Q: Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question?
A: Why shouldn’t they?
Reading Wild Milk (Dorothy, a publishing project, Oct. 2018), Sabrina Orah Mark’s new collection of short stories, I couldn’t get that joke above out of my mind. It’s not only because the stories themselves are infused with the Yiddish sensibility and domestic humor of the Borscht Belt comics, but also because all of these small tales are not so much told as they are posed. Beyond their narrative snap and ingenious conceits, Orah Mark’s stories—rich in language, synaptic leaps, and, yes, humor—resonate into the larger questions of our lives and, indeed, become an interrogation of our specific cultural moment. The questions in Wild Milk beget further questions, which in turn beget … well, you understand.
I was glad to speak to Orah Mark over the last few months about her new book, jokes, puzzling presidents, and how writing fiction is like eating a complicated sandwich.
The Millions: I read a blog post from 2017 in which you write about the frustration of attempting to sell a short story collection without “a commercially viable novel” alongside it. Can you talk about what happened between then and now, and specifically your experience with Dorothy a publishing project?
Sabrina Orah Mark: About two hours and 37 minutes after posting my “Notes on Rejection,” I received an email from Dorothy accepting Wild Milk. It was eerie and wonderful. At the end of my post, I wrote: “Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble. And he will swallow this pebble. And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly. And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly. That would make me happy. Even if I never know.” And as much as I believe Wild Milk still has the chance to one day turn into a magic pebble, I am so grateful Dorothy is giving it the opportunity to first be a book.
Arriving from the Land of Poets, the phrase “commercially viable” was a strange-sounding cough I’d hear and cringe and back away from. I mean, I get it. We need to eat. But it’s boring and depressing to imagine my stories wandering around with price tags around their necks. I heard over and over again: “We love it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” As if Wild Milk was an odd child, growing older and older in the living room, eating snacks and studying a dying language. “This one,” I imagine a mother might say, “is a miracle going nowhere.”
But Dorothy knocked. Dorothy said, “Come with us.”
TM: In the same post from 2017, you talk about a story from Wild Milk called “For the Safety of Our Country,” relating it to a question you got from your son’s school principal about how the current state of our country has affected your surrealism. Has it?
SOM: The current state of our country has pierced a hole through my surrealism, and when I look through the hole I can now see my own face staring back at me. Problem is, the face staring back at me now has a hole through its forehead. Whether this hole is for planting or just an abyss I’m not at liberty to say. What I can say is that these days I’m writing from less of a distance. My first collection of poems, The Babies, was haunted by the Shoah. By something that seemed to be over, and far away. Wild Milk knows the present is thick with the past, and has seen what’s Impossible suddenly holding Possible’s soft hand. Sharing its water. Reflecting its face. Speaking its language. Sleeping in its bed.
TM: In that story, a whole new batch of presidents enters the White House. There are thirsty presidents, humming presidents, beautiful presidents, see-through presidents, presidents with faces as blank as almonds. It’s a riot of a story, but I feel like one can’t even say the word “president” anymore without invoking anxiety, heartache, anger, etc. Inherent in the principal’s question is the assumption that the state of things will change the stories we write, but I’m interested in the flip side of that question: how you think the stories we tell might change the state of things, specifically thinking about a story like “For the Safety of Our Country,” which, while it’s a comic gem, I also see as a creature with a defiant sword thrust into the air, a little hero. What might it do?
SOM: Oh, thank you. I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions and use their points to puncture the status quo, we risk everything that is worth being human about.
TM: I’ve heard your stories described as fiction with the hearts of poems, and there’s certainly a sneaky subversive quality to these, an interruption and maybe even a corruption of narrative. But another form I can’t help thinking of is the joke, a form you also seem to be subverting throughout this collection. Jokes often set disparate elements (Mr. Horowitz and his bag of dried apricots in “The Very Nervous Family”; a maid and a collection of snails in “The Maid, The Mother, the Snail & I”) on a course for collision, which becomes the punchline. You often begin along those lines, laying out the elements and establishing trajectories, but most of these stories don’t “wind up” in the way we might expect from a joke or even from micro-narratives. Of course, this, too, is a sort of tension, the way we’ll follow two parallel lines to where they seem to meet on the horizon, but it isn’t what we generally expect from a joke. Were you thinking a lot about jokes as you wrote these stories?
SOM: No one in my family laughs out loud. When my mother and I, for example, are laughing, it’s this gigantic, breathless silence punctuated by sucking gasps. My son Noah says I laugh like Marge Simpson. To an onlooker, I imagine it’s an ugly scene. But inside, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to something I can only describe as a beautiful truth. A good joke should take the breath away. I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny.
TM: I also kept thinking of Jewish jokes, the kind my Uncle Larry used to tell at every gathering, where the punchlines are often less of a relief of tension than an acknowledgement that the state of suffering will continue, is endless; and also an acknowledgement of the fact that Judaism is built around questions, not answers. I’m wondering where you see the stories in Wild Milk fitting into this comedic tradition?
SOM: As a child, I studied Talmud and one thing I was taught to understand is that there is no answer, or if there is an answer the answer is marked with an answerless-ness so vast it’s reminiscent of that place in laughter where you can hardly breathe. A good punchline leaves you off at a stop you never imagined existed. The end, in other words, is just the beginning. And whether you’ll be able to find your way home is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s one essential key to Jewish humor: It gives us this breathlessness—this ha ha holocaust—of a wanderer, of a woman laughing and laughing, doubled over, and crying stop I can’t breathe.
