A conversation with
Sabrina Orah Mark
& Nicolette Polek
Earlier this year, Sabrina Orah Mark, author of Wild Milk (Dorothy) and Nicolette Polek, author of Imaginary Museums (Soft Skull Press) corresponded over email to talk about their books. As writers who are both interested in the hidden world beneath the visible one, they ended up talking about working from an image, snowballs in the freezer, magnets, orienteering, secret terminals, and permanence.
Sabrina Orah Mark:
In your story "Love Language" a flight attendant announces that "we are passing over “'somewhere that should no longer be there.”' Reading you, I am so often inside that somewhere. A somewhere that shouldn't be, but is. How do you get there? I imagine when you go to the airport you sometimes find yourself in a secret terminal? You don't have to give it all away, but can you tell me whether that terminal goes by a letter or a number or is it a scent? Also, how do you get back home?
Also, if you drew an ancestral tree of influences what would it look like?
I think questions and focus is a good way to get to the secret terminal. It’s like, if you’re trying to find something, you’ll look for it in everything, and eventually you see people holding signs for it and the path starts to clear. But if you’re looking for revenge, power, things that other people have, 3,000 things to mask your pain, then you won’t notice the secret terminal when you pass it.
Once I sleepily typed "222" instead of "www" on my computer and pressed enter, expecting to be redirected to my email. Instead I was looking at a google search telling me that 222 means an angel is trying to give me a message. The distance between those two keys on a keyboard is so close, the size of like, an ant.
I recently enjoyed "FOREST (for a thousand years...)" by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. It's a sound piece at Glenstone; I walked into the woods and sat on a stump and there were many speakers positioned in the trees and on the ground, and suddenly I was surrounded by wind and war and hunters and falling branches. I like "illusion" that gets me to think about "truth." By the end of writing Imaginary Museums, I’d been inspired by the Ivan Passer film Intimate Lighting, Jana Beňová, Sheila Heti’s The Middle Stories, Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, theater sets, shipping ports, observing my parents and people I love…many things, I’m thinking of willow trees now, because someone I know was asked in a job interview “What tree would you choose to be, and why?” and without pause she answered willow trees, because they’re fast growers with extremely large root systems, and that their bark contains a natural form of aspirin. That’s probably somewhere in my ancestral tree of influences.
I think we have similar sensibilities, as it relates to asking the important question of what is real and what is not? You write about “sounds that sounded like a sound,” or words that are other words, and it being “difficult to get a good grasp of things.” Why aren’t things what they are, in your stories? I agree that they can't be. What is a thing that would truly be the thing it is?
On the hold shelves at the library there is another "Mark" who often checks out books about plants with words in the title like “secret”, and “sweetgrass,” and “wisdom,” and “roots.” Once I tried to check one out thinking I had requested a book about plants and forgotten. But the Mark who requested the book is not the same Mark as me. It is a different Mark. And so I was forbidden. But I can't shake the feeling I too need to read these books. Who is this "Mark?" I wonder. And what does it mean our names are the same and our books on the hold shelf lean against each other, like sleepy brothers, until we pick them up. I didn't know that willow bark could cure headaches. Had I checked out one of Mark's books I might've known this. But as I said, I was forbidden.
I love that your hand slipped on your keyboard and instead of one kind of message you got another. This might be now one of my top 5 favorite stories on earth. I think this is where our trees' roots tangle: I think we both write with the slip in mind. In "Thursdays at Waterhouse," you write: "They walk down a long hallway with many doors, and through one that opens into a soft gray room, like a pearl or a jail." God, I love this line so much because in barely a breath you slip from pearl to jail. Like from "222" to "www." Like from freedom to captivity. I think I often hold onto the tenuous for dear life. It is my permanence.
For a thing to be "truly" the thing it is, I think, means an eradication of the imagination, time, and roots. It snowed in Georgia last week. And my eight year old son, Noah, made a snowball and put it in the freezer. He wrapped it in a plastic bag. This morning I opened the freezer and saw it there. Just a snowball. Alone, I guess, since all the snow has melted. Surrounded by peas and waffles. I felt so sorry for it. Who would it be now that the storm was over and everyone, but strangers, was gone? Sometimes even saving something can be a form of destruction.
Do you think there is a thing that can be what it truly is? Would it be like a prayer?
Is there a way for you to encounter the other "Mark" even from afar? Perhaps there is more information on their hold slips. There's something forbidden about the other "Mark," but also something inviting. Even thinking of the word "mark" meaning symbol, or sign. I'm imagining the other "Mark" writing down the books you put on hold, while you notice theirs, and over time your books begin to resemble the interests of each others, until they truly become brothers on the shelf. I dream of things like this happening to me, a stranger turning into a long lost sibling.
I like that. Everything is slippery. The connection between what we do and what happens to us often seems illogical. We have free will to run around being the best or the worst of ourselves, but then there's something else fitting our actions into a larger plan that we're unaware of. As a result, our lives get pulled, like magnets, every so often. In stories, I think of this and use "invisible actors" to suggest larger plots beneath. In "Thursdays at Waterhouse," there's the invisible actor that messes with Laszlo by taking his clothes, perhaps to nudge him into quitting his bathhouse membership or to find his identity elsewhere. In that tension there are questions about morality and autonomy and that’s where I like my stories to be.
