The Chapbook Interview: Sarah J. Sloat on language-awareness, expat poetry, and homesickness

What is a chapbook?

It’s best if a chapbook takes place on paper, and it should be petite and spineless.

When I think about what’s in it – whether poetry, flash fiction or non-fiction – I imagine a chocolate sampler. Some boxes have a theme, like “nuts,” or “deep dark,” or “alcohol-drenched.” Those are good themes that work for poetry as well as pralines, but I also like chapbooks that have no overriding theme.

It can be irritating when presses insist on chapbook or even book-length submissions that stick close to one overarching theme. How many people can write 20 terrific poems about bonsai trees? Who wants to read 20 poems about things that are aquamarine? Granted, strict themes can and have worked in many many chapbooks, but sometimes it’s good to bite into a chocolate be completely surprised.

In her article, “A Pulitzer Prize for a Chapbook,” Elaine Sexton describes chapbooks as “largely obscure and essentially privately traded” (50) and that when she went about searching for chapbooks “published in the same year as the search” (52) she (and her students) squandered “hours on the phone and online, more often than not failing to find a specific chapbook” (52). Sexton also argues that “Chapbooks remain, with few exceptions, marginal literary entities,” in part she suggests because of an “absence of approval from the literary establishment” (52). Given that you’ve published three chapbooks, with a fourth forthcoming with three different chapbook presses, I wonder if you can talk about your own sense of the presence or absence of chapbooks in the literary world. Are your chapbooks hard to find? Do you have trouble finding the chapbooks written by poets you admire? Do you feel like chapbooks are marginal? Particularly, given your ex-pat status, what’s your sense of chapbooks from aboard? Is there a chapbook scene in Germany? Do poets trade and/or give readings from chapbooks where you are? How do you get your chapbook in your reader’s hands?

Chapbooks seem to be a cult item. People outside the literary world don’t know what they are, or where they come from. Their small size and hand-bound beauty are a way of declaring art over profit. Ephemera is another good word, since there is often a very limited print run for chapbooks, which means “hard-to-find” eventually becomes “extinct.” My first chap was published by a great press that planned to run its titles as long as there were buyers. Too bad the press expired just into its second year. The other two publishers are alive and thriving, and it’s not difficult to find my work there. I keep a blog that links to both chaps, and they’re easily searched on the internet.

I’ve never had trouble finding chapbooks by poets I admire. I own something over 50 chapbooks, some of which I’ve bought online, some I’ve traded by mail. Poets are generous, and want to be read. I did check recently and one of my favorite chapbooks, “Instructions from the Narwhal” by Allison Titus, is indeed no longer available from Bateau Press, but I’m not sure if that’s because they ran out of copies and aren’t printing anymore, or because the poems in the chapbook are now part of the full-length book (“The Sum of Every Lost Ship”). I bought that chapbook because I loved the work I read in Bateau, but I’d never read Allison Titus before ordering it.

In terms of Germany, I’m no expert. There is a slam scene in and around Frankfurt and there are chapbooks but I must admit that my ex-pat status translates into a very solitary existence as far as poetry goes. Which doesn’t bother me. But since I can’t give readings where there’d be a natural audience, I have to make use of the internet to promote my poetry.

I’ve been thinking about your first comment that a chapbook is “a chocolate sampler” and that for readers, “sometimes it’s good to bite into a chocolate [and] be completely surprised.” In his article “Weaving a Chapbook of Poems,” Robert Miltner notes that “The chapbook is its own genre” and that the three common errors poets make when trying to organize and “make” a their chapbooks are only using published material, forcing the poems to “fit some particular form,” and blindly submitting to any chapbook press or contest (16). Miltner suggests instead to “let the poems which belong in a book suggest themselves,” and to then “identify what form has emerged and to let the form give shape to your chapbook,” noting that poems are often held together by narrative, lyric, experimental, or lyric-narrative threads. Once a poet has this, Miltner writes, “Now you are ready to add design, unity, pattern, and further strength. What emerges from working the weft will be your signature, the distinct pattern that will be your chapbook. Weaving like this will insure that the individual poems fit together, that they move effectively from one poem to the next, and that the poems have interior logics, motifs, refrains, patterns, and design” (17). I’m wondering if you could walk us through your process of making each of your three published chapbooks and one forthcoming chapbook.

I agree with Mr. Miltner. I sometimes hear something along the lines of – “I only have to write five more poems about falafel and I’ll have a falafel manuscript!” I guess if you are a very talented, very hard-working, focused poet, you could come up with five more terrific falafel poems to fill the gap in a chapbook. There are such poets, but I can’t imagine going that route and surviving. Maybe I’m too easily distracted.

With “Homebodies,” the binding theme was clear. I’ve always loved object poems. Since my own are about familiar things, it’s not surprising they’re found in the home – the phone, the toothbrush, whisk and toaster – but I never set out to write about “objects found in the home,” as if I were on Family Feud. Some of my other (non-object) poems take place in a domestic setting, like “Ambien” and “Scullery,” so that the “Homebodies” poems gravitated towards each other.

My first chapbook, “In the Voice of a Minor Saint,” was solicited, and I was thrilled, but confronted with a stack of poems with no obvious connection to each other. What I did was first collect the poems I wanted most to include, whittling them down to about 35 or 40. Then I printed and laid them out on a table. It was very much like that children’s game “What doesn’t belong in this picture?,” but without a tangible anchor. Most of the poems that got the boot got the boot because they caused a dissonance. Others I sadly decided weren’t that good. And others, even at that time, I thought might work better in a collection of ‘home totems,’ and I put them aside.

Sequencing the poems was another matter. And it was in trying to order them that it became clear some poems didn’t fit. But I did it the same way – everything out on the table. I picked the poem I wanted to open with and then shuffled around until the poems found a comfortable order.

My second chap, “Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair,” was put together in the same way as the first. I had a number of poems written in a particular voice, but no overarching theme.

Each of my three chapbooks had poems that weren’t previously published. Not because I didn’t try. In three cases they were very short poems, and although I always hear people saying how much they love short poems, in the end they were just “unmarketable.” Yet I had a number of readers say how much they liked those particular poems. So go figure. Most important is the poet is convinced of the poem.

I have another chapbook in the works now called “Inksuite,” thematically centered around reading, books and typefaces. Yet even with a clear theme, it’s still necessary to ask whether a poem really fits in a collection. I wish I could just throw everything together randomly and say “ta-da!” but it doesn’t work that way.

Can you tell me more about the cover art, cover design and layout of your chaps?

I looked for cover art myself. The art for my first two chapbooks was done by Emmanuel Polanco, a Parisian artist who does collage. I don’t remember how I first discovered him – it was long before I planned a chapbook. You can find his work at In Melancholia. When my first chap was in the works I wrote to him to very politely ask if maybe – in some universe, if he wasn’t averse, if he would be so kind – he would let me use one of his images. I expected him to turn me down.

The cover art for “Homebodies” was done by a U.S. collage artist named Hollie Chastain, whom I found on Etsy. I love her stuff, too.

Layout and cover design I left up to the press. For “Homebodies,” I did ask Sarah Reck at Hyacinth Girl Press for a couple changes on fonts. I was racked with awkwardness about that, but more worried that maybe it didn’t look like I wanted it to.

How does your ex-pat status influence your writing?

This is a good question. The most important factor is probably language. I speak German fluently (if imperfectly), and becoming bilingual was a very enriching experience. I love grammar, I love vocabulary, I love idiom, and sound. I love that English was born of German and seeing where some of our words come from and how they’ve changed and warped.

Being language-aware is a big part of my inspiration. Speaking another language keeps my appreciation of American English keen. People who speak foreign languages know their own gives them freedom and comfort unlike anything else. Writing helps connect me to my identity and where I’m from. I’m as much “from English” as I am from any particular place.

Another important factor is the personal one – being conflicted, often homesick, even after 20 years abroad. I found a lot of solace in poetry, first in reading it, then in writing it. Otherwise, logistically, it’s a handicap since I can’t whip up interest in my work with readings. I have been part of an occasional reading on my trips to the U.S., but I am always tight on time.

Number of chapbooks you own: I own about 50 chapbooks, but have read many I don’t personally own.

Ways you promote other poets: I use Facebook and keep a blog where I sometimes link to poems I like or just cheer fellow poets on. I also lead a group on Good Reads called Poetry Readers Challenge. Members are asked to review 20 poetry collections in the group per year. I think those of us who participate have been turned on to many poets we’d never heard of by being part of the discussion there. Although most review contemporary poetry, plenty of books by long- and fresh-dead poets are represented too.

Where we can buy your stuff:
Hyacinth Girl Press
Dancing Girl Press

Where you spend your poetry earnings: Trick question, right? I’m afraid I’ve spent it many times over on more poetry. Most recently I bought a book bundle from Dancing Girl Press, “Sestets” by Charles Wright, and “Of Lamb” by Matthea Harvey.

Residence: Frankfurt, Germany

Job and education: Journalist; B.A. in English and American Studies from Drew University; M.Ed. in Language Education from Rutgers University.

Bio: Sarah J. Sloat grew up in New Jersey but has lived many years in Germany, where she works in news. Her favorite poets include Vasko Popa, Jessy Randall, Charles Wright, Francis Ponge, Elaine Equi, Ryan Murphy and Frank Montesonti. She has published three chapbooks: “In the Voice of a Minor Saint” (Tilt Press/out of print), “Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair” (Dancing Girl Press), and Homebodies (Hyacinth Girl Press). A fourth chap, “Inksuite,” will be published by Dancing Girl Press this year.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Johanna Donovan
    January 20, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Being a long-time admirer of
    Sarah’s poetry and dabbling a bit in the art myself, I loved reading this
    and getting to know Sarah and her thoughts better. Good questions
    and excellent answers.

  • Leave a Reply to Johanna Donovan Cancel Reply

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