Interviewed by Kelcey Parker Ervick
Editor’s Note- A few years back, when Sarah J. Sloat began her process of creating the visual poems which would become Hotel Almighty, I stumbled across them on social media and was instantly obsessed. I feel very lucky to be able to feature Sarah in our visual poetry issue and thrilled that equally talented writer and artist Kelcey Parker Ervick agreed to interview her. –NS
Kelcey Parker Ervick: First, I just want to say how much I love your new book of visual poetry, Hotel Almighty, which is both a poetic erasure and visual reimagining of Stephen King’s Misery. I was drawn to it because of the visual art but as I read it again and again, I love the way the words resonate. The erasure creates such wonderful white spaces and opportunities for visual and aural breaths, and the images—whether collaged items or abstract shapes and patterns—interact so beautifully with the words.Your background is in poetry, and I read that Hotel Almighty began with a challenge to create a poem-a-day using a Stephen King book as a source text. But you took it a step further by manually erasing and altering pages through your own imagery and collage. How did you come to create this collection of visual poetry? Did you have a background in visual art or collage? Did you have to overcome any fears or doubts about working in visual arts?
Sarah J. Sloat: Thanks so much. I’m a big fan of yours too. A couple or so years ago you set out to draw or paint something every day, and I remember being so inspired by that. I was working on Hotel Almighty at the time and often needed to let go and not worry about whether or not what I was doing at the time turned out perfect. Nothing turns out perfect.
I have doubts all the time and bouts of impostor syndrome. My artistic education is limited. I took a couple applied arts classes years ago in college and some collage workshops more recently. About two years ago, my brother, who’s a professional photographer, said to me very seriously, “so, are you a visual artist now?” And I was like huh, here’s a question. I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but here we are. I have a lot to learn. I look forward to it.
KPE: Can you talk about your process and materials for creating Hotel Almighty? Did you have multiple copies of Misery? Did you tear the book apart or work directly in it? Did you mount the pages on other paper or a sturdier substrate? What did you use for drawing and gluing? Where did you find source material for your collages?
SJS: Over the three and a half years I worked on this. I accumulated five copies of Misery. Maybe it’s not a lot. But each time I re-ordered it, I was like, LAST TIME!
In terms of process, I kept the pages in the book until I was sure I’d finished the poem. If I pulled them out before that, they ended up lost somewhere or damaged in my seas of paper. Many of the pages are mounted on card stock, especially if I sewed them, or more often inside the cover of a hardback book. This isn’t visible in Hotel Almighty because we wanted to size the images uniformly. I mostly used a glue stick, but if I included a piece of fabric or something heavier than paper in the collage, I used a stronger glue and sometimes an adhesive spray.
KPE: How did you go about organizing the book? Since you left the page numbers visible, it’s clear that you did not keep them in order of King’s book. Did you also jump around as you worked on the pages? Did you have much editorial input from Sarabande after your manuscript was accepted?
SJS: I read the book before starting the project, but just as the poems jump all over the page, I jumped all over the book. I never intended to maintain King’s order, but I did get a special thrill when I made something of the first page of Misery ([The haze…]) and the last page ([In gratitude…]).
Sarabande accepted the manuscript in 2018 but with a publication date two years later. That was fine with me — there’s nothing like Vorfreude, the happiness of looking forward to something. Sarabande knew I would continue working on the poems until the final deadline. In the end there were too many to fit in the book, so Kristin Miller, Sarabande’s managing editor, and I discussed what to cut. It was very amicable! I’m sure now that she was ‘more right’ in her choices than I was.
KPE: You tweet about a lot of visual artists and poets. Can you talk about some poets and artists whose work inspires you?
SJS: It’s pretty much a cliché, but the first poet I loved was e.e. cummings. His Selected Poems was one of the few poetry books we had in the house when I was growing up. I think of him as a visual poet, too, considering his attention to the way a poem looked on the page.
That was long ago, though. The poets who have inspired me over the past 10-20 years are dead and living: Federico Garcia Lorca and Lesle Lewis, Vasko Popa and Mary Ann Samyn, the French surrealists and Kate Greenstreet.
I love all kinds of art, and follow many fabulous artists on Instagram, including you! I love the conceptual artist Anu Tuominen and the funny Austrian artist Erwin Wurm. I recently bought a small watercolor by the painter Blair Thornley. She has a wonderful sense of playfulness that inspires me.
KPE: Relatedly, who are visual poets—those that combine image and text—whose work you admire? I believe Indianapolis Review is defining “visual poetry” quite broadly, encompassing what others might call graphic poetry or comics poetry, or even works like Kenneth Patchen’s “painted poems” or Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes.
SJS: I’m a big fan of Apollinaire. A couple years ago we visited the patch of French forest where he was wounded in WWI. In the same region there was a small local museum with a couple of his visual poems.