Yeah, a prayer is truly what it is, so is the thing underneath the prayer. I'm thinking of the part in the Bible (Mark 2) where Jesus forgives the stranger even though the stranger didn't verbally ask for his forgiveness. The sufferer's wordless yearning and helplessness, oriented towards God, was enough. I like what A.W. Tozer says, "Pray until you pray." Sometimes my heart isn't there and I have to start small "God, I'm sitting on a red couch... I'm distracted..."
My cousins in Slovakia do this thing as a family called "orienteering," which is like cross country running with a map and compass. The American website says "orienteering is a sport of navigation-- often in unfamiliar terrain." There are multiple possible paths, with stations, and everyone meets at the finish line. My aunt doesn't like to run, so she'll wander off in the woods and look for mushrooms, while her husband and sons complete the course. I wonder what the mental benefits are of engaging in a sport like that. Is writing, for you, a kind of orienteering, and if so, towards what?
I would like very much to wander off with your aunt and look for mushrooms.
Oh, I love this: "pray until you pray." It is not unlike, "write until you write." The other day, teaching workshop, it occurred to me that some internal narratives (like the needle of the compass) have magnets inside them that attract pieces of language that can form into stories and poems. And other narratives inside us don't attract language at all. They just sit there, quietly. Their hands in their laps. Staring at the moon. I taught my sons (6 & 8) how to make a compass. You take a sewing needle and rub it with a magnet in one direction until it too is a magnet. Then you slice a small piece of cork, and balance the needle on the cork in a glass of water. The needle will point north, or in the direction of a story trying to take hold. If you don't have a cork you can use a leaf or really anything that floats. One thing, Nicolette, I love so much about your stories is that I get the feeling often that some of your unmagnetized narratives attach themselves to the magnetized ones. Do they crawl into their soft pockets? Like beautiful hideaways that can slip through static? Like strangers who are forgiven without ever even asking for forgiveness. Wondering, "how did I get here?" It is like Annie in your story, "Imaginary Museums," who is advised by her painting instructor to visit the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Museum in New York, and she goes, but there is no museum. The museum never existed until Annie returns to her apartment where she curates and admires her own coldness. "She enjoyed," you write, "that feeling of being propelled forward, whether or not it was real." I think that's what I'm after too. But what I want propelled forward are those pieces of story that defy the science of story. The little unmagnetized pieces. The part of the cork in the water that drifts away.
This morning I pulled a stick out of my son's lunchbag that had some sort of industrial plastic thingamajigs on them. "Do you need this?" I asked. "Of course, I do," he answered. "I'm working on something." When he said that I realized it looked like a vertical line of cursive. The beginning to a story in a language I should learn. How do you begin? What are you working on now?
PS: The other (real?) Mark hasn't had any holds on the shelf in over a week. I am worried.
I love imagining the industrial plastic things. I took care of two sweet boys for the first half of 2019, and would find many small broken-off pieces of art projects left in my car. I also begin with pieces, mostly from observations I record in my notebook, and build outward. Ingmar Bergman worked this way, he talks about making Cries and Whispers in an interview and mentions: “For half a year... I just had a picture inside about three women walking around in a red room in white clothes, and I didn’t know why… I tried to throw it away; I tried to write it down; I tried to find out what they said to each other, because they whispered. And suddenly it came out that they were watching another woman who was dying in the next room. Then the screenplay started.”
I relate to that. I like looking at images and considering what happens around them: in the other rooms outside of view, or just before the moment it was captured. Do your images precede the worlds they belong to? Your stories give me so many images to feel at home in… milk, a sad pile of fur, baby teeth, a father who is like “a Greyhound bus in a sunlit parking lot,” “a thick little gray cloud, shaped like two hearts clumped together,” mice, hard boiled eggs, sweaters and clothes for disappearing in, black seahorses, a heap of actors. These images turn and shake and reappear. What is a book you’ve recently put on hold? Are you working on more fiction?
Right now I’m continuing to write small stories, a novel about Opera Houses and hermitage, and another project about faith and the underground church in 1980’s Slovakia.
The last book I put on hold was The Annotated Wizard of Oz because I’m working on an essay right now about having lived with a wizard when I was nineteen. It will be part of my collection-in-progress, Happily (essays on fairytales and motherhood), which actually grew out of the last piece of fiction I wrote which grew out of something real that happened. See this tangle I’m in? See how form bursts? I am excited about your Opera Houses and isolation and faith. A holy trinity.
I love this question: “Do your images precede the worlds they belong to?” I imagine a polite line of images in the early dawn waiting outside for a world to open. They are so patient. And their breathing is so soft.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections, The Babies & Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. For The Paris Review she writes a monthly column on fairytales and motherhood entitled HAPPILY. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia. You can read more about her at www.sabrinaorahmark.com
Nicolette Polek is the author of Imaginary Museums (Soft Skull Press) and the recipient of a 2019 Rona Jaffe Writers' Award. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Lithub, New York Tyrant, Muumuu House, and elsewhere.
Marker in the woods courtesy of Nicolette Polek
Film still from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers