Bronze Age, Ornithology, and Bloodshot Cartography: recent videopoems

still from "Bronze Age"

Since I’m spending the summer in London, where the wifi is blindingly fast compared to Plummer’s Hollow, it would seem like a waste not to make at least a few videopoems. My latest came out of a road trip this past weekend, in the course of which we visited the Flag Fen Archaeology Park near Peterborough and the John Clare cottage not far away:

The first lines came to me in a dream as I was sleeping in a room at the Bluebird Inn, next door to Clare’s cottage, where he worked as a potboy in the early 19th century. I didn’t get back to sleep for hours, which kind of sucked, but I’m fairly pleased with how the poem turned out. We stopped along the road the next morning to shoot the extra footage with which the video concludes. The first part of the video shows a section of the 3000-year-old preserved causeway at Flag Fen where bronze swords and other items were ritually deposited in the mud in a place which archaeologists believe was favored for its liminality — part land, part water. The John Clare poem quoted at the end is “Autumn,” which ends:

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

A week ago, I made a videopoem recycling an old text of mine to accompany some marvelous footage of a birder struggling through quicksand from an old home movie of unknown provenance. The metaphorical possibilities were just too good to pass up:

This followed a video I made for a poem by Sarah J. Sloat, also using old-home-movie footage in a kind of lazy person’s homage to Stan Brakhage, as I wrote when I posted it at Moving Poems.

I included some rather detailed process notes that I hope might be of especial interest to poets who’d like to get into working with videopoetry. Sarah wrote,

This poem began with my wondering whether the word ‘amazon’ had anything to do with ‘amaze,’ and finding out it doesn’t. Mix in a little homesickness, lack of sleep and antipathy for insects, and it’s done. The poem was originally published in Crab Creek Review.

Erasing Shakespeare

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The Rain in My Purse:

I don’t buy the oft-touted view that one must find something totally new in erasure poetry, that the found poem should be completely independent of the source text. If that’s the case then why do erasure at all? The source is going to offer possibilities and choices. The source is at the poet’s disposal, and will set limits. The source is not going to predetermine, but it is going to influence.

I love Bervin’s note at the end of the book: “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page.”

September day

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The Rain in My Purse:

The day was September, cool oozing from the dying wildflowers.

Cease beeping, we said to just about everyone.

We put up a sign outside the church: Park your car, forget your anger.

The leaves clattered, practically metallic, the café tables round as coins.

Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair, by Sarah J. Sloat

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hairSarah J. Sloat; dancing girl press 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Regular readers of Via Negativa might recognize Sarah J. Sloat as the author of a blog I often link to, The Rain in My Purse, and another chapbook which I blogged about in 2009, In the Voice of a Minor Saint. I didn’t think this chapbook was quite as satisfying as that first one, at least in terms of the percentage of poems that blew me away, but it’s still pretty damn good. Her droll wit and sense of the absurd remain intact, and if this slim collection is any evidence, she seems to be getting more rather than less experimental with age, which is a good sign. She has a third chapbook due out shortly from Hyacinth Girl Press.

Sloat excels at poems in which a critical piece of information is missing, but the rest of it hangs together so well, it seems the better for it, like the Venus de Milo without her arms. Sometimes the execution seems a little too off-hand (heh), as in the title poem for this chapbook. But more typically it makes me chuckle or shiver with recognition, as in “My Money is on Fire,” a wry look at that sense of collective guilt inescapable for sensitive participants in a capitalist economy:

Every time I wear green or live
my secret life, no matter what
innocence I’m up to,
I’m sponsoring a disease
somewhere, making
souvenirs of the populace.

Wait, what secret life? you want to ask, but the poem goes in another direction. Perhaps Sloat refers to the kind of private visions at the heart of the wonderfully bleak “Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat”:

My mug is rimmed with frost, an analgesic.
I peer over its horizon to see a toy boat
wobble on the Biergarten pond.

The mug’s a sun going down in my mouth. It alps
up like a snowglobe, mountainous with lipstick
ridges. Inside my father bows, shoveling snow.

He looks beyond me, turning to the window,
where my mother stands sucking the life
from an ice cube in her martini.

In “Do Tell,” a dream in which “doubts puckered like peas” throws the narrator off-balance the next morning.

Help me here.
How many mailboxes do you count lining the roadside?
And on whose head does the apple totter?

Things are clearly about to go very, very wrong here. A slightly less dire but still bracing take on domesticity, “Sworn to Observance,” reminded me of my own housecleaning. The dust under the radiator is “busy building a silt / equivalent of desert,” leading evidently to thoughts of the desert mystics in early Christianity, and/or John 8:6:

I sit nearby in my saint suit,
no intention of action.

With a finger sometimes
in the dust I draw a circle
to see how God enters into it.

Another poem, “On the Way to Meet My Daughter’s Teacher,” might or might not be about smoking. It begins:

I was about 15 minutes early
so I figured I’d kill myself a little bit.

Something more constructive
was out of the question.
But hell if I could handle
15 minutes of thinking.

About the whales.
About bedraggle.
About meeting my daughter’s teacher.

Or perhaps it is the cynicism that kills. One way or another, Sloat is like the anonymous artists in “Dictionary Illustrations,” who “don’t dawdle / among the obvious.” When she hums in the kitchen, it is to channel bees, and when she visits “Frankfurt Cemetery,” she remarks: “Not the past, but the present makes me sad.” We are all implicated, and our imagined refuges can’t save us:

Lately my house stands so still
at the back of my mind

I’m afraid of myself, here
at the bottom of the sky.
(“From the Back of My Mind”)

If you were ever tempted to think that the welter of literary micropresses on the scene these days exist solely to publish fairly minor talents, think again. Sarah J. Sloat is one example of a widely published poet with a sure voice and mature vision who has yet to get an ISBN of her own. Perhaps she is too busy leading a secret life.

Woodrat Podcast, Episode 1

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What I’ve been reading, what I’ve been writing, and what’s up with all the banjos

Topics include: Why a podcast and what I hope to accomplish with it; what a woodrat is; how to keep mandatory titles from messing up haikus; poems by Howie Good, John Haines, Sarah J. Sloat, Esther Jansma, and Vasko Popa; what I look for in poetry and why I write it; how I got started writing banjo poems; Jonah and the gourd vine; and New Year’s resolutions.


Thanks to T.M. Camp for the podcast inspiration.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

In the Voice of Sarah J. Sloat

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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.