Pills, Snow, and Typewriters: An Interview with Sarah J. Sloat – curated by Victoria Chang

Sarah J. Sloat splits her time between Frankfurt and Barcelona, where she works as a news editor. Her poetry, collage, and prose have appeared in The Offing, West Branch, Sixth Finch, The Journal and DIAGRAM. Sarah 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 (Dancing Girl Press).


Victoria: I love how your new book of poems, erasures, and collages, Hotel Almighty (Sarabande Books, 2020) started from an assignment–that you were assigned a Stephen King novel to work with as a source text. What have you learned about choosing source texts for erasures through this process?

Sarah: I’ve learned a lot, especially since I’ve tried other source texts. Not surprisingly I learned to avoid texts that are low on strong nouns and verbs. As in any writing, the vivid and tangible will pack more power than abstractions. But I’d also avoid brilliant texts that you admire. I’ve done a few erasures with Ali Smith’s The Accidental, but she’s so original and so good, I have to ask myself what I’m doing here.

I hadn’t read Misery before setting to work so it was a chancy enterprise. But I was lucky. The story is full of happenings with pills, snow, typewriters and sinister household coziness. Stephen King gives the character of Annie Wilkes some weird linguistic tics, which I mostly skirted around. She is the queen of goofy expressions. One does appear in the poem [I’m going up ace...]—“hi-de-ho.”

Victoria: I love what you say about avoiding “brilliant texts that you admire.” I think about this myself when writing. The more I love a poem or a book, the more I put it as far away as I can when I’m writing my own work.

I read in a bio somewhere that you are fond of the aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Many of the poems in your book felt like found aphorisms to me, or perhaps made aphorisms from found language (both in their length and in their spirit). What relationship does the aphorism have to your work?

Sarah: I love aphorisms and keep a notebook of them. I especially love Lichtenberg. Aphorisms and poetry are close relatives. They can overlap. The aphorism escorts you through an observation, or works through a thought as a poem might, and yields a truth or revelation, however low-key it might be.

I have published some prose poems that use aphorisms. In this book I didn’t set out to find them. But limited as I was to one page for each piece, I’m not surprised some aphoristic fragments turned up.

Victoria: I love that word, “escort”–the idea that language can escort us through our observations and feelings is really wonderful. As a person who likes collaging and doodling, I look at each of your pieces in this book and marvel at all the work that went into each. Can you talk about the actual process of making these? How long each took, what you did first, where you found collaging materials, how you selected the words to erase, etc.

Sarah: It’s impossible to put a time on the process of making each piece, it varied so wildly. In some cases, finding the poem may have taken months, and in others an hour. Like most poets, I had moments of joy when I thought YES, EUREKA, I AM DONE! And in the evening I’d say, ugh, this is awful. I trashed so many pages that in the end I had five copies of Misery, even though I resisted altering a page until I was sure, whatever ‘sure’ means. With visual poetry you can’t just un-erase the offending line.

In any case, I always started with the poem, which is the harder part. Then I thought about how to tease it out visually. I avoided a direct connection between the visual and the text. Better to let the reader make associations.

For the collages, I used magazines, and how-to and travel books. I mined a book of old maps. I used old photographs, as in [Fluid the promise...]. The face in [If you turned the thing over...] is from a book about Frederic Chopin. [Sweet the way...] includes teardrop shapes cut from a wine label. In [Why not invite him in...] I used a postcard of a famous Bruegel painting. Elsewhere I used thread, confetti, correction fluid.

Victoria: I love this because I have gone through so much paper in making my own collages. I have also marveled at my own “brilliance” only to discover by nightfall that I was a fraud. What are some books of erasures that gave you inspiration? I always love (and teach) from Matthea Harvey’s Of, Lamb, one of my favorites. Solmaz Sharif has these neat epistolary erasure poems in her book, Look. 

Sarah: Of Lamb is unique, and since I’ve been on a pandemic book binge I will check out the Sharif book.

Among my inspirations are Jen Bervin’s gorgeous Nets, and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, which I only wish were three times as long. I love Collier Nogues’ The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, which you can read online. Monica Rico has some great erasures of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in America on her website.

A non-poetry book that influenced me is Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, which is exactly what it says it is.

Victoria: I’m excited to check some of these books out, thank you for the suggestions! I read that you’ve made other erasures as well. Why do you like making erasures? Or said differently, how does making erasures feel different than writing conventional poems and why are you attracted to erasures?

Sarah: I wish I knew. I still write conventional poems, though infrequently. I make lists and write down dreams. But at the moment I’m pursuing visual poetry, including erasure. I love the evocative quality of fragments wrenched from texts, which are wide open to interpretation, paired with small tactile elements that offer texture like thread. I like the idea that the paper that a poem is composed on is part of the poem. Although you can’t see it in Hotel Almighty, many of the pieces are mounted on the covers of hardback books, which provide a firm frame.

