Day 131 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I have been reading and re-reading In the Voice of a Minor Saint, by Sarah J. Sloat, because I have loved her poems when I read them individually in print and online magazines and in order to review it for Prick of the Spindle, an online literary and art magazine. The new issue is just out, Sloat has new poems in it, and it's all around wonderful.
In the Voice of a Minor Saint was published by Tilt Press, and you can see other reviews of it and their other chapbooks at the Tilt blog. The fabulous cover art is by Emmanuel Polanco. Sarah posts poems or links, neat images, and fascinating observations in her blog, the rain in my purse.
Because Sarah lives in Germany, I have never met her, but I asked her some questions and she kindly answered them. (I'm bold, she's saintly!)
The title of the book makes me ask, “Are you the minor saint?” Do you speak as a saint in some way—someone quietly going about her humble business in service of something mysterious and huge? Likewise, the title poem, “In the Voice of a Minor Saint,” makes me wonder if the speaker is a real or imagined “minor saint” from Catholicism, or someone similar to you? Or both.
I’m not Catholic but I think the saints are adorable. They all start out small, and then inflate. The minor saint is probably a projection, and I am him/her insofar as I’m called on every day to remember my insignificance. It’s a good thought - it staves off despair and generally makes life a lot easier.
I love the lines, “My heart is small, like a love/ of buttons or black pepper.” That couplet has a perfection to it, and I identify with it. How did you find that couplet?
I was under the impression that that couplet had been part of the first draft of the poem, but I went looking through my notebooks and it wasn’t. It crept in gradually. In the first instance black pepper was ground pepper, which is obviously wrong. Along with the saints I like their inventories: hailstones, teeth, horses, boats, the peanut crop. I decided on a couple things small and manageable, but important in their particular ways.
Tell me about how you handle speakers in general. And specifically, in “Europa.”
I wish I could do speakers better. I rarely set out to put words in someone’s mouth. In most of my poems in some way it is “me” talking. In “Europa,” the speaker gives voice to the frustration I’ve often felt having to listen to how great Old Europe is, and how it’s the root of anything good in America. Ideas like New York is European. Woody Allen is European. Tom Waits is European. Oh, come ON!
Tell me about the construction of “Naked, Come Shivering.” I see all the notes at the end, references to other poets, so I assume it’s a collage poem.
“Naked, Come Shivering” is a cento, or collage poem. I am a huge lover of modern French poetry. The Random House anthology 20th Century French Poetry is my plastic Jesus. Pierre Reverdy, Robert Desnos, Guillaume Apollinaire, etc., etc. My cento is a love letter to them. I had another cento published in DMQ called “Quite At Home” that also took its lines from the French. You pretty much can’t go wrong with them.
Tell me, too, how you came to write ghazals and why you like that form.
My first interest in ghazals came from reading Lorca’s gacelas, which are ghazals, if not in the strict form most people are familiar with. His “Gacela of the Dark Death” is one of my favorite poems. It has a rich, dark strangeness to it, and a weariness. I think of it often.
I’ve written a number of ghazals. It looks like an easy form and in a way it is, but it’s hard to write a good ghazal because there’s a certain monotony built in – the reader knows how every couplet is going to end. It’s a challenge to keep it surprising and engaging and have it hang together. What I find most appealing is how each couplet can be its own poem – that gives the poet focus.
I was at RHINO when we took the poem “The Silent Treatment,” but I loved your whole submission, wanted to take others as well, and have recognized other poems from it, I’m pretty sure, when I see them in other journals—for instance, “Tinder Box,”* the crayon poem in Apparatus. Tell me about your submission process—how you decide to send what where, if/when you revise after rejection or keep sending, and whether you are surprised at what a particular magazine decides to take.
I like to think I do my homework. I don’t submit if I’ve no idea what the editors are publishing. I was thrilled when RHINO took “The Silent Treatment,” and I submitted again the following year with poems I thought would fit, but was turned down. I have two poems in the new issue of RHINO 2010, “Steam” and “sPonge,” the latter being an homage to Francis Ponge. French again!
I often let a poem sit. Just as often I go on a campaign, sending out multiple subs. I never submitted “Tinder Box” again after RHINO turned it down. When Apparatus started up about five years later, I went through some older poems to decide if I just wanted them to die, and gave “Tinder Box” a second chance. They took it, and even nominated it for a Pushcart, so you never know. Still, it’s most important the poet like the poem. You can hear it praised to heaven and if you don’t like it, it’s going to sit poorly in your gut.
Because you are in Germany, do you seek out online magazines? Or print magazines that now have online submissions? And has your life as a poet gotten easier with online submission managers? (Any horror stories? Never hearing back, etc. You don’t have to name names.)
When I started submitting I went with online because it was easier. It’s still easier, but I submit to print sometimes, too, although it really is a postal hassle. I’m lucky now that many do take online submissions because it costs me six euros in postage to submit by snail mail if every poem is on a separate page, which it is. If I have to withdraw a poem, I have to send another letter. And then, yes, after all that time, trouble and money, you get journals that never answer. I’d like to think something went wrong with the post but mostly I suspect they couldn’t be bothered despite all the postage I slapped on the SASE.
I appreciate the editors’ conundrum, though – it’s way easier for everyone to use online submissions, but suddenly the journal has poems out the wazoo. I’m sure it blisters.
I love “Opportunity,” the opening poem. How did you come to write that one?
Someone was telling me about a call they missed because their cell phone was turned off. It’s just a poem about missing the cue, or being too wound up in something that seems more important, like making yourself marvelous.
Is “Folk Art” about a relationship as well as art?
Yes. I love naïve and folk art and the imperfections they breed. I made quilts myself for a while, very badly. I always find it sad and funny to see a painting of someone whose head is way too big or whose arms are too short. I get a great comic rush of empathy. There’s something truthful about it. In the poem, that typical image is the jumping-off point for a failed relationship, the speaker having been painted by a handicapped mechanic, her lost lover more a product of John Singer Sargent.
Many hot poems here—lots of heat and humidity. Were several indeed written in a hot and humid spell?
I’ve never liked hot weather. It stems from my teenage reluctance to be seen in shorts. I just enjoy being fully clothed! “Summer’s End” was inspired by heat, or rather the ebb of heat, and the comfort that brings. We had a very hot summer in 2004 and again in 2006 and you know the Europeans don’t do air conditioning, which I’m kind of glad about.
“Humidity” is more about misunderstanding and incomprehension, but found a good metaphor in the weather. “Humidity” was one poem I wasn’t sure would fly, but I was lucky it was taken by the first journal I sent it to. Other poems in the book – “Folk Art” for example – almost died in the no-go file. I submitted “Folk Art” about 12 places before a print journal took it, then Verse Daily ran it, which made me really happy.
I love the ugly sunglasses in “Shady” and the “idiot mittens” of cell phones. We are in contemporary time, then suddenly there’s Jesus, shoeless, by way of comparison. I love the helplessness in the center of the poem, the stripping away. How did you get this poem?
"Shady” is a happy accident poem. I’d lost my sunglasses and my mother gave me hers, which were incredibly awful, but did the trick, sunwise. On one of the days I resorted to wearing them, my sandal fell apart while I was going the short distance to the sandwich shop across from my office. A distance in which I was completely destroyed – my ego, my attire. There I stood persecuted by life, humble and victimized. It was hard to believe, as shady as the story of Jesus.
“Idiot mittens” is a steal from Bill Cosby, who talks about them in a skit on his 1960s record “Why is There Air?,” referring to those mittens kids wear that are connected by a string. He joked about pulling on one hand and the kid smacking himself in the face with the other hand. Which brings me to the cell phone.
Then, from barefoot to “High Heeled” on the next page. Is this a persona poem, or are you a constant striver? Comfortable with/troubled by your own amibitons?
That’s definitely a persona poem, and more about vulnerability than ambition. Weirdly enough, it started out as a Sept. 11 twin towers poem. I know all that is erased. Still, it goes to show, start writing and you never know what you’ll end up with.
I ask because the voice, and problem, sounds so different in “The Problem with Everything,” where there is a kind of wide, ongoing, indiscriminate empathy with things & people.
I’m a great believer in things, like the child who believes her doll is real, or the grown man who talks to his gun. The speaker in the poem doesn’t want to care but she can’t help caring. Even the gum stuck to her shoe is symbolic of something horribly sad, and everything that goes wrong goes wrong with her specifically in mind.
Tell me anything you want me to know about the book. And ignore any question that troubles you, or rewrite it to answer as you wish. I am asking the naïve questions, because I am like that.
I found it a bit difficult to choose poems for the chapbook. I didn’t have a bunch of poems that seemed to naturally belong together. So I chose by feeling rather than topic or theme or form or anything. With all but one of the poems in the first person, I think it ended up well, but it’s still not that cohesive mass of glue that some chap publishers seem to favor.
I do have a number of poems now that use household items as a springboard (toaster, kettle, faucet, etc), which I hope someday to publish. “Steam” and “sPonge” are among them.
[Now I can’t wait for Sarah’s household item chapbook!! ]
*”Tinder Box.” Did you have a house fire? I ask because we did.
Yes, years ago when I was 23 or 24. But no one died, and the house wasn’t destroyed, just badly damaged. With the insurance money, I was able to pay off a chunk of my student loans, and I used the opportunity to switch from cassette tape and LP vinyl to CDs, which is where we were in technological history at the time. As much as a house fire can be a terrible thing, and it was for my parents (I was in grad school and living with them), for me it was a very freeing experience to lose everything but whatever I had in the trunk of my car.