An Interview with Sabrina Orah Mark
Interview by JUAN REYES
Black Warrior Review: How does setting play into your writing?
Sabrina Orah Mark: I generally like the sleepy towns, the quietness. I’m living in Athens, Georgia, now, which is filled with ghosts, so that becomes inspiring. I lived in Iowa City for two years and I was writing very intensely there. But, for me, it’s not so much the landscape; I live so much in my own head.
BWR: How do your formative years play into your work?
SOM: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in an orthodox Jewish community. I went to Yeshiva, a Jewish day school. At Yeshiva, we studied a half Hebrew curriculum: half the day in Hebrew and the other half in English. (I was studying Genesis in the second grade!) More than New York and the metropolis and that landscape, because I was in school from 7 in the morning until 6 at night (a double curriculum), it was Yeshiva that shaped my way of thinking. I spent most of the day reading about miracles and believing the word was a living thing, made out of flesh. That experience shaped my way of thinking about language and how I move through the world.
BWR: So the first stories you wrote, even the first stories you thought about writing, were in that formative time?
SOM: I didn’t really think about writing—I started writing poems in high school. But I was fascinated by the stories in the Old Testament as a kid. I was fascinated by the fact that if you dropped a book on the floor, when you picked it up you had to kiss it. I had this real reverence for language. I don’t think I was thinking so much about stories or poems, but I was thinking about the word. And I’ve slowly moved from the word to the sentence to the poem over the years.
BWR: What was it like holding that first published collection? The reverence that you have for books, did that translate into a reverence for holding your first published book?
SOM: My own book? No, holding my own book was actually akin to a kind of terror. I love the process; I love the writing. I love that moment where you realize suddenly you’re creating something—but the ultimate product, the book, the physical book. I have a reverence for the book as an object, but my book became—in the way that somebody else’s book I purchase which then becomes mine—once it was done, became no longer mine. It was this weird shift.
BWR: How do you put a poetry collection together?
SOM: Well, when I started writing these Walter B and Beatrice poems in Tsim Tsum, I didn’t even realize they were poems. I had a blog called Live Plants, Corsages (that is dead right now), and I was posting these little moments between Walter B and Beatrice. I imagined them as occasions. I didn’t realize they were poems. Only after I wrote fifteen of them, did I realize they were poems. I just became obsessed with these characters, and the characters were the things that stitched—the mood of the characters was the thing that created the book. With The Babies, I felt it was more the mood of the image or the mood of the landscape that created the book.
BWR: Describe the process of writing The Babies.
SOM: Let’s see, I published it when I was about twenty-nine, twenty-eight. So it took me about twenty-eight years to write. I mean, it’s an accumulation of everything you think and wonder about, every moment in which you’re trying to make sense of a world for yourself—it takes all those years. In actuality, though, the first poem to the last, I would say, took about five years. And then Tsim Tsum was probably five years, too.
BWR: Where does the title The Babies come from?
SOM: The idea behind The Babies was that its poems were supposed to be a collection of the imagined voices of those who never lived because of disaster—with The Babies, specifically, the Holocaust. So the babies became a kind of breath before the breath. I know that babies have breath, but I wanted the book to feel as though it was a collection of figures as they are before they have begun.
BWR: World War II is a big turning point in your poems—not only a turning point but also a starting point. I think of “The Robot” and then the “The Eternal Footmen,” the idea of the six million, of the Holocaust. Because your poems so specifically address issues of suffering in the Jewish community, do you know how your poems have been received in it?
SOM: I don’t know if the book has made its way into the orthodox Jewish community. That’s a strange question because I’ve never thought about it and I don’t know why. I struggled withThe Babies because my grandparents and great-aunts are Holocaust survivors, and there was a sort of guilt surrounding it. Who am I to speak? Who am I to create this world inside of which I have never been? I don’t know what it felt like for my great-aunt, when she was one year old, to be slapped by an SS officer. My grandfather was sent out to scrub the cobblestones when he was twelve years old, in twenty-degree weather. His father was sent to a labor camp. To have your father taken away like that—I have not experienced these things. Those are my roots, but, at the same time, I do not know them. It was a real struggle for me to think about: what does it mean to create these sorts of imagined testimonies? The poems were not the testimonies of actual Holocaust survivors, nor even their imagined testimonies. They were supposed to be the imagined testimonies of the ones who had not yet been imagined. In terms of bringing the book into the orthodox Jewish community or any Jewish community, it has entered and exited in different ways. My high school had me come back to read a few poems, and I read something for a Holocaust memorial situation, but not very often.
BWR: Your poems are inherently narrative. Why have you decided to explore narrative in the prose poem?
SOM: One of the really interesting things about the prose poem is that it becomes like a little haunted house, this small container, this little box, a kind of snapshot. The prose poem gives way to a content that felt very haunted at its center, which is what I wanted. I wanted the sense of the uncanny, and I feel like the prose poem offers that because it is a form that should not be but is. I think it’s Charles Simic who says that the prose poem should not exist, but it does, that it’s the coming together of two contradictory impulses: prose and poetry. So it’s a kind of marvel already because of its form. It gives way to a subject that is a subject of marvel — hatched at its center is a kind of marvel.
Both The Babies and Tsim Tsum have these two characters, Walter B and Beatrice, who try to make sense of the mundane, to make sense of their familiars that have gone strange on them. The prose poem felt like the appropriate form for this. I remember reading Maurice Manning’sLawrence Booth’s Book of Visions and thinking, oh, you can speak inside a poem. You can have characters. You can have a dialogue. When I got to where I felt as though the prose poem could do that, I started being able to tell the story I needed to tell.
BWR: Why Walter B and Beatrice? Why did you create them?
SOM: Walter B and Beatrice started as names. I liked the sound of B. I like the repetition of B throughout the entire book because they’re often wondering about their own sense of being and becoming and who they belong to. And so you have that repetition of B and being and these ontological questions circling over their heads like vultures. Walter B and Beatrice started as names in the way that, for me, a poem begins with a single word. I do not write with a story in mind, or with a subject. I don’t say that I’m going to write about the time my attic was filled with bees. I start with the word “attic” or with the word “bees.” So that’s why Walter B and Beatrice.
Once their names began, I brought them into different scenarios and started getting to know them. Ultimately, I understood that, at their center, they had rules, in the way that each of us do: there are some things we would say and some things we would never say. There are places we go, and there are places we would never go. That was how Walter B and Beatrice started to be shaped. I lived with them. I felt as though my home was filled with them. I thought about them all the time. And then they started having a life of their own, where I would sit to write the poem and the poem would already be. And then they went away; and I miss them. It’s bizarre. I didn’t want to finish Tsim Tsum, and that was a very different experience from my first book. There are different figures throughout The Babies. There’s a figure Zillah, and there’s also the zoo, and there’s a taxidermist, and there are all sorts of others. They came and left very quickly, so I got attached to them inside a single poem. But I didn’t live with them for five years like Walter B and Beatrice.
BWR: It seems that, with them, you’re reflecting the full scope of intimacy—in that there are secrets in intimacy, and there’s a comfort of love in intimacy, and then there are these disasters of distance at the same time.
SOM: Do you mean that they become a veil for the I?
BWR: No. I mean that they become a kind of instrument for the universal. This exploration of what you can say about certain topics like intimacy. As if the characters become a commentary on it, not a reflection or a veil of you, but a commentary on intimacy.
SOM: Right. I think you said it better than I could. There is a sense that they are supposed to, in certain ways, be completely at home with one another, that they are each other’s familiars. They rely on each other and there are times where they long for each other and there are times when they are lost among each other. At times it becomes like a kind of long love poem, filled with all the sadness and the brokenness and the hopefulness that any sort of relationship has at its center. The cover of the book, the woman and the hippopotamus—the idea behind that is that it’s supposed to be unclear whether or not it is Beatrice with Walter B or Beatrice with the Oldest Animal, because there is a point where the Oldest Animal is able to speak about things that Walter B and Beatrice could never speak to each other about, things at the center of their love for each other, but also at the center of what it actually means to love something and keep it, because, ultimately, they abandon the Animal. For me, Tsim Tsum is about that. If I would talk about a kind of intimacy, it would be about the intimacy of the Oldest Animal and keeping it and then letting it go off into the forest and losing it. The Oldest Animal is itself a whole creature, but it also represents the idea of love and belonging.
BWR: What does Tsim Tsum mean?
SOM: “Tsim Tsum” is a Kabbalistic term. According to the Kabbalists, there’s a flawed phase in Genesis, where, in order for the creator to affect creation, the creator must depart from his creation, such that the creator and the creation are always in a kind of exile from each other. The created thing is always away from its roots—away from the mother and the father. For the Kabbalists, that is the reason why the world is so mysterious to us. It is the reason why we’re walking around bumping into each other with hands in our pockets, trying to figure out and make sense of this world we live in—it’s basically what we do 95% of the time, just as conscious beings.
There is also this point after the Tsim Tsum happens, when, in this sort of desperate gesture, God takes these vessels and these garbs and he stuffs them with his light right before he goes into exile. But the garbs and vessels can’t hold his light, so they burst and shatter, and light is scattered across the world, across the land. We spend our whole lives picking up the pieces of this light and trying to put it back together to make something whole again. This is the Kabbalists’ idea of why we are fragmented, why we always feel a kind of disconnect, why we are always saturated in mystery and trauma. This is also the trauma of being born, being separated from your creator: the birthing process is stitched into this same narrative.
BWR: Is this why Walter B and Beatrice are always trying to define things?
SOM: Yes. The things they try to give meaning to are very basic things like where babies come from and what a thief is and what our purpose is—and the idea of a mistake having been made and needing to shoot it. All of that inability to distinguish between what is concrete and abstract, what is figurative and literal, is at the center of the Tsim Tsum dilemma.
BWR: In “Beatrice Takes a Lover,” Beatrice literally takes a lover, and then she literally takes a lover to a debacle, which you define as an astonishment. Why this particular play on words?