I define visual poetry broadly, too. I define poetry broadly. There are many people doing interesting and diverse work in visual poetry. Monica Ong is a stunner. Ines Seidel makes art out of newspapers, books and other materials. I love Fred Free, who is hard at work making droll, impactful collages that take aim at Trump.
One of my favorite books of visual poetry is Erica Baum’s book “Dog Ear.” Basically I love paper.
KPE: Erasures can take many forms and serve many purposes. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! engages with a historical document to tell an untold story, bringing readers into the 1781 tragedy of the slave ship Zong, whose captain ordered the drowning of 150 slaves so the ships owners could claim insurance money. The poems are created exclusively from the language of the court case that followed. David Dodd Lee’s erasures of John Ashbery’s poetry can be seen as an homage as well as an editorial commentary. But neither of these have visual components. Jen Bervin’s Nets engages with and provides an often-feminist commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets with his erased words lingering in pale letters as a palimpsest. Tom Phillips’s wonderful Humument finds a story in an otherwise obscure Victorian novel, and proclaims (through erasure) his purpose on the first page: “that which he hid I reveal.”
Hotel Almighty removes words and adds collage, turning a suspenseful prose novel by a major living novelist into pensive and playful poems and surreal images. You recently wrote in Lit Hub that “a couple of the initial poems were political, as erasure poetry often is.” And: “I wasn’t necessarily trying to subvert Misery. I wanted to break out of it.” I know that the project began with chance and built on other forms of chance, but how did you transform chance into meaning? How did your goals and purpose evolve through the process of creating?
SJS: The first few poems were somewhat political, which isn’t surprising considering I started the project in October of 2016, a month before the election. I found it hard to stay in that territory though. Since the project was supposed to last a month, from the beginning I approached each piece individually. At that point I was just trying to get through the day! Nevertheless, the poems have much in common, most obviously the form. I think of them as the couplets in the ghazal form of poetry. In ghazals, each couplet seems to work independently of the others yet contributes to the overall impact of the poem.
KPE: I mentioned Kenneth Patchen and John Ashbery, and they are just two of many poets and writers who have worked with visual art and collage in the last hundred years. But visual poetry and graphic literature seem to be having an explosion right now. Do you have thoughts about this merging of image and text as a mode of expression in our contemporary moment?
SJS: The internet, for all its negatives, has done so much to boost visual art. The internet in general has also been kind to poetry, visual or not. It’s helped hundreds of publications flourish and reach wider audiences than print journals might have. It’s helped poets of all kinds gain and expand their audience. I think visual poetry in particular is having its moment, thanks especially to Instagram. In most cases, it doesn’t matter if your reader is using their phone instead of a PC. Visual poetry has an immediacy that is appealing online, where people are spending more and more time.
KPE: Although you live in Barcelona (yes?), you seem very connected to the U.S. literary scene and publishers. Are you also able to connect with writers and artists abroad? How are the literary communities similar or different?
SJS: I’ve lived for many years in Germany. When I moved to Barcelona a little more than three years ago for my job, my family stayed in Frankfurt, and I became a long-distance wife and mother. We’ve done our best. My kids are grown, and Western Europe is smaller than you think. Nevertheless, the pandemic has had the upside of letting me work for months from Germany, and who knows when this is going to end.
As a bit of backstory, I wasn’t writing poetry when I left the U.S. in the 90’s, so I didn’t have a poetry network. I only established it when I started writing, by reading and publishing, by subscribing to print journals, by joining an online workshop, and through social media.
I don’t have many poetry or art connections abroad. My Spanish is a pawn shop of words that don’t go together. My German is good, but I don’t write in German. It doesn’t dismay me. I’ve got non-writer friends, and get to be the oddball.
KPE: What’s next? Are you working on anything new? Will you continue working with collage and visual poetry?
SJS: I don’t know what’s next. I’m very lucky to have a book out. I’ve done a number of individual collages large and small, and a series of collages on the concept of agency, using phrases beginning with the word ‘by,’ some of which are in this issue of The Indianapolis Review. I’ve also done a short series of visual poems using Sleepless Night, a Dutch novella.
I do miss Misery sometimes. Or maybe I just miss Stephen King. After dissecting his prose I appreciate his consistent choice of solid nouns and verbs. When you look at it closely like that you see the machinery of his writing at work. Other texts I’ve worked with have seemed barren in comparison, at least to my purposes, which I admit are unusual.
Kelcey Parker Ervick likes to tell offbeat histories, preferably about women and preferably with drawings. She is the author of three award-winning books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, about a not very bitter Czech fairy tale writer, and Liliane’s Balcony, in which Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater may be haunted. Her comics and graphic essays have appeared in The Believer, Quarterly West, Passages North, and Nashville Review. Her most recent comics series at The Rumpus is “Suffragette City,” celebrating the hundred-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. She is the co-editor, with Tom Hart, of the forthcoming Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature. Follow her daily-ish art habit on Instagram.