The difference for me between conventional poetry and erasure is when I write a conventional poem, I feel the poem comes from inside and I try to shape it. When I write an erasure poem, it’s more like I go to it. I’m presented with the materials. It’s like approaching a blank canvas with your paints versus having a rock to sculpt.

With erasure, of course your own eye and receptiveness will influence what you find. But even for one person, there can be numerous poems on any one page. [I was a meadow...] and [To the queer silence...], for example, both spring from page 13. It’s the same with another pair in the book, and others that didn’t make the book.

Victoria: Are there any international poets and/or visual artists you would recommend to American readers?

Sarah: Contemporary poets are hard because of language barriers, but some European visual artists that I love—some of whom work with text—are Ines Seidel, a German who works with books and newspapers; and Anu Tuominen, a Finnish conceptual artist who works with objects and textiles. From the Netherlands, I love Hinke Schreuders, who does gorgeous work with thread and photographs, and Hagar Vardimon, who makes witty, colorful collages, often using thread. 

Victoria: More wonderful artists for me to look into. What I found so lovely about your erasures are that not only are the visual elements beautiful and interesting, but the text actually holds up too. Sometimes either/or break down. What appealed to me about the text you chose were the surprises that sprung from them. For example: “the sound of the wind. filled the phone squeezing into the line like a nerve awake at night.” Or “In an act of imagination late at night. He threw back his head and a variety of strange and poisonous flowers grew almost five years apart, in two different towns.” And so many more. 

Sarah: I am thrilled that you think so. That’s what I wanted — for the text and visual to hold up, separately and together. I tossed many pieces where this wasn’t the case. I also tore collages from pages where the text didn’t work. And the other way around: I peeled a failed collage from a page and began again.

Victoria: Ha, I can relate to this. I sometimes spend hours on a collage, only to have to toss it. Sometimes in the process of resuscitating it, I ruin it. Can you talk about how you organized the book and the individual pieces?

Sarah: I tried at first to give each section some guiding star. For example, one section at first only included poems that referenced the imagination. But in the end some pieces wouldn’t be pigeonholed, and I let them gravitate toward the section they seemed at home in. I am happy with the groupings. I probably would have saved myself a lot of thinking, and bending over the floor sorting pages, if I’d let things gravitate toward each other from the get-go.

Visually important was ensuring the recto-verso pairings didn’t clash, like no red next to yellow, which gives me the creeps. And I wanted to avoid stringing similar things together. For example, blue is wonderful, but you don’t want pages of unbroken blue, even if that makes sense textually.

Victoria: This is what I love about making collages–is that so much happens during the process of making that it’s impossible to know at the “get-go.” This process of discovery that happens in the making (that can cause headaches and a lot of re-doing or re-making) is so glorious. I’d be curious to know what you are working on now and if you’re making collages still or using different mediums, different materials, etc.?

Sarah: I’ve been doing some freer collages with and without text, without any larger project in mind. I recently made some pieces using paper that’s turned various hues of yellow and brown, and I’ve tried some machine stitching of pages. I greatly prefer the analog, the texture of the material, to the digital.

Recently I’ve also done some erasures with a novella called Sleepless Night, which I confess I was attracted to mostly for its title. Two are in Diode and two more are due out in Guesthouse. I’m still waiting for the perfect book to come along.

Victoria: Is there anything you’d want to tell someone who might want to try erasures and collaging for the first time?

Sarah: For collage, if you don’t know where to start, find something you admire and attempt a similar piece. I get ideas on Instagram, where artists like Fred Free, Lee A McKenna and Allan Bealy post their work. If I feel uninspired I find something I like and try recreating a ‘version’ of it. It never ever turns out like what I’m trying to model it on! Within minutes it’s gone its own way. It’s good just to begin somewhere.

Part of the joy of collage is collecting material, which is everywhere: magazines, tickets, cards, cloth, grocery lists. I left Spain, where I work, in mid-March for Germany, where my family lives, thinking I’d be back in a couple weeks. Months later I’m still here. I left a lot behind in Spain, not just clippings and drafts and supplies. But collage materials are all around, so one upside is fresh stash.

Erasure is a hunt that can be daunting. You have to zone out of what’s on the page, don’t read it as a text while you’re searching, just pick out the words that grab you. I’ve read Misery now dozens of times because while scanning I’d start reading. Resist!

If sometimes you stare at a page and nothing emerges, try building a metaphor. Find a good noun and the verb ‘to be’ and you could be on to something wild. “Danger was a billboard near the cathedral, tall, jaundiced,” or “The merlot was a long silence,” etc. It will happen, though, that really there is nothing worthwhile to be found. Turn the page.