TM: Do you have a favorite joke?
SOM: Here’s one of my favorite jokes. It’s in the last story of my collection. So one old man says to another, what’s red, hangs from a wall, and whistles? I don’t know, what? A herring. But a herring isn’t red. OK, so you paint it red! But a herring doesn’t hang from a wall. OK, so you get a nail and a hammer and you nail it to the wall! But a herring doesn’t whistle. OK! So it doesn’t whistle!
I love this joke because it’s a joke that seems to wonder mid-self what it is, what it is even doing here. Is it a joke, or has it veered off in the direction of another form, like the herring which is and isn’t the punchline to a joke it too has found itself lost inside? This is my relationship to story and to poem, too. I like my stories to discover halfway through they have the heart of poem, or maybe even the lungs of a prayer, or maybe even the eyes of a very, very old animal, or the hat of a missing boy.
Here’s a joke my son told me this morning: Why was the broom late for school? Because it overswept. What’s even better than a great joke is a simple joke told by a little kid because inside the telling is the realization that language can get slippery, dislodge a whole world, turn a broom human-like and late for school. It is like in Waiting for Godot when Vladimir and Estragon find a hat (“now our troubles are over!”) and swap it with their own like jugglers. The hat they find looks as similar to their own hats as overslept looks to overswept. I love that Beckett scene with all my heart because you can feel Vladimir and Estragon trying to know (through the hat) the unknowable parts of themselves, as if wearing a hat that could so easily be mistaken for your own but is not your own hat could shift your perspective ever so slightly so that what keeps not appearing (inside and outside yourself) might suddenly appear.
TM: I want to halt the proceedings, just for a moment. Inspired by the stories in Wild Milk, I’d like to present an interview-inside-an-interview in the form of interrogatives. Answer these however you see fit.
SOM: They had come into our home and rearranged all the furniture. What other choice did we have?
SOM: Edith, Edith, and Edith.
SOM: The year August never turned into September, and just stayed August for 30 extra days.
SOM: Father’s house. On the corner of Orange and Old.
SOM: We waited three months until it began to snow and then we used the snow.
TM: Thank you! OK, back to the previously scheduled programming. Two-pronged question: Are there other writers primarily identified as poets who have written or are writing fiction that you’re following these days? And are there writers of micro-narratives/flash who you’re interested in?
SOM: When I first read Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I thought holy God, because it’s a novel but also it’s a poem but also it’s a wail but also it’s a prayer but also it’s a transcription of two boys’ hearts missing their dead mother, but also it’s the impossible translation of Crow who is grief.
I love poets who trap themselves in unpoetic spaces, like Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, like let’s see what the poet looks like under florescent lighting opening a packet of ketchup. I love contrast and unlikely spaces. At the heart of the Surrealists is this simile: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Comte de Lautréamont), and I guess it’s a simile at the center of me, too.
James Allen Hall and Rachel Zucker and Jenny Boully and Maggie Nelson and Anne Boyer and Carmen Gimenez Smith are some of my favorite poets writing not fiction exactly but really gorgeous, poem-marked prose.
I’m waiting for Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (forthcoming from Catapult), which sounds like a magnificent collision of tears/forms.
TM: A teacher of mine once described micro or flash fiction as stories which contained something that burns really brightly but, by their nature, burns quickly. Your stories are full of what I’d call “image germs” (the lice in “Spells”; the drawing of a mouse in “The Stepmother”) that align with this idea, but there’s also something “slow” contained in them. I don’t always see these “burning” as much as I see them rippling or refracting the way that longer stories or even novels do. I’m wondering, now that you’ve begun writing fiction, if you’re thinking about writing a novel, and if so what that might resemble?
SOM: When I write fiction, I feel like I’m slowly sneaking up on myself in the middle of a cafeteria, and there I am (a poet) quietly eating a terrible and complicated sandwich, and I am like hello, and she (who is me) is like hello, and eventually The Napkin Lady will come by and ask, “Would you like a napkin,” and we will both say yes. We will both say thank you (we’re both polite). I will watch her (poet) eat her terrible and complicated sandwich for a long time. I’ll watch her for practically a whole month to tell you the truth. If I’m patient enough and lucky she’ll give me a bite. Sometimes even an idea or two. Neither one of us will ever use the napkin.
When I write poems I feel like I’m bursting into flames. As a mother of small children, it has become harder and harder to burst into flames. And so right now I’m sticking to the “slow” (as you so beautifully put it) “refraction.”
I will say this, though—there is for me something much, much more dangerous writing fiction. Maybe because for me it’s a radical departure from a form that once kept me very safe (the prose poem). I often think of my stories as what happens after the bottom of a prose poem drops out. It’s like I think I’m standing on solid ground, but no, it’s a gigantic, gaping hole, and in the hole is my whole family and everybody is hungry. And all I have is one bite of the terrible and complicated sandwich. And I’ve already swallowed it. So I better start making something out of nothing and fast. Something to feed everyone I’ve ever loved. Chances are, when it’s over, everyone will be mad at me.
If I ever write a novel it will probably be called The Grandmothers. Some of it is already written.
TM: When I first read the story “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This Is What Happened” in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of modern fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I started laughing at the title and didn’t really stop except to gulp, here and there, at how poignantly you get at sibling and family dynamics. I’m hoping you’ll take me through the writing of this story, talk a little about its genesis and how you wrote your way to its end.
SOM: Oh wow, you’re asking me for the only secret I have left. What I will give away, though, