Poetry

Three Erasure Poems from Sarah J. Sloat’s
‘Hotel Almighty’

 

 

 

Excerpted from Hotel Almighty by Sarah J. Sloat. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Sarabande Books.

Listen to Sloat discuss her book and process for the DMQ Review here.

 

 

Sarah J. Sloat splits her time between Frankfurt and Barcelona, where she works as a news editor. Her poetry, collages, 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). More information at www.sarahjsloat.com. Author photo credit: Carlo DelPrete.

 

 

 

 

Poet’s Note

Each erasure poem in Hotel Almighty begins with a page from Stephen King’s Misery. His book involves a novelist taken captive in a mountain cabin. Though I broke away from the plot, like his protagonist imprisoned in one room I was constrained by the single page, stuck there to create what I could from the text available. When I began this series, I had no intention of using visuals, but early on they drifted in, first as color and eventually as confetti, collage, and stitching. The poems are about possibility, making the best of it, opening a door not to leave but to invite ideas and new elements in.

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore

If the recent feature “Find Original Poetry Hiding in the Pages of Your Paper” in the “At Home” section of the Sunday New York Times is any indication, erasure poetry is experiencing a bit of a cultural moment. A form of found poetry that involves erasing or blacking out portions of a source text to unearth a poem, erasure is a simple enough concept, but to do it well is to balance many elements at once: the means of erasure, for one, along with the poem’s visual appearance and the tension and resonance between the source text and the found poem, not to mention an ear and an eye for language and poetic craft.

In looking at some of the most exciting erasure poems published in the last few years, one can get a sense of the breadth of the genre, which encompasses a diversity of topics, styles, and approaches. Mary Ruefle’s “A Little White Shadow,” for example, deploys white correction fluid over the yellowing pages of a nineteenth-century novel, offered in facsimile so that readers can enjoy the texture and experience of the physical book. Reginald Dwayne Betts’s most recent book, Felon, uses a Sharpie-like black line to redact court documents related to the bail system to create poems that highlight how it disproportionately impacts vulnerable and impoverished people. Nicole Sealey’s stunning erasures of The Ferguson Report, excerpts of which you can read in the Paris Review and The Nation, use strikethrough and gray-out on the source document, leaving the erased words somewhat visible as Sealey unearths an alternative, collective narrative from the report. For another example of an erasure poem discussed in Poetry Sunday, go to here.

Today’s poems from Sarah Jane Sloat’s new book, Hotel Almighty, offer variations on these erasure methods, but to say this is solely a collection of erasure poetry is to ignore the way it moves through erasure and into the visual sphere, creating small works of art comprised of mixed-media collage, pattern, texture, a whole palette of colors, and a variety of erasure methods. Sloat erases or redacts her source text in a pretty straightforward manner, but she goes on to embellish and add to her resulting poems, building a visual experience to accompany them. The result is Hotel Almighty, an innovative, compelling work of visual lyric.

Hotel Almighty’s source text is the novel Misery by Stephen King, and while the poems touch on some of King’s themes, the resonance I find between the source and the resulting poems has more to do with the creation of a text within confines or under pressure. Unlike Misery’s protagonist, Sloat wasn’t held against her will by a deranged fan and forced to create these poems, but by limiting her poetic diction to the words of the novel, the very premise of Sloat’s book is confined.

In the novel, the involuntary confinement is to a single house with an unhinged captor, but Sloat strikes a note of irony by creating many small lodgings within her book, naming each of the five sections for a hotel: “Hotel of Strange and Poisonous Flowers,” “Hotel Filled with Smoke,” “Hotel Wonk-Wonk,” “Hotel Almighty,” and “Hotel of Queer Silence.” A hotel, even if it is filled with smoke or poisonous flowers, is a place of temporary residence, and patrons can come and go as they please, relying on staff to enhance their stay. This represents a full reversal of Misery’s setup, not to mention a compelling way to consider each page as a little room one can peer into from the hall or drop into for a short stay.

Like all the poems in the book, the first one in today’s feature contains highly-compressed language, which reads almost like haiku: “What / was / champagne / but / a change / of / Angels.” (I’ve used slashes here not only to represent line breaks but to show a break in the erasure and to highlight which words are selected to appear alone or grouped with others to form a phrase.) From King’s prose, Sloat liberates a musical, light little poem with a question about the nature of champagne and its bubbles floating upward like angels. She finds music in the alliterative “w” sounds at the beginning and in the many echoes among “champagne,” “change,” and “Angels.” The modality for the erasures is correction tape, linear blocks of white that bend and sometimes go askew as they obliterate most of the page, leaving short selections of text floating like bubbles. The bubbles are highlighted with stitching that adds a sense of champagne’s celebratory magic and sparkle. Sloat has not erased the novel’s title from across the top, so the “MISERY” hung almost like a title in capital letters above the text strikes a note of irony—champagne, especially this angelic reminiscence of it, is decidedly not a misery.

The second and third poems depicted above are more colorful than typical erasures, employing pink and green colored pencils, respectively, which allow a glimpse of the disappeared words surrounding the poems. On the pink page, the colored pencil’s translucence is disrupted by confetti, creating a dimension of texture while also making it more difficult to follow the source text’s syntax. The poem that emerges is guided by a path Sloat illuminates by circling words and drawing connective lines between them, a process that creates poetic lines, showing the reader where to read on through an enjambment and where to pause. This is particularly helpful because the diction of this poem involves small words such as pronouns and prepositions that might otherwise be confusing to navigate. The “line breaks” created by this method highlight parallelism in the poem, essentially a series of “I” statements. A handsewn fringe at the bottom of the page adds a mysterious element that I appreciated pondering. The stitches and their long tails could be a series of lower-case i’s, echoing the “I” patterns of the poem, and they are also reminiscent of stitches one might use to suture a gash, evoking the “misery” that, as in the first poem, announces itself on the top of the page and creates ironic tension.

The final poem, erased in green, adds mixed-media collage to the poet’s bag of tricks, perching several buildings and trees, some decorative trim, and abstract, colorful elements along the bottom of the page. The poem’s syntax wends through a prepositional phrase, a simile, and some inverted description (“a / stage / savagely / illuminated”), all between the helping verb “might” and the main verb “bust.” These excursions, along with the large patch of green erased space in the middle of the page, cause the poem to unfold slowly, building anticipation. The concentration of language and the corresponding image at the bottom of the page concurrently “burst / into / place,” aligning the visual and thematic components of the poem without necessarily creating an illustrated narrative. The connection between image and word here is suggestive rather than overt, representative of the interplay between these elements throughout Hotel Almighty.

Ultimately, the careful balance Sloat strikes between elements of erasure and visual art in each poem makes Hotel Almighty a book that continues to reveal new depths upon multiple readings. The compressed lyrics sing of introspection and offer wisdom, and they are richly enhanced by the inspired variety and ingenuity of erasure modalities and concrete imagery. My first instinct is to shelve Hotel Almighty among my beloved art books, where I turn when I want to move beyond language. In the end, however, Sloat’s poems, unearthed from a most unlikely source and thus all the more admirable, demand to be shelved among my treasured poetry books, nestled somewhere between Issa, Sexton, and Dickinson.

 

 

Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

 

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.