Misery Loves Company: A Conversation with Sarah J. Sloat
As an erasure poet myself, I’m on the lookout for (okay, fully stalk) new releases in this poetic subgenre, which are few and far between. When I came across Sarah J. Sloat’s Hotel Almighty (an erasure of Stephen King’s Misery), I was immediately taken with the striking visuals and exquisiteness of her collages. How the interplay of art and text elevates the reading experience to synethestic levels.
Of course in a collection of poetry, the words must also stand on their own––and Sloat does not disappoint. The language is spare yet evocative. Each word keeps you on your toes. A poem can radically shift, imagistically or in tone, with the arrival of an unexpected moment or word choice: “the night can turn as bright as icebergs, green and white; I heard this from a man who had to begin.”
Hotel Almighty is a collection full of possibility and surprise. Of yes, misery and confinement, but also of playfulness and hope. It’s worth noting how unusual and thrilling it is to encounter a book of poems infused with so much color. The sophistication of the erasure pairs with the illustrative nature of collage to create a distinct mood, at times, like a subversive picture book for the Future Adult version of the kid drawing in the back of the room, who is too smart or dark or witty for the rest of the class.
Sarah J. Sloat is the author of five poetry chapbooks, including Heiress to a Small Ruin and Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair (both published by Dancing Girl Press). Her poetry, collage, and prose have appeared in The Offing, West Branch, Sixth Finch, The Journal, and Diagram. She splits her time between Frankfurt and Barcelona, where she works as a news editor. She loves clouds and drugstores and the smell of gasoline.
I spoke with Sloat over Google Docs, where we discussed her erasure process, Stephen King, and how her background in art and collage influences her writing.
The Rumpus: How did you first come upon erasure? You have been blurbed by poetry heavyweights and erasurists, such as Mary Ruefle and Matthea Harvey. What poets or works have influenced your work in general, and this book in particular?
Sarah J. Sloat: The first erasure poetry book I recall reading was Jen Bervin’s Nets, which I adore, or maybe it’s just the one that burned a hole in my brain. It’s probably the book I turned to the most while navigating this project. I do love Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, but I read it when I had just about completed the poems in Hotel Almighty. Too bad, because she is so funny and that gives you courage to be funny.
As to what writing influenced my book, not to weasel out but, as writers, what have we read that hasn’t influenced us? Specific poets I’ve loved and learned from include Lesle Lewis, Elaine Equi, Harryette Mullen, and the aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. And the Eastern European poets Vasko Popa, Novica Tadić, and Marin Sorescu. While working on the book, every day I soaked in an Ethel Rackin poem hanging over my desk about the color blue, and Walt Whitman’s meditation on chucking it all to go live with animals, which is taped beside the coffee canister in my kitchen.
Rumpus: You mention that you were essentially assigned Stephen King’s Misery as part of a poetry challenge. Can you talk more about the specifics of this writing experiment?
Sloat: In 2016, Texas poet E. Kristin Anderson and others launched an online project called The Poeming. In that inaugural year, everyone was assigned a King book. This group still exists and thrives. One year they did Anne Rice books, and in others they’ve had participants use Jurassic Park and Flowers in the Attic.
Rumpus: What can you say about your personal reading history of Stephen King? How does an erasurist or visual poet’s relationship to the reading material matter? A case can be made both for and against the appreciation or “likability” of a source text. Where do you stand on whether erasure is an act of homage and collaboration, or perhaps purposeful revision and sabotage?
Sloat: I don’t think an erasure poet has to like the text at all. Many erasure poets work with texts they greatly dislike! Personally, I would avoid a text that I adored. I have done a couple of poems using Ali Smith’s The Accidental, a book I love. But I come away wondering what the hell am I doing there. Better to take a gardening manual and start trimming.
As to Stephen King, I am your average King reader—before reading Misery, I’d read three or four of his novels and listened to a tape of his stories on a long drive with my kids. I’d read The Shining, The Dead Zone, and The Stand. I might have read Carrie in high school, or maybe it’s collective memory haunting me.
Rumpus: Can you share your erasure process?
Sloat: I read the book or text as a whole first because that only seems fair. But when I get down to looking for a poem I am not reading the page. I am looking for good words and connections. Initially I would underline or circle in pencil, but I soon stopped marking pages with ideas because I inevitably changed course later and was left with faded erased areas or indelible marks.
Now, I make notes separately. The text to me is paramount. After it’s found, I decide how to embellish it and whether to use correction tape, fluid, pencil, or whatever. Hotel Almighty takes a variety of approaches, but for a more recent project I used a uniform approach, covering the unwanted text with blank paper.
Rumpus: At what point does art come into play, and what is your background with collage? Where do you find your artistic materials and tools, and how do you decide which materials to apply to or over your text?
Sloat: I’ve always loved collage, particularly the German artists Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch. There are so many wonderful collagists working now that I follow on Instagram, like Allan Bealy, Melinda Tidwell, and Cory Peeke. But I don’t have much of an artistic background—I taught myself, as collagists often do, and I have a lot still to learn.
I find many materials in old books and magazines. The hand in “[An Idea sat quietly… ]” is from an old Time-Life book about the body. “[Sweet the way…]” includes teardrops cut from a wine label. The looming orb in “[Not a dry eye in the house…]” is from a page-a-day calendar of apples. There are possibilities everywhere.
Rumpus: You wrote in the collection”s introduction that you are drawn to the surprise and accident of collage. That “you might clip an image from an old book only to be bowled over by what sits on the other side.” Can you share an example of when you stumbled upon this kind of serendipitous image? Did the images ever affect the subsequent revision of a poem?
Sloat: Serendipity is a huge ingredient in collage. As an example, for the poem “[Stop acting…],” I used a vintage photo I bought at a flea market. I had the photo out one day with some collage litter and noticed beside it a clipping that fit perfectly as part of the woman’s shoulder and seemed to amplify her hair. Placing it on the photo made it look as if someone had x-rayed this staid-looking lady and found something wild inside. It was an accident. You could never go out to try to find such a thing.
By the time I am adding collage to a poem I have decided the text is done. That doesn’t mean I won’t hate it later. I definitely have ripped up something I thought was finished and started over. I wrote about one such experience here.
Rumpus: I loved the sequence of Misery poems and found myself waiting for the next one to arrive. I wanted more and more “misery” and possibilities for how to define it or be confined by it. One of your poems, in fact, mentions a “growing lexicon,” and I feel like you were building one, too, just with varied and intensely original definitions of the same word.
Sloat: Ha! Misery loves company.
Rumpus: On the flip side, I really admire that you bravely stated that your goal was mostly “to have fun.” I think this is a bold statement in the context of poetry. Can poetry sometimes be too serious? Does it need some intentional or figurative confetti? Is fun infused into your approach for composing “regular,” text-only poetry? Do you allow yourself this kind of attitude of serious “play” when you are forming new words for traditional poems, as opposed to removing them?
Sloat: We live in serious times. We need serious poetry. That said, there is a lot of serious poetry and particularly serious, downbeat poetry. But readers love humorous and affirmative poems as much as they love darker poems that comfort them when they feel dark. I think of Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which is popular for many good reasons but also simply because it’s uplifting. The beautiful thing about it is it’s honest, and it has a message for you.
I like to have fun with poetry, visual or otherwise. Fun offers us relief. I’ve written poems that brag, poems that have fun, and poems of celebration.
Rumpus: Ironically, after you espoused the importance of having fun, the second half of your sentence radically switches gears with the intention “to change the empty areas created by erasure into something beholden to the poem.”
Sloat: In this case, what I mean is I want the text to be the mother of the piece, and the visual to play off it, to be its satellite. I tried not to draw a direct line between the text and the visual, but I also didn’t want the collages to wander away.
Rumpus: I’m curious how your work as a news editor influences your work? Journalistic edits are notorious for being brutal, swift, and unapologetic. Does your professional editorial training more prepare you for erasure?
Sloat: Probably the most obvious connection is my love of short poems. I like to write them, and I like to read them. Whether being an editor has helped me be more critical of myself, the answer is probably yes. Whether it’s helped me follow through with brutal edits, well, probably not brutal enough. I try, like anyone, but I can spend hours staring at a poem and in the end not change a thing, or change it back. Or scrap it.
