An Interview with Sabrina Orah Mark

Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections Tsim Tsum (2009) and The Babies (2004), which was the premier winner of the Saturnalia Book Prize. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Glenn Schaeffer Foundation. Widely anthologized, her poems, stories, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer, American Short Fiction, The Harvard Review, Lana Turner, and elsewhere. She currently teaches writing workshops in the Athens, Georgia community. In a recent interview with Associate Poetry Editor Shelley Wong, Mark spoke about her love of fairy tales, form versus content, and whether the characters from Tsim Tsum will reappear in upcoming projects.

Shelley Wong: Thank you for being a part of The Journal. Is “The Seventh Wife” part of a new project centered on Osbert? Or is this piece part of a series with separate characters?

Sabrina Orah Mark: “The Seventh Wife” is part of a new collection of short fictions (in progress), tentatively called “Everything Was Beautiful & Nothing Hurt.” Osbert only appears once. In this way, he is a man in a jar. Other characters who appear throughout the collection (so far): Beadlebaum (a bully), a husband named Poems, a sister called Mumford, a good stepmother, Zawacki (a taxman who is part man part stick-figure), and a very nervous family (The Horowitzs). There are others, but they are shy about appearing in interviews.

SW: In a past interview, you mentioned that you taught a course on fairy tales. In your work, there seems to be a similar approach of using dreamlike worlds as a backdrop for talking about the strangeness of the world in relation to conflict, ranging in scale from the catastrophic to the quietly domestic. Are there elements of fairy tales that you are particularly interested in responding to or borrowing in your current work?

SOM: What I love about the fairy tale is that it sets the domestic on fire. And what I mean by this is that it requires the mother, father, sister, brother, stepmother, stepfather, cousin, uncle, aunt, and all their animals to flee the house in their “hottest,” most psychoanalyzed/dangerous state. The fairy tale surrenders the greatest fears of the house (“my mother she killed me / my father he ate me”) and copes with these fully realized fears until, I guess, everybody is dead or married or eaten or turned into birds or sea foam.

SW: I’m interested in how you see the world and characters in “The Seventh Wife” compared to your prior work. Your first book, The Babies, addresses the Holocaust as a collection of voices that never came into being. One of those figures, Walter B., became part of your second book, Tsim Tsum, which centers on his relationship with Beatrice in a “pre-world” world. I find your characters and their encounters dazzling in their simultaneous ability to charm and disturb. Are you interested in capturing a kind of proto-cognition? Do the worlds of your books exist on a continuum? How is the world of “The Seventh Wife” related to Tsim Tsum?

SOM: My new collection seems to be more present (as in, here/today). There are, for example, a lot of characters on the telephone. Things happen in bars or hospitals or playgrounds. This doesn’t mean, of course, that a cloud won’t burst open and spill out children. Or jokes won’t turn into men. Or a woman won’t get pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can. Which is to say, I’m experimenting right now with living in the present, while still maintaining what is at the center of Tsim Tsum: the absolute certainty of the unknowable.

SW: How did you decide on the form of “The Seventh Wife?” Do you have different ways of thinking about the craft of the piece in this form as opposed to the prose-poem form? The Journal categorizes this piece as short fiction, but I’m interested in whether you consider it poetry.

SOM: I don’t know why, but my poems are bursting open. Sometimes, when I put my two-year-old son Noah to bed, I can swear his pajamas fit him. And then when he wakes up, his sleeves barely reach his elbows. I feed him, so he grows—thank god. Which is to say, I believe that content will determine form as much as form will determine content. Right now, my content feels more of the world of fiction. The prose-poem pajamas seem not to be fitting.

I have an essay coming out this summer (in Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion) on the prose poem, called “This Is Not the Same as Disappearance.” Maybe it will answer nothing?

SW: Your work seems so remarkably unlike any other poet I’ve read. What poets have been important to you? What are you currently reading?

SOM: Thank you. Let’s see, there are so many. Paul Celan was probably my first great influence. I learned, from his poems, serious restraint. Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein gave me the sad joke, and Donald Barthelme, too. Claudia Rankine, Mark Levine, and Jim Galvin have had some serious influence. My copies of James Tate, Charles Simic, Lydia Davis, and Lucie Brock-Broido are absolutely chewed up and blurred by use. Oni Buchanan, Thomas Heise, Cathy Park Hong, Tim Earley, Heidi Lynn Staples, Kirsten Kaschock, Michael Dumanis, and Lisa Jarnot are among my contemporary favorites. I am currently reading Amber Dermont’s Damage Control, a heartbreaking and brilliant collection of short stories. Also currently reading and loving S.E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut, George Saunders’s Tenth of December, and Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. And my husband, Reginald McKnight, influences my work. He is a master of the dream and the dialogue.

SW: Will Walter B. and Beatrice be part of your next project?

SOM: No, they are too busy. But the Mutter and the Fodder (who appear in Tsim Tsum in the series of poems called “The Oldest Animal Writes a Letter Home”) are returning in another project I am currently working on called The Grandmothers. It’s about three children (Punch, Moscow, and Mouse), who come to live with an assemblage of grandmothers (a soft of grandmothers? a clutch? a creak?) named Shirley Limbish. I don’t know where these grandmothers are taking me. I’m afraid, sometimes, I may end up back at the beginning. With the babies.

Shelley Wong is a Kundiman fellow, an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University, and a poetry editor at The Journal. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Lantern Review, Kartika Review, Linebreak, Eleven Eleven, and Flyway.