel myself becoming more childlike with its concretely short statements and questions, versus in English, where I trained myself to become a poet. I would love to read more literary Thai, since I’m reading Mui Poopoksakul’s translations of contemporary Thai novels and find myself moved by their stories of societal turmoil and individual triumph.
AT: The power of language proves essential to the ritual of prayer, as the speaker in this poem recognizes: “Poetry predates prayer. Prayer preys on the preyed upon…” What relationship do you see between chanting and language, between ritual and repetition? Is it possible that prayer in this case might be an attempt at communication—even if there is not a clear voice to answer back?
PV: That part of the poem refers to the role of religious indoctrination which always accompanies linguistic and cultural assimilation. Thailand was never formally colonized, but the legacy of Anglo literature—of language devices, of civilization, of Westward immigration—looms over the speaker, influencing them to learn English even as they recognize that their alien curiosity means they will never feel at home in the country of English. This lack of ease is not a shortcoming, but rather a condition that allows them the choice to weave between languages and identities.
My experience with chanting and language are intertwined with the importance of ritual and repetition. Growing up in a Thai Buddhist family, temples are central to my community, where one is warmly immersed in a crowd of elders, aunties, little kids, and noodle vendors. At a temple, everything is a shared experience from preparing food for monks and each other to catching up with neighbors to chasing children down so they don’t fall face-first into the pond reserved for Loy Krathong celebrations.
In communal prayer, monks will chant lines from the Pali Canon in honor of Buddha, and worshippers will echo them. I could never smoothly chant those words that sound so familiar yet foreign, so I spend a lot of time observing others. Pali is the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism and thus isn’t used in practice, yet many Thai Buddhists still utter those words with faith and trust. As such, prayer is an answerless mode of communication that points towards the choice of rituals, the act of returning to community so that life as we know it can go on.
AT: The speaker in this poem often meditates on the context and connotations behind each sound, even referring to the past as “the feel of a first tongue in my back pocket.” How might one’s ancestors have an influence on the language of the present day—or why is it important for this speaker to understand the language of the past, even when they are looking toward the sounds of the future?
PV: The first tongue becomes a card trick, a hidden weapon of wit. The first tongue announces its presence when it is missing from daily communication; I did not begin to think about the poetic or technical qualities of Thai until English replaced my tongue as the norm, creating enough distance between me and my own culture for the latter to appear worthy of curiosity. There is cause to grieve this distance, as much as there is cause to honor ancestors through remembering language. Holding onto the language of the past means holding onto a version of yourself that cannot be replaced by any other.
I wanted to end this poem on a melancholic note that feels victorious—the future of the speaker is uncertain, but what is certain is their history, their commitment to questioning the order of everything. While they struggle to follow the “national tide” of tradition, which means questioning the nature of their name and place, the feeling of rootlessness ultimately gives them freedom to untangle deceitful and beautiful English phrases.
AT: This poem makes direct reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear, noting that the Latin root of the name “Cordelia” offers some insight into the nature of this famously troubled character. How might the speaker in your poem reflect Cordelia’s state of mind, or why might the ambiguity of language become “a silly burden to heave” as it does for this character in the play?
PV: A name can feel like a “silly burden to heave” because something so universal across languages is inherently complicated. I allude to Shakespeare’s Cordelia because I appreciate the bittersweet pun of her name—the suggestion of passion for someone plainly honest to the point of innocence. As an aside, I translated Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of King Leir in my medieval Latin class, and the Cordelia in that narrative says this, in response to her father’s asking her how much she loves him: “By however much you have, by that much you are worth, and by that much I love you.” Incredible. Cordelia cannot feign the performance of love in both versions, yet they are so different in manners.
Her character also invites me to launch into wordplay about doomed moments in classical myth: a foretold gaze that dooms lovers to death, a fated arrow that strikes a warrior in the ankle. The speaker sorts their understanding of English into stories from the West.
AT: Your poem is the winner of the Sappho Prize for Women Poets, which offers a unique opportunity for poets who might otherwise feel silenced by traditional publishing trends. Are there any benefits you see in the theme of this contest, or has it impacted your editing and submission process at all?
PV: I am so grateful to Palette Poetry’s editors and Evie Shockley—whose own poetry has greatly inspired mine—for affirming my poem, which I had once thought too self-indulgent to be appreciated by others. I am empowered to explore the subject of language in my poetry, something that I will always be tied to as it interrogates my questions about cross-cultural identity, literary translation, and sense of belonging.
Regarding the submission process, I have participated in this contest in high school and in college, so to win this time—as a more patient and mature writer—really does encourage me to keep pushing others to notice my efforts, in life as in art. Most of all, I look forward to discovering more poets through this contest, and hope they benefit from this opportunity artistically (and monetarily) as well.