Rumpus: Speaking of brutality, many people find erasure to be a destructive act. Does the inclusion of collage perhaps change that perspective?
Sloat: Rather than destructive, I think erasure often aims to be subversive. I love the poets who take a politician’s speech or party platform document and turn it upside down. You may know Chase Berggrun’s book R E D, a reimagining of Dracula, minus the misogyny. One of my favorite erasure projects is Collier Nogues’s amazing The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground. She erases historical documents connected to the war in the Pacific. With Hotel Almighty, what I wanted to do is transform the text into something else entirely. I didn’t set out to destroy but excavate something new.
Rumpus: How do you define yourself as a writer (poet? erasure poet? visual poet?), and do these terms make a difference?
Sloat: I consider myself a poet first, though I haven’t spent a lot of time writing “conventional” poems in the last four years. I think most poets care about how the poem looks on the page, and those who do are visual poets too. I just read Victoria Chang’s book Obit, in which most of the poems appear as a long strip with a justified left and right margin, like an obituary in a newspaper. That’s visual poetry, too.
Rumpus: When you submitted individual poems to publications, did you submit it to “regular” poetry or to “visual poetry” categories?
Sloat: This is a matter of confusion for all visual poets. I recently queried a publication that was closed to poetry submissions whether I could send work via the art category. Weeks, possibly months later they answered to say do whatever you want. By then poetry submissions had reopened. For fear of being a presumptuous jerk I let a lot of time go by. I don’t have an answer. I generally go with poetry.
Rumpus: You also mention in the Acknowledgments that poems published in literary journals sometimes appeared in wildly different versions. How so?
Sloat: The Beatles’ song “And Your Bird Can Sing” is the product of two failed songs mashed together. My poem “[If you turned the thing over…]” is text that was previously paired with a different collage and a collage previously paired with a poem I fell out of love with.
Sometimes I trashed a collage and started again with a fresh page. I have collages salvaged from failed Hotel Almighty poems. I did two versions of “[Here was a woman…]” and published both. I did different versions of a number of poems, though generally it’s the visual that was different.
By the end of the project I had five copies of Misery and that is thanks to restraint. Many times I simply messed up and wanted a new page. Like I’d be coloring the page green, tra-la-la, only to recklessly pencil out a word I needed.
And, if you look carefully, you will see there are some pages I used twice. “[I was a meadow…]” and “[To the queer silence…],” for example, both spring from page thirteen of Misery.
Rumpus: Your description of each page as a miniature canvas made me think about the finite nature of the page, how rectangular it is, like a building. Your title (and section titles) all contain hotels. Can you talk about this choice, and how hotels fit into your vision of your work?
Sloat: The title Hotel Almighty is a phrase I was taken with early in the project. It struck me as a fine place to house the poems. On the whole the poems are more indoorsy than outdoorsy, so making the sections into a chain of hotels seemed the right move. I wanted each poem to be like a room that invites the reader in.
Rumpus: Speaking of invitations, your epigraph by Erik Satie is quite intriguing: “With three trumpets one can do anything.” I did a little googling and was excited to learn that Satie was an eccentric, avant-garde composer, pianist, sound-measuring “phonometrician” and “gymnopedist.” How do these preceding words speak to your work and why did you choose them to introduce Hotel Almighty?
Sloat: In addition to composing, Erik Satie was a writer who could be very funny. Instead of musical directions like allegro or andante, he’d write something like “as if walking backwards.” Years ago I read a book called Satie Remembered, which was poignant and entertaining. One remembrance was of how he attended some conference and proclaimed that he had discovered a number of colors no one had ever seen before.
I listened to Satie a lot while working on these poems. The epigraph to me is a declaration of imaginative freedom and it’s about being resourceful with what you have. As in, here is another page of Misery, see what you can do with it. And after that, how about crowning a high-rise with an apple or stitching a tree in the ground.
Photograph of Sarah J. Sloat by Carlo Del Prete.