R+P is happy to present our newest Safety Book Interview–with Sabrina Orah Mark–the lovely and talented first judge of Rescue’s Black Box Poetry Prize:
1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. In some other life I was probably the mouse who would occasionally scurry across Bruno S.’s desk while he wrote these stories. If there had been a mouse, which there probably was. If there had been a mouse and Bruno S. saw her/me I have to believe he would’ve been very generous with his cheese and fairy tales. I can’t be certain of this, but the mouse seems pretty sure.She wants you to know her name is Mouse. I love The Street of Crocodiles because it has at its center attics and birds and a school and a father who is part messiah part sunken ship, because the language is groggy and lusty and scorched like someone desperately trying to keep human while the world burns up around him, because it reads like a prayer that can’t fully wake up, because you have to believe me when I say I first knew these stories as a mouse, and by this I mean literally as a mouse but also I mean I knew these stories in that way you sometimes know something you never met before, before language was a given, and then one day you meet it and you become very, very shy but also you want to curl up in its lap and go to sleep forever.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
When The Babies was first published one of the reviewers wrote something about how I must be sleeping with Franz K. and Bruno S. under my pillow. Now I knew that first guy, although he was in no shape or form under my pillow (only guy under my pillow at the time was a bag of radishes), but that second guy I was sure I did not know, knew of him zilch I was certain, Bruno who I wondered, maybe he is nice I thought, maybe he won’t yell at me like Kafka yells, maybe he is warmer than my bag of radishes. So I bought a copy of The Street of Crocodiles and started reading and as I read I thought this seems vaguely familiar and so I checked my shelves and there he was already. There he was, sort of miffed, but blushing. I mean not only did I already own the book, but I once feasted on it. There were notes everywhere. Practically the whole book was deliriously underlined. There was no question the marks in it were mine, and yet I have no memory of the murder.
Some notes in the margins: “congregation of dreamers,” “August,” “see Gertrude Stein,” “the professor who keeps secrets,” “mythic time,” “hatch,” “father is rotting?”
Ten years earlier an old friend, Eli Rarey, had given me the book and inscribed in it: “for the perusal of your Genius. Love, Eli.” I certainly have no Genius (capitalized or not capitalized), but I did have a very good friend who gave me a book that I read and loved so much it was too unbearable so I needed to forget. So I forgot, but it got into my bones first as a so-called mouse and second as a twentyish human. Only after I published The Babies, years later, was I able to remember the whole dream.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Yes, with and without my knowing.
Bruno S. once wrote in a letter to his friend, the Polish writer, Witkiewicz: “I do not know how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us. They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense crystallizes for us… They are meanings that seem predestined for us, ready and waiting at the very entrance of our life… Such images constitute a program, establish our soul’s fixed fund of capital, which is allotted to us very early in the form of inklings and half-conscious feelings… These early images mark the boundaries of an artist’s creativity… He cannot now discover anything new; he learns only to understand more and more the secret entrusted to him at the beginning, and his art is a constant exegesis, a commentary on that single verse that was assigned to him. But art will never unravel that secret completely. The secret remains insoluble. The knot in which the soul was bound is no trick knot, coming apart with a tug at its end. On the contrary, it grows tighter and tighter. We work at it, untying, tracing the path of the string, seeking the end, and out of this manipulating comes art…”
In Athens, Georgia (where I’ve lived for about 8 years) there is beltway referred to as “the loop” that encircles the city. When I first moved here, before the splendiferous days of GPS, whenever I asked for directions I was told to get on the loop. Now where this loop exactly was and how exactly I should get on it I never was sure. How to get to the supermarket? Oh it’s easy, everyone would say, just get on the loop. Fact is, I didn’t get on the loop for the first three years I lived here. And the longer I didn’t get on the loop, the more mythological the loop became. The loop? The loop? I sort of loved it.
You are probably wondering now a) what does this loop have to do with anything and b) what’s my problem. This is the thing about me: once I get on the loop there is no getting off.
And that is what happened. One day I found the loop, accidentally. I found the loop and I got on it and I couldn’t get off. Believe me when I tell you I’m still on it. I’ll probably be on this loop forever, going around and around. A terrifying and gorgeous carousel ride. An eternal ring around the rosie. This is how I compose. There is a loop inside me, and I am always on it. Inner and outer. It’s what Bruno S. calls the “single verse.”
And this is my favorite part: the loop may be the same loop but the trees around it are always changing. Can’t ever figure those rascals out.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
This is from the story “Cinnamon Shops.”
“At last we stopped. I got out of the cab. The horse was panting, hanging its head. I hugged its head to my breast and saw that there were tears in its large eyes. I noticed a round black wound on its belly. ‘Why did not you tell me?’ I whispered, crying. ‘My dearest, I did it for you,” the horse said and became very small, like a wooden toy. I left him and felt wonderfully light and happy.”
I love how the boy’s syntax contorts because he is speaking to a horse: “Why did not you tell me.” And I love how the horse must contort (into a toy) because he speaks and he is a horse and a horse typically does not speak unless he has something very important to say. Important enough to risk his whole horse body.
There is a poem by Larry Levis called “Sensationalism” that references a photograph by Josef Koudelka (untitled, undated) of a man talking to a horse. For years I have kept this photograph taped to my desk, but I can’t remember who I knew first, Koudelka or Levis. In the photograph the man is talking very seriously to a horse. He is trying to explain something. At the end of the poem the man in the photograph turns into paper. And somewhere in the middle, the poem turns into a poem about a woman the speaker once loved: “Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her / My face altered & took on the shape of her face…and though / There was a kind of pain in her face, I felt no pain when this happened to mine, when the bones / Of my own face seemed to change…”
I hold talking animals (from mouse to horse) in the highest esteem, as I do stories and poems that have at their heart the idea that language has been given to us to give us over, ultimately, to something much more magical and dangerous than our first skins. And by skins I mean fur. Our first fur.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I will save my copy for my son. He is 8 weeks old. He loves shadows. I will send a new copy to anyone who sends me a drawing of a mouse. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bio: Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of two books of prose poems, The Babies (2004) and Tsim Tsum (2009), as well as the chapbook Walter B.’s Extraordinary Cousin Arrives for a Visit & Other Tales (2006). Her poems appear in many journals, most recently in The Believer, Harvard Review, Boston Review, and Conduit, and have been anthologized in Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century and Best American Poetry 2007. Her fiction recently appeared in the anthologies My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales and Poets on Teaching. She has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Glenn Schaeffer Foundation, and The National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches at The University of Georgia.