Interview with Sabrina Orah Mark

Ellen Boyette

Sabrina Orah Mark grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She earned a BA from Barnard College, Columbia University; an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia. She is the author of the book-length poetry collections The Babies (2004), winner of the Saturnalia Book Prize chosen by Jane Miller, and Tsim Tsum (2009), as well as the chapbook Walter B.’s Extraordinary Cousin Arrives for a Visit & Other Tales from Woodland Editions. Her collection of stories, Wild Milk, was published by Dorothy in 2018. Mark’s awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She has taught at Agnes Scott College, University of Georgia, Rutgers University, University of Iowa, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Goldwater Hospital, and throughout the New York City and Iowa public school system. She lives in Athens Georgia with her husband, Reginald McKnight, and their two sons.

I met with Sabrina on an icy day in a nook of Iowa City’s bookstore, Prairie Lights. She glided in, windswept, wearing a pastel blue skirt with little bird motif patterning, bright white Doc Marten’s, and red lipstick. In her hand, a collection of Basile’s fairytales from downstairs. She apologized for possible delirium, after a series of flight cancellations the day before. I assured her delirium was welcome.

Ellen Boyette: Let’s start at the beginning—how do you start writing? Do you engage in any specific rituals or procedures when you write?

Sabrina Orah Mark: I use a single notebook for everything. You know: grocery lists, things I need to do for my kids, bits of lines, ideas for stories and poems, dreams. Now my kids have been writing in my notebooks which I think is a bad idea, like they’re a little trespassers. I open it, for example, and there’s a drawing my five-year-old did of a smiling alien holding an apple. This, actually, is an indicator of how my writing has changed. Before I had kids, my poems were like these incubators, these sealed little boxes, and then, I think, after I had kids, I couldn’t maintain that space, maintain that sealed box. So the poems started spilling open into these unwieldy prose poems, and then these stories. As far as how I begin, I start with these notebooks, usually pull an image, a line, or a word. With poetry, I really would just begin with sound and follow it, though with prose it can begin more with idea. It’s still attached to the dream world, but it feels a little bit more awake, like a dream in a real world consciousness or setting. It can feel a little disappointing to the process at times, like the real world coming in. Until recently I had never sat down and thought, Okay I’m going to write into this real thing that is actually happening in the larger world, because it feels like you’re coming in through the front door, as opposed to climbing in through the windows. Now, I guess, sometimes it’s necessary to knock on the front door, enter this way. When I was in the Writers’ Workshop, it felt like this strange little idyllic nowhere land—I didn’t have a TV, there was no social media, and I read the newspaper once a week. I lived inside poems. I understand then that was a stunning privilege, and I understand it even more now.

EB: Your work grapples with authority quite a bit. To think about authority, one must also think about authorship. When you’re writing, who has the authority—you, or the work? Which of you must concede more? Does it differ between poetry and fiction?

SOM: Well, if I have the authority, then the poem is probably falling apart. It feels like the poem has to take over, the story has to take over, where I suddenly have a moment where I don’t know how the hell I just got here. I need to have a moment where I feel scared, that I just scared myself, like I don’t know where that language came from. If I have too much authority, it would just feel like a trick. And a reader can smell a trick. I know when I’m not being honest to the atmosphere, like you have to just give over to the weather of a piece.

EB: All of your books seem concerned with the tactile in some way, with haptic objects. In what sense do you consider yourself a collector, on and off the page?

SOM: I used to collect broken dolls, a long time ago, but then people started giving me gifts of broken dolls, and they were coming with all this strange, wounded meaning, and I couldn’t handle it, so I stopped collecting dolls. So as of now, I don’t collect any objects, but I feel like when I’m writing, I am a collector of language. For instance, let’s say I start with a word like “snail,” I’ll try to collect all of the language that surrounds the snail, both sonically and associatively, and then this little world starts to build around the snail, and I try to stay with it, stay with the images obsessively, to push beyond what I think is possible in the snail’s realm of language. What is that Lucie Brock-Broido quote, “Obsession is what gets me up the stairs at night”? Obsession is really important to following that image relentlessly, then cracking it open, trying to make more use of it. Pushing it beyond its limits. It’s funny, someone once asked me, why is there so much red in The Babies, and I thought, what red? There’s no red in The Babies. And then I looked through the entire collection, and there really is so much red that I didn’t even realize I was obsessively following. Nabakov talks about it, how writers will plot subliminal coordinates that you’re working with, and it’s like this secret thread beneath all of the poems. And then the worst question would be, in like a workshop, what does the red symbolize? You don’t want to show those insides. You want to feel them.

EB: In a lecture you gave called “The Crying Room,” you detailed Charcot’s four stages of hysteria—the final stage of which, delirium and the regaining of consciousness, is marked by ecstatic laughter or sobbing. Your work, full of the anxiety of the dream and the anxiety of the real, navigates both the heartbreaking and the humorous so deftly. What is your relationship to humor? Do you ever make yourself cry or laugh when you write?

SOM: I very rarely laugh out loud, which I think is probably the worst part of me. My five-year-old just has this incredible laugh, and I was like, how do I get that? But then I realized my mother doesn’t really laugh, she just kind of laughs by sucking in, and my brothers don’t really laugh either, they just say “oh that’s funny.” But humor was really important in my family, like the classic Jewish self-deprecating jokes circled throughout as this mode of survival and deflection. And I don’t cry when I write, but I do get scared sometimes. I used to write very late at night, from around eight p.m. to like three or four in the morning. and wouldn’t be able to sleep because I would just freak myself out, slip into a kind of terror while writing. Then I started writing very early in the morning, for practical reasons, around four thirty—witching hours work for me. That hour would just crack me open, but there is this point where you’re waking up consistently at four thirty and it starts wreaking havoc on your body, so I’ve taken a hiatus from that. You have to be adaptable, or else you just check yourself in somewhere.

EB: Names are a very curious component of your work, and I think also occupy that realm of perverse humor. I’m thinking about Walter B. or the parakeet Bye Bye Francoise, or My Husband Louis CK. Even, in “The Crying Room” lecture, the real plumber you give the pseudonym of Names. How do you like being a Sabrina? Is there a better name for you?

SOM: Oh, interesting, I’m always very distanced from my name. Like every once in a while, I’ll hear one of my sons say “My mom’s name is Sabrina,” and I’ll be like, no it’s not, it’s Mama. Well, I don’t know, I’m named after my great-grandmother Sabina, and she was the great matriarch of the family, so it’s sort of impossible to live up to. When they were living in Vienna, my great-grandfather was sent to a labor camp when the Nazis were invading, and she would have these dreams from dead relatives telling her how to get my great-grandfather out. And she followed their instructions and got him out. To be named after her is like being named after a prayer that was answered. Sometimes I feel like a Sabrina, sometimes no. Do you like being an Ellen?

EB: I don’t know, the name means light, and sometimes I feel like that’s a heavy thing to bear.

SOM: Oh, my middle name means light! It will be something you move into. But I love the idea of taking a name and seeing how it will function inside a story, or how the story changes the name. I have a story in Wild Milk where the husband’s name is Louis CK, which I wrote before the other story about Louis CK. So my publisher and I had this conversation, trying to decide if we should pull it from the collection, did it still work? And ultimately, it did still work, but it has this whole other set of possibilities and implications. But that’s the problem of using real names, it’s something you have to grapple with. But I love names, and I love seeing how people and characters grow into their names. Or burst out of their names. I remember when I first got to the Writers’ Workshop, a professor said to me, “Sabrina Orah Mark. That’s the name of a fiction writer, not a poet.” I think about that every once in a while. I have moved into fiction, certainly, and poetry will always be my first love, but it’s funny how that one comment became this little spell that guided me.

EB: It’s great what you said, about feeling blessed or cursed as a fiction writer. I know that the Dorothy Project publishes fiction that bends and warps our preconceived notions of fiction. Do you think fiction is an adequate descriptor of Wild Milk? Do you believe in genre?

SOM: Well, the market believes in genre. So it was a hard book to get taken because nobody knew how to sell it. Agents were interested, but they didn’t know what to do with it, like what is this strange child? I was having these conversations with agents, almost like when the caterpillar asks Alice: Who are you? It felt like that, how do you explain, who are you? So thank goodness for Dorothy Project because they really rescued the collection. I feel like Wild Milk is made of stories with hidden poems, poems with hidden stories. They are these exploded prose poems, like if you could start seeing the rips and tears in a prose poem’s clothing. That’s how I feel them and how I wrote them. In Tsim Tsum, using dialogue opened up everything for me.

EB: Yes, and so much of your dialogue seems to occupy the realm of the failures of communication and classification, or urgently needing to convey something that can’t be conveyed, and that carries through in both your poetry and the story collections.

SOM: Absolutely. The problem then is how you turn that into a product. But, you know what, I write what I write. And that’s not going to change.