"A CHANGE OF ANGELS": ON MATERIALS, METAPHORS, AND METAMORPHOSES IN SARAH J SLOAT'S HOTEL ALMIGHTY
Sarah J Sloat, Hotel Almighty, Sarabande Books, 2020
Reviewed by Katy Didden
"to write a silver// line// to// care for// the/ possible,// to// call it/ a school of thought"
— Sarah J Sloat, Hotel Almighty
Building on early experiments by artists like Doris Cross, Ronald Johnson, and Tom Phillips, poets like Jen Bervin, Srikanth Reddy, Mary Ruefle, and M. NourbeSe Philip first published collections of erasure poetry over a decade ago. Thanks in part to their influence, the technique of erasure has proliferated in a remarkable diversity of forms.  I find it inspiring that while composers of erasures (and I count myself among them) tend to abide by strict rules; these rules aren't standardized, as each writer establishes their own unique constraints. Some preserve the source text, others create spatial maps with the lines. Some compose down the page vertically, others maintain a left-to-right reading system, some cut the page to reveal what's behind it. When writers preserve the source text, the materials they use for marking is also varied: some use black ink, some use Wite-Out, some use organic materials, some use thread, or different colored fonts. Because there is such variety, the writer's choice of which rules to follow and which materials to use becomes incredibly significant for the overall meaning of the work.
In Hotel Almighty, Sarah J. Sloat composes 69 mixed-media erasure poems by altering pages from Stephen King's 1987 novel Misery. Sloat initially was assigned Misery as part of a "found poetry challenge"; as she writes in her introduction: "The form leaves room for chance. In the case of this collection, even the source text was an accident." Sloat turns that assignment into a purposeful engagement with the novel's own themes of accident, creativity, and constraint: "In line with the theme of confinement, I limited each erasure to one page and left it in situ […] I hoped to make friends with the constraints of space, while—like Misery's inmate—working a way out."
More than other poetic forms, erasure inspires and accommodates multi-modal, spatial composition.
Stylistically, Hotel Almighty is in the lineage of early erasure artists Doris Cross and Tom Phillips. Yet Sloat's erasures are unique. For one thing, I believe Sloat uses collage to a far greater extent than Cross and Phillips do; it is a medium that, as she herself says, adds yet another layer of "surprise and accident." I'd go further to say that collage adds complementary layers of allusion. Sloat's medium is indexical; like the erasure poem that transforms even as it points to a source text, collage also refers back to any number of additional source texts: we recognize that the images are fragments of larger wholes. Sloat's collages are beautifully balanced and vibrant with a technicolor palette; the collages resonate with each other, and they include recognizable motifs—from circles, to disembodied hands, to kinds of shelter (houses, hotels, apartments), to modes of transportation (boats! cars! planes!). I am struck by how most of these visual motifs are narrative-laden; unlike inhuman objects (a stone, say, or a leaf), Sloat's motifs imply human stories, as if they were recurring, dynamic characters— stories that, importantly, echo (with housing, cars, and disembodied appendages) but do not equal the plot of Misery. In that sense, Sloat's motifs seem to purposefully gesture towards plot, as they invoke not only the plot of Misery but also the classic story arcs of a journey and a haunted hotel. This ghost of a story arc lends coherence to the collection of what are otherwise lyric fragments, as if the narrative gestures cue the reader to fill in the archetypal structures that Sloat re-mixes towards lyric patterns.
Perhaps the trope that echoes Misery the most is, again, the idea of confinement. In this case, I find Hotel Almighty compelling as a study of containers and lyric arrangement—a box of boxes. In fact, though Sloat chose the constraint of making each poem out of a single prose page, she does not limit herself by keeping King's pages in their original order. Each page, therefore, becomes a discreet object, as her arrangement of the pages subverts King's narrative. King's pages operate as a kind of frame-within-a-frame of the pages of Hotel Almighty; the original page numbers float about an inch above Sloat's (like little kites). The number signifies. We know where it would appear in the original story, and it complicates time. Also, for any of King's even-numbered pages, Sloat preserves the page header, so MISERY hovers over those image-texts like a recurring poem title.
These markers also insist upon the materiality of King's book—sometimes, as on Sloat's page 62, you can see the ghost of words from reverse pages (a reverse STEPHEN KING behind MISERY), and the blank spaces of the original pages shift in hue from gray to yellow to pink, as if Sloat worked with multiple copies of Misery. This emphatic materiality invokes the sensation of reading the paperback novel, a coherence Sloat undercuts, again, by disrupting King's chronology. Instead, Sloat insists upon another form of ordering.
If all poets face the challenge of how to arrange a manuscript of discreet poems into a book, for the multi-modal poet, this arrangement must take into account both visual and textual patterns. I am struck by Sloat's solution to arrangement, which is the overarching concept of hotels. To think of each section in the book as a "hotel" prepares the reader to encounter an overarching structure that houses diverse sub-structures: after all, a hotel is a building full of rooms where scores of discreet human dramas unfold. Similarly, for each discreet page in Hotel Almighty the images are not merely illustrative but are integral and essential to meaning. Take for example Sloat's page 120. The text reads: "you// can hardly have missed// the/ Thousands of// impossible/ flowers// known in the technical jargon as// laughing." Rather than images of flowers, or people laughing, we see a black and white photo of a 1950s hatchback driving under a black cloud in a sky of upside-down numbers, with a rainbow-striped horizon behind it. Maybe because of the curves of the car or because of the horizontal rainbow, the visual image is comical and narrative, which resonates with the verbal images of flowers and laughter; the cumulative effect of the imagetext is playful and funny (somehow, maybe because of the cartoon-like visual image, calling laughing "technical jargon" is funny).
One sub-category of Sloat's multi-modal technique is the effect it has on metaphor; she creates what I would call an extra-dimensional or harmonic metaphor. For example, in the erasure on page 6, the text reads: "the sound of the wind// filled// the phone// squeezing into the// line// like// a// nerve awake// at night" (6). Though the poem compares the sound of wind in a phone line to "a nerve awake at night," the visual picture is not illustrative of this. Instead, it is a charcoal drawing of a winter tree outside an apartment building, black and white except for the trunk of the tree, which is wound with red rope. Because the verbal poem doesn't mention the tree, my mind makes the leap and draws a third comparison between phone line, nerve, and red rope:
Though the picture isn't meant to equal the poem's images, the arrangement asserts an affinity; it creates a visceral sensation as I read the metaphor, as if it rhymes the affect of the images—that is to say, the hollowed-out, almost painful feeling I get when I imagine the sound of wind in a phone line is similar to the feeling I get when I see the red-wrapped tree and the feeling I get from imagining a nerve awake at night. The link is not just a visual similarity (though all involve something flowing and wiry branching) but also these less-resolvable sensations.
Sloat's poems are musical and witty, and they have the feeling, the cadences, of completeness, which is remarkable given how brief they are. Working with a source text creates a bind—especially if you are erasing to the level of the word and not the letter. Like the Rubik's Cube Sloat mentions in her introduction, it requires ingenuity to create what sounds like a poem out of the available prose. To "solve it" requires you to move inside all the possibilities of syntax in a way that I've only experienced otherwise when I've attempted translation or worked with intense rhyme schemes or syllabics. It's like finding your way through a maze not only by trusting that paths that look like dead-ends could in fact lead to passageways, but also by testing the solidity of the hedge itself—you start to think, what if this hedge isn't a hedge at all, but something bendable, something malleable?
In fact, given how visually fragmented an erased text can be, and how spaces between words are not always cues for how to read the text in the way that a line break would be in a regular poem, I would say erasure poets face a greater pressure to orient the reader with other kinds of verbal context clues. One of Sloat's primary methods for securing that sense of orientation is to provide a complete sentence, including a clear subject who has agency. While she often uses a first-person speaker (which is admirable given that she is drawing from King's mostly third-person sentences), these "I"'s break open in unexpected ways, as in the poem on page 78: "I was// a meadow,/ where flowers grew// long. I was a/ landmark/ forgotten/ a/ word defined wrong." Just as the sentences of the source text shift, so Sloat's "I" shifts subjectivities. Sloat's choices are in tune with the form—the spatial fluxing of the page engenders metamorphoses in whatever occupies each position of the sentence.
Many other subjects inhabit these hotel rooms, and I am most intrigued by those poems where Sloat lets the subject shift in unexpected ways. For example, on page 4, she writes: "an idea// sat quietly// in the field. quietly, almost dozing,// whole edifices// passed// like water through a flume." Suddenly, an idea becomes both a material being that can sit in a field, and a sentient being that can do so quietly. Suddenly, edifices behave wholly un-edifice-like, passing like water. As another example, here is the text from page 12: "joy/ would// crawl over/ broken glass if that was/ the// way." Once again, joy gets an unexpected agency—it is something that can and would crawl over glass. Somehow, thinking of joy this way changes my understanding of what joy is and does and how it might be encountered. Joy's agency feels convincing, but I'm not sure it would without both the accompanying image (a green field and a smokestack trumpeting a geometric grid) and my awareness of the novel Misery behind the words, and the terror the protagonist survives. All of these factors combine to create the poem, to make it work.
At a time when many contemporary poets experiment with and teach erasure as a poetic technique, Sloat's collection showcases the many potentials of the form. Sloat's visual compositions occur on three or four levels at once, as she aligns the forms of the source text, the verbal text, the collage, and the collection. I believe this multi-level resonance sets new parameters for poetry. With her flexibility with syntax and fluid subjects, Sloat forges new insights that call us to question the way we relate to what confines us, and to re-set the limits of a poem. I've loved reading and re-reading Hotel Almighty. I find something new each time I open the book, and I continue to learn from the box of many boxes Sloat presents here.
 There are many theories as to why erasure poetry has become a phenomenon in the last ten years. Read here for Andrew David King's extensive exploration of erasure, or here for Jennifer Cheng's discussion of erasure as a political act, or here for my take about erasure as a response to climate change. As I discuss in the SRPR interview, the form is controversial, and I recommend that anyone working with erasure read this essay by Solmaz Sharif.