SOM: The idea of the idiom, the cliché, the dead language, “taking of the lover” — the purpose of clichés is a kind of shortcut, and so one doesn’t think about it being a physical thing. But it is. Ever since my early studying at Yeshiva, the word has been a kind of flesh. Idioms, therefore, have always been very physical to me. This is the case for most writers, I think. It’s all over Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for example, the figurative turning into the literal, where you have Alice drowning, almost, swimming through her own pool of tears. What I like to do is take language, like the “taking of the lover,” and pull the idiom through its imaginary landscape until a flesh and blood is made.
BWR: You begin Tsim Tsum with “Departure,” which seems to embody the whole stretch of the book and fittingly at its start.
SOM: In The Babies, there is “The Walter B Interview,” which is supposed to happen afterTsim Tsum happens. In that interview, Walter B and Beatrice are at the beginning of their end. They begin to depart from a particular landscape and into something else. When I was done with The Babies, it was a very broken landscape. It was shattered, emotionally and physically. “The Interview” leaves Walter B and Beatrice in an apocalyptic place, and I was heartbroken to leave them there. It felt like there were soldiers running around—I didn’t know what was happening, and it made me very sad. I would write a poem and be devastated.
Tsim Tsum comes after this. Repair comes after this. What I wanted to do was carry Walter B and Beatrice into a new world, which in Judaism is called a tikum: I decided to make for them this sort of restoration. I suddenly felt that the poems got much lighter—that out of the ashes you could build a world. In order to make a proper restoration, though, you have to take into account the brokenness that came before. You can’t just cover everything over and pretend nothing happened. The language needs to speak of the disaster: the restoration needs to sustain, in its bones, the echoes of the disaster. And so at the beginning of Tsim Tsum, there is that question, their problem, of not knowing what is real anymore.
There’s a poem in Tsim Tsum called “The Rooster” where it turns out that Walter B and Beatrice realize that repair comes next, and they freak out. They don’t know what repair is. They know that there’s a hospital nearby, and that maybe they could go to the hospital and ask what this thing is: repair. And they don’t. I think even for us, moving through the world, you wonder what it means to repair anything. What does it mean to repair a relationship? What does it mean to repair a TV? Do we throw it out and get a new one? Usually, we do. The architect, Daniel Libeskind, talks a lot about that, how you create these buildings, these architectures. (He’s done a lot of the Holocaust museums throughout Europe.) What does it mean to create a kind of architecture holding at its center the invisible while creating something visible? I think he was asked to do the plans for the World Trade Center rebuilding project. From what I understand, the idea is that when they rebuild the World Trade Center, there’s going to be pool, a body of water, some fountain or reflecting pool. With the new towers, you always have the reflection of them in the water as a kind of ghost to the old towers, so that you always remember what is no longer there. You always see the shadows, but only the shadows of the thing that once was but has fallen.
BWR: What comes next?
SOM: For a long time I was resisting the “I.” Someone said to me, “You know, I read all this work of yours, but I don’t know who you are. I have no idea who you are through your work,” which gave me a lot to think about. I started off with the “I” at the center of every poem, and it felt boring to me. But now I’m trying, not so much to return to the “I,” but to return to something that feels a little more here and now, a place that is the America where I am—where the smells are the smells I smell, not the smells I’m imagining I smell.
BWR: Do you feel your resistance to the “I” is a resistance to expose yourself?
SOM: No, I just think that in the things I’ve written lately, there is a kind of exposure I am still very uncomfortable with, and we’ll see how that goes. There are some instances in which I’m happy with my new work, but some pieces make my stomach turn. There are moments that seem more like an exposure than others. But then my feeling is that everything we write is autobiographical. Everything is autobiographical because it’s based on the way we absorb the world.
BWR: How is this new place taking shape?
SOM: I’m working on a collection of what I’m imagining as modern day fairy tales. I’m also working on a longer piece that is starting to feel novel-like called “The Grandmothers.” So, we’ll see.
BWR: Are any of the characters in those stories born in previous poetic editions?
SOM: No. They’re new lives.
BWR: When you share your work in progress, who do you share it with?
SOM: I don’t usually show anyone anything in progress. I’ll show my husband my work the minute I finish it and I feel that it’s done. I have a good friend, Kristen Iskandrian, who’s a fiction writer, and we exchange work.
BWR: What do you want your poetry to ultimately say?
SOM: I’m after many things. I’m very interested in the idea of empathy; I would want my work to move somebody in such a way where there is an intensification of empathy. I’m after a kind of humor. I’m after the idea of saying the worst thing you could possibly say, but I’m also after the idea of a kind of goodness. I want my poems to feel like good people, like the people you sort of believe in.
BWR: Do you define yourself as a craftsperson or an artist?
SOM: I’m in awe of craftspeople. I wish I could build something that would actually keep me warm in some way. This is a different kind of building, of course, but you could be both at the same time. I feel like many craftspeople are artists, and many artists, craftspeople. I’m not one for making that kind of distinction. And so right now, for me, I’m not sure. I don’t like to always know where I’m going; and that’s the best place to be.