In the Voice of Sarah J. Sloat

In the Voice of a Minor Saint“Everything that appears possible/ can be turned into something impossible,” writes Sarah J. Sloat in “Curtains,” a poem from her chapbook In the Voice of a Minor Saint, published earlier this year by Tilt Press. This is an apt description of Sloat’s usual modus operandi in these poems. For example, here she is on that touchstone of modern identity, the gasoline-powered automobile:

Pity the swoon towards motion,
the yen for speed.

Pity the billow and sinew of fumes,
muscle that makes the crash spectacular.

God have pity on the whole machine
gas has to carry: lead, flesh and metals
that do not travel light.
(“God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline”)

The title poem works much mischief simply by taking a familiar phrase — “minor saint” — literally.

I came at a wee hour
into my miniature existence.

I keep my hair close cropped
that my face might fit in lockets.

My heart is small, like a love
of buttons or black pepper.

“Grassland” is another possibility that Sloat’s facility for imagistic and linguistic prestidigitation renders, if not impossible, at least highly mythic. Both the Biblical Sarah and Lot’s wife seem to be waiting in the wings:

I hold a handkerchief
over my mouth to veil the clover
and bees that tickle my throat,
but the angel
who’s due at my tent
won’t catch me laughing.

A kiss would do it.
One sprinkle of milkwhite salt
and I’ll break like bread at your table.

That was, by the way, one of three poems in this 22-page collection in which honeybees get close and personal, a leitmotif like automobiles and the smell of gasoline whose reoccurrence contributes to the book’s overall strong musicality. These poems are deeply pleasurable to read, and as I read and re-read the PDF that Sloat sent me, I often found myself chanting them out-loud. I was interested to see that the first reviewer in the Read Write Poem-sponsored “virtual book tour,” Joseph Harker, also remarked upon this quality. Another blogger, Nic S., drew attention in her review to the poems’ “elegant luminosity” and their capacity to “consistently delight the reader by asserting bold unexpected connections with complete confidence.”

Regular readers of my Smorgasblog should recognize the author’s name: Sarah Jane Sloat blogs at The Rain in My Purse, one of the most consistently rewarding reads in my blogroll. Almost everything she encounters takes on a tongue-in-cheek mythic dimension. In “The Problem With Everything,” she bemoans “Every day a dull assault of sudden loves./ Instant, lachrymose attachments,” while in “Please Remove My Name,” she describes “a man who will write/ my name on a grain of rice for 5 euros.” But wait — did I say “tongue-in-cheek”? The narrator of “Silent Treatment” imagines a far less quotidian destination for her tongue,

No more
wagging in the shallows, it’s plunged
in a tunnel to the underworld where
they stump in a strange dialect.
Eat your heart out, it might say. Eat
your pilaf, your side vegetable
and the pox upon your crops.
It might say anything, were it not
lounging around a lower hemisphere.
Laid back at some southern spa, mudbathing,
overdosing on motionlessness.

The book’s title is not entirely a tease. The voices in these poems generally betray a liturgical interest in the ruts and rhythms of the vernacular and an anchorite’s quality of attention to time and verticality. The narrator seems religious but not spiritual — much less pious — in poems like “High Heeled”:

I always want more:
more Everest, more starshine,
something in the department of vertical.

That’s why I’m up here.
It’s better than smog,
better than settling.

Since coaching myself to one-up
the utmost, my dreams
only know the amazonian.

In “3 Deep,” she talks of receiving a poem from a pen pal named Luke about cunnilingus and the hydrogen bomb, a conjunction that makes “perfect sense:/ sex and death and sleep —/ the three dear deepnesses.”

I lie down knowing Luke is dredging
atomic oceans with his bare hands;
I can sleep knowing the dark
holds its appointments dear.
The whole ruined world can lie down
and wait for it to be revealed
which strain of pillow talk
will come to smother us.

Book reviewers typically try to show their sophistication by finding at least one quibble with the book under consideration, but try as I might, I can’t find anything to criticize in this collection. Then again, I am not the most sophisticated of critics, aside from my penchant for using ten-dollar words like “quotidian” and “anchorite.” I was amused to see that the reviewer for the Rattle blog, Linebreak editor Ash Bowen, managed to take what would otherwise seem to be an unadulterated compliment — that the book was too short — and infuse it with a learned, critical air:

[T]here’s a hint of Harmonium-era Stevens in the language play of Sloat’s poems. If there is a problem with the chapbook, it is that it’s too small. Sloat’s world needs more walking around room, more opportunities to take a look down some alleys, instead of the straight walk down the street that we get. But such are the limitations of chapbooks.

Whatever, dude. I love this book. I wish I had written this book, were it not for the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it nearly as much if I had.

I only wish I actually had this book, instead of merely the PDF, which was set up for printing and therefore presents the poems in the wrong order, starting at both ends and proceeding toward the middle. True, I could’ve printed it out, one page at a time on either side of a sheet, then folded and stapled the thing together, but I kept expecting to get a copy imminently. Apparently it’s my fault, though, since when I placed my order with Tilt Press in mid-November I was seduced by the offer at the top of their order page: all five of their 2009-2010 titles for $30. I didn’t read it carefully enough, however, and erroneously assumed that Minor Saint would be among them. When nothing had arrived by December 2, I queried the press, and received this response:

The subscription you purchased is for the 2009-2010 series, not the 2008-2009 series in which Sarah’s chapbook was released (that sale is no longer available). The reason you haven’t received anything is because we are preparing to release the first in the series within a few days.

Oops! The editor went on to offer me a free review copy of the book, however, and I hope to receive that soon. I post this in the magical hope that so doing will make it materialize in the P.O. box tomorrow morning.

UPDATE (12/16): Sure enough, the chapbook was in today’s mail! It’s a beautiful and very sturdy production, designed by Rachel Mallino with cover art by Emmanuel Polanco — well worth the $8.00 retail price.


Sloat’s book includes a couple of ghazals, which inspired me to try my hand at one, too. I had some idea that I would write it in the voice of Sarah J. Sloat, but in the end it just sounded like another Dave Bonta poem. Oh, well.

Ghazal of the Unreceived Book

Thirty percent post-consumer recycled bond
& saddle stitching, how I yearn for you.

I have read all your words but in the wrong order,
elegant letters that the typesetter kerned for you.

I finger teabag tags with printed witticisms,
no book’s crisp pages to turn for you.

The feral cat coughing under the floor
& last night’s jumble of dreams might adjourn for you.

The meteor shower invisible above the sleet,
No falling star could I wish upon or even discern for you.

Surely your data deserve the connective thread
of a chordate. You risk dissolution. I’m concerned for you.

The P.O. box grows heavy with seasonal wishes —
well-meant minimal books I can hardly burn for you.

What if you arrived tomorrow, & challenged everything
I thought I knew? Could I unlearn for you?

Like any artwork more than the sum of your parts,
some parts will always elude my long sojourn for you.

Dave and Beth’s excellent chapbook adventure, and Dana and Nathan’s far-from-bogus collaborative journey

At Read Write Poem, Dana Guthrie Martin has interviewed Beth Adams and me about our experiences publishing a chapbook — check it out. As with our live podcasts at qarrtsiluni, we seem to fall naturally into roles quite analogous to those of sports commentators on the radio: Beth calls the plays, and I provide the color commentary.

Speaking of Dana Guthrie Martin, last night I stayed up much too late reading the final, “curated” version of the inaugural issue of Mutating the Signature, a new and very innovative online literary magazine spun off from a qarrtsiluni issue of the same name. The inaugural issue is the work of Dana and her usual writing partner (and qarrtsiluni co-editor) Nathan Moore, writing in collaboration as described on the About page:

Mutating the Signature is a place for two poets — or one poet and one artist of any type — to work and write to, for and with one another as creators and curators of an issue of the journal.

Curators will select a theme to work with for the duration of their issue. Each issue will unfold over the course of one to three months, depending on how long it takes for the curators to fully explore their topic and the issue they are creating.

Curators are encouraged to “talk” to one another not only with poetry but with prose, artwork, music, photography, and other means of communication and expression, and to explore fully the possibilities of the online journal space. Each piece shared will contribute to illustrating, furthering and even complicating their issue’s theme, whatever that may be, wherever that may go.

Since this is kind of a new concept in literary periodical publishing — to put it mildly — Dana and Nathan decided to go first and show what was possible. The result is Untelling Stories, a very satisfying, nicely designed PDF book of 86 pages. It is by turns earthy and cerebral, and despite watching it unfold in draft form on the website, in many cases I had trouble telling who wrote what — that’s how well-matched their styles are. I was surprised to find a quote from yours truly as an epigraph at the front of the book, but that was minor compared to my surprise and pleasure at how well all the disparate parts fit together: paintings, diagrams, lists, B.S., and of course poetry, ranging from the lyrical to the postmodern.

Perhaps my favorite thing about it is how many incantations it includes — artful repetition can make even the driest of material come alive. And there is plenty of material here that could’ve become dry as dust in the wrong hands: as the title suggests, Untelling Stories confronts the human preoccupation with narrative head-on, kind of like the Talking Heads with Stop Making Sense, but employing less obvious rhythms. The writing process included exercises in which the same words and phrases were reused in different forms, which provides refrain-like motifs and helps knit the book together. There are a few parts I don’t get, but they are vastly outnumbered by images that astonish and lines that delight. Overall, Untelling Stories tastes like a small cosmic soup, wholesome and warming and full of strangeness:

  • A delicate rumor of dust coagulates on the table.
  • Love is acoustic tile where there should be sky.
  • His beliefs can be reduced to a single gesture.
  • The dog forgets/ our tension and the dead don’t believe we exist.
  • Shoelaces untied, you stumble through the exit./ You haven’t spoken to yourself in weeks.
  • Every mistaken month needs a sudden exit
  • Thou, in whose fields I dangle origami birds.
  • Who holds a lover like a can of Crisco.
  • What grows three heads then decides which will live.
  • They brought an exit wound. They brought an evolving gill slit. They brought the early morning raid.
  • Infiltrated by tiny legs of printed letters.

Can you see why I was flattered to have some words of my own added to this highly quotable mix? It’s amazing that Dana and Nathan managed to write this entire collection in just two months. I worry that they may have set the bar too high for those who will follow, but the next two authors, Emily Van Duyne and W.F. Roby, should be up to the challenge. Their theme is Ante/Anti, and they start tomorrow. I’ll be reading.

Binding words

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Publishing houses that will print poetry are almost extinct (I know Dave B. Porcupine would argue that so are readers of poetry), yet the numbers of people writing poetry seem to have grown at an equal or greater rate. Some of them self-publish online or at print-on-demand shops like, but there can be a considerable cost to doing even small numbers in this way.

Just to get a bit low-tech on you for a second: you can hand-bind books yourself.

Through coverWhen a poet friend, Rachel Barenblat, had a miscarriage earlier this year and worked her way through the trauma and grief by writing poetry, yet wondered how to make these poems available to others going through a similar experience, I suggested a small hand-bound edition. Ten poems, title page, table of contents, acknowledgments: this adds up to 15 pages, plus one blank at the back. The magic 16. (Bookbinders think in multiples of eight and get super excited when all the pages add up to multiples of 32…) We settled on a tall, skinny format which conveniently fit on a standard letter-size sheet, folded in half: a pamphlet.

How to do it

Get familiar with your printer, and with whatever software you use to produce sheets with your poetry on them. (I use Adobe InDesign because I’m a designer but you can do this quite adequately on a word processor.) Always make a dummy and number its pages and then unfold them, so you know where the poems are going to fall. And then put them all together before you run off large numbers to be sure it still works. You can use imposition software but it’s not necessary; what IS necessary is a good understanding of where each page is going to end up after folding. Automatic pagination is not your friend here.

Find the longest line of any of your poems and work backwards in the design of your page from that (if the line will be split, find the longest line that won’t). Try and leave a generous gutter/central space, which should almost never be smaller than the optical margin of the outside when the booklet is held open. Remember to leave a wider margin at the foot of the page than the top and outside margins, to avoid that sinking feeling.

Through middleIn terms of typography, remember that you can use a relatively small font size if you allow generous leading (interline spacing). Look at books of printed poetry and see what they do and what you like, and why, and what you don’t like, and why, and use those to guide your page design. Try and identify the character, the personality, of typefaces and match the character of your poetry. Less is usually more with typography… it is almost never a good plan to use more than two typefaces in a book of poetry (or much else), and if you are tempted to do this, ask yourself why. Let the poems sing for themselves rather than be tripped up by clunky type.

You can use a simple sheet as the cover or you can use different paper, or papers. You can do collage, you can paint on them, you can use photos. Experiment. You don’t have a publisher’s marketing department breathing down your neck! Just make sure that the grain of the pages matches the grain of the cover or it will buckle.

There are many online resources for bookbinding.

  • Short chapbooks can be bound with a simple pamphlet (figure 8) stitch.
  • A longer book can be done easily as a stab-bound (Japanese-style) book, where the folded edge faces the outside, not the spine.
  • Accordion-fold books are sculptural and lend themselves well to open display, though require a long sheet which may not work well in most printers — consider hand-lettering or cutting poems or stanzas out to stick to this format.

What you need

  • paper for text pages and cover
  • cutting board
  • metal ruler
  • utility or exacto knife
  • bone folder (optional, but this is a great tool)
  • awl or long needle to punch holes
  • needle for sewing
  • linen thread, silk ribbon, etc.

A better reader

Through last pageAs I folded the sheets for Rachel’s book, 176 in all, getting engulfed in the rhythm that comes from doing a repetitive task for love, I started seeing the same lines over and over. A different word would jump forward. I noticed connections within stanzas, within poems, across poems. In short, I was reading the poems in a different way. A better way. Binding poetry makes me a better reader. Try it; I think you’ll discover new things about your poetry — or someone else’s. And you’ll have a few hand-bound booklets to give or keep or even — gasp — sell.

—Alison Kent (Feathers of Hope and Bird by Bird)


Still to come in this series, I hope, are guest-written pieces on typewriters, Twaiku, Facebook update poetry, Second Life, and more. If you have an idea for an essay you’d like to contribute, let me know.


Highways and birds

Ten Poems About Highways and Birds by Sarah Bennett

One of the greatest things about being a blogger — aside from the fame and riches — is that sometimes people send me handmade things in the mail. Now and then someone sends me a book, too. Last week I got both in one package: Ten Poems About Highways and Birds, a new chapbook by Via Negativa reader Sarah Bennett. It’s definitely handmade: she told me she taught herself how to silkscreen just so she could do the covers, and the book appears to have been stitched on a sewing machine. It has a great kitchen-table vibe.

Sarah is blogless, so far as I know, and I first “met” her a year ago, when she began leaving comments on some of my tool odes. She emailed a poem that she’d written in response, “Advice to a Nail” (follow the link for a brief bio as well). Then a couple of weeks ago she’d emailed me to say she’d made this chapbook, and would like to send me a copy in return for all my blogging. Sure, I said. I don’t think she had any expectation that I would review it here, and in fact I had to write back for ordering info (see below) once I discovered that the book was, in fact, excellent. So the following is completely unsolicited, albeit influenced by our online friendship.

“Ten Poems About Highways and Birds” is a very unprepossessing title, I’ll admit, and ten poems may not seem like very much — there’s a lot of whitespace in this chapbook. But birds are, among other things, almost universal symbols of aspiration and beauty, and as for highways: they are perhaps the most inescapable and enduring expression of Americans’ passionate monologue with the land. I mean, obviously this isn’t the only nation with highways; it just happens to be one of the few modern nations where even the most fervent of conservationists is still at the mercy of the road system for basic transport. I am acutely aware of this myself since I don’t own a car. (Which can make it tricky to get to Audubon board meetings, as I’ll be doing tonight.)

All ten of the poems are indeed about either highways or birds, and many are about both. Bennett hails from eastern Massachusetts, and she told me that she used to have a long commute, and would often compose poems in her head and jot them down when she got to work, “a la Wallace Stevens (without the secretary).” In that respect, this book reminds me a little of Tom Montag’s distillation of poems from his Morning Drive Journal, The Sweet Bite of Morning, a somewhat longer chapbook published by Juniper Press in 2003. Where Montag is spare and often aphoristic, though, Bennett’s poems are each about a page long, and often pack considerable emotional punch.

In the opening poem, “Early Morning on Route 128,” vehicles and wildlife are seen to share a common destiny:

Crows commute, heads down,
their line of black Fords slow
but steady. A heron keeps his Bentley in low gear.

Are we talking about birds or people here? Bennett never tips her hand.

A page later, our attention is drawn to a “beautifully named” invader of the continent.

The flank of a very large animal occasionally
flexes above me, her curves
revealed as flocks of starling.

Some of the poems tackle more personal subjects. In “Eastbound on the Mass Pike,” Bennett and an unnamed companion are having a fight as they drive, and it’s all she can do to avoid “open[ing] the door / at 75 miles per hour” and bailing out.

Above us one large hawk
and another spin round each other, connected
by a quarter mile of nothing.

Roadkill is of course an unavoidable subject, mentioned in one poem and dealt with head-on in another. But I was even more impressed with the way Bennett relates driving to flying, as in “Aloft,” where a fragment of memory about a blackbird falling out of the sky is interwoven with a story about her mother being afraid that she would forget how to play the organ until she got to church, and the narrator herself confessing that driving was always like that for her — and that in some way it helped her to remember how to be human.

More than anything, I guess, that’s what I like about this book: it’s full of ambiguities. “Love Poem for a Barred Owl,” for example, might really be nothing more or less than that. For a reader with any knowledge of the environmental consequences of sprawl or the big-woods requirements of barred owls, the poem cannot fail to awaken longing and wistfulness.

You should not be
here. The dark fields you fly
over are filled with new
cellar holes and the forest is only trees

in peoples’ back yards.

But when the call recedes into the distance, even readers who know nothing about habitat loss would be forgiven for thinking that something more than fields have been hollowed out and filled with darkness.

My favorite poem in the book involves not birds but earth-bound wildlife instructing each other “On Crossing the Highway.”

Go at night.
It is easier
at night. They give off a light of
warning and
your feet won’t burn.

I particularly like the description of the median strip: “a tiny field full of / wind and roaring.”

The book ends as mysteriously as it began, with a poem involving “of all things a bluebird / in January.” I can’t really quote any more, because, as so often with understated poetry, you have to have read and absorbed the poems that precede it to fully appreciate its impact. As I’ve been typing this review, I’ve been watching of all things a snow squall in April, and thinking that anyone who pays attention to the natural world will have to become much more conversant with anachronisms and strange bedfellows in the years to come. Ten Poems About Highways and Birds is a great place to start.

Ordering info

Sarah writes:

The book costs $6.00, plus $1.00 for postage (I went to the post office today and checked, finally). People can send me a check for $7.00.

Sarah Bennett
47 Sampson Avenue
Swampscott, MA 01907

Or they can email me shbennett5[at]gmail[dot]com for more info.

Thanks, Sarah!


Miscarriage: such an odd and innocuous word for such a potentially traumatic experience. As a single man in a male-dominated society, I’ve had the luxury of ignoring the reality of that experience for most of my life, aided by the fact that, for whatever reason, we don’t seem to have a way of really talking about it. Neither “pro-life” nor “pro-choice” rhetoric seems adequate for addressing the pain and loss that accompany a spontaneous, unwanted abortion. And what might it mean for a religious woman in particular? Job’s dilemma might come to seem all too familiar, I’m thinking.

I don’t know; obviously I’m way out of my depth here. But I had my eyes opened a little bit when my friend Rachel Barenblat — the Velveteen Rabbi — asked me to read the manuscript of a small collection of poems she’d put together, Through, which arose from her own experience with miscarriage in January. A month or so later I received a beautiful, handmade chapbook (y’all know how much I love chapbooks), and I asked Rachel how other people could get a copy, because it seemed important to start filling the language void about this virtually taboo subject. Here’s her answer. Rachel has generously made it available in three forms: as a free download, an at-cost print-on-demand bound copy, or a free audio edition. Please help spread the word.

This can’t have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel’s earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who’s ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn’t it get more attention from writers and artists? As Rachel says in “Wordless Melody,”

There is no song
which asks why a soul

dips a toe in these waters
and then turns back

leaving a woman
bereft, bleeding.

But there is now. Go listen.

A few good chaps


At qarrtsiluni, we’re looking for a few good chaps.

Why a chapbook? Regardless of what you call it, the fact is that a pamphlet-sized collection of poetry can be an astonishingly beautiful thing. It’s not just for emerging poets anymore; a poet at any stage of her career might find she has a collection of work too long for a featured section in a journal and too short for a full-length book. And a chapbook designed to be read in a single sitting offers a nourishing alternative to a magazine or newspaper. With roots in the 16th century, it’s the original sleek and sexy mobile device.

I don’t have nearly as many poetry chapbooks as I’d like, but the photo does give some sense of the variety in their production style: the sewn and the stapled, the offset and the xeroxed, the book-shaped and the pamphlet-shaped. This outer variety suggests something of the variety in their contents, as well. I suppose it might be no greater than the variety one encounters among regular books of poetry, but sometimes I do think chapbook publishers are a bit more tolerant of eccentricity, more willing to take risks with content than they’d be if they were publishing a full-length book, which after all is a bigger investment. I’ve found some of the most satisfying short collections of poetry housed in really cheap, copy-shop editions — such as Howie Good’s latest collection of prose poems, Tomorrowland, which has just been very well reviewed at One Night Stanzas. And if your taste runs to sonnets, you can’t do better than Water Signs, Katherine Durham Oldmixon’s thematically unified gathering of three sonnet chains, where the last line of one sonnet forms the first line of the next. This, by contrast, is a beautiful production (aside from a flubbed table of contents) from Finishing Line Press, which specializes in books of poetry up to 26 pages in length.

For qarrtsiluni‘s inaugural poetry chapbook, we’re hoping to marry good design — courtesy of Beth, who’s worked in design for three decades — with great content, courtesy of all y’all. Or some of y’all, at any rate. Everyone who enters the contest gets a copy of the winning chapbook, so if you have a shortish cycle of poems lying around waiting to be spruced up for publication, it should be worth your while. Here are the guidelines.