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Local writer Ben Sloan uses poetry to take a walk in others’ shoes

Sloan sat down with The Cavalier Daily to discuss his recent publication, as well the transformative power of sympathizing with others through writing

<p>Sloan said his affinity for creative writing blossomed from his lifelong love for reading and the fulfillment he felt while discovering various poets and writers as a student at Brooklyn College.&nbsp;</p>

Sloan said his affinity for creative writing blossomed from his lifelong love for reading and the fulfillment he felt while discovering various poets and writers as a student at Brooklyn College. 

Ben Sloan, Charlottesville resident and English professor who has taught at Piedmont Virginia Community College and the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, recently published his second book, entitled “Then On Out Into a Cloudless Sky.” The collection of poetry — depicting stories of childhood memories, longing for connection and many more — draws inspiration from the experiences of others, including his own students.

Sloan said his affinity for creative writing blossomed from his lifelong love for reading and the fulfillment he felt while discovering various poets and writers as a student at Brooklyn College. To him, reading has a way of altering his feelings and transporting him to a whole new place.

“If I'm in a room and if I read a really good poem or a novel, it's as if a door appears in the wall, and there's a whole new world that is accessible,” Sloan said.

After his studies in college helped foster his passion for reading and writing, Sloan said he had the opportunity to foster the same passions in his own students. He said that he enjoys teaching because it provides him with a way to have conversations with people and promote change.

“To facilitate that conversation and build a sense of community and have a dialogue about ideas and literature and reading is just very exciting and fulfilling,” Sloan said. “To be in a classroom, for people to hear ideas from a diverse range of different people, different backgrounds, is enlightening for everyone in various ways.”

His recent publication “Then On Out Into a Cloudless Sky” — published this past July — is a collection of 20 poems dedicated to his literature and creative writing students at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. The penultimate poem, “Arriving,” which absorbingly tells the story of someone struggling to feel grounded in a prison, is one of many that are clearly inspired by Sloan’s experiences teaching at the center.

“As I try to empathize with them and understand their work and who they are as people, I feel transformed,” Sloan said. “I see the world in a different way.”

The first few poems are set during World War II, including the opening poem “Eva in Berlin, April 30, 1945.” This piece takes on the fascinating perspective of Eva Braun, wife of Adolf Hitler, immediately before the couple’s deaths, as Eva realizes “for the first time / yours is a minor walk-on part in a drama playing out / in his mind, the role of the loyal wife of the great / if fallen leader.”

Sloan explained how his habit of reading the newspaper triggered his interest in writing about World War II.

“The first section [of the newspaper] I read is the obituaries,” Sloan said. “By reading obituaries, I learn about a whole range of different people, sports figures, scientists, actors but sometimes it's writers.”

Sloan said that one day in particular, he read the obituary of Aharon Appelfeld, a writer who, as a child, escaped a Nazi labor camp and roamed around the forest for years by himself. Because of this obituary, Sloan said he developed an interest in Appelfeld and started to read his works. This inspired the second poem of the collection, “Blank Faces in Romania, 1943,” which tells the story of a wandering child exposed to harrowing tragedy and evil. The poem harrowingly reads, “What do people want, really, or need from one another? / How do we end up falling wherever it is we have landed?”

Another notable poem in the collection — “Bonita at Work” — illustrates a curiosity about what it was like to be Bonita, a friend of Sloan’s mother that he remembers from his childhood. The poem carries a wistful tone as childhood memories are recounted. “I was in the third grade and can’t for the life of me / describe now what she looked like,” the poem reads. “Honestly, / all I remember is the soft southeastern Missouri- / accented voice saying, ‘There you go, honey.’”

“It just seemed incredible to me to see the world from her experience,” Sloan said. “It's just powerful for me.”

All of the poems in “Then On Out Into a Cloudless Sky” paint vivid images, as Sloan often describes a setting with thoughtful attention to color. According to Sloan, the focus on color serves as a way to increase the accessibility of the concrete settings of his poems.

“The ability to describe one's environment or what one sees — one's world — is hard,” Sloan said. “It's really hard to [develop] vivid connections with the concrete world and convey that through writing.”

With his collection of poems, Sloan succeeds in creating this connection with the concrete world. Sloan’s own experiences — from reading the newspaper to teaching at a correctional center — provide an interesting perspective visible throughout his work.

“Then On Out Into a Cloudless Sky” is available for purchase through Seven Kitchens Press, and Sloan is holding a reading of his poetry at Piedmont Virginia Community College Nov. 3 at noon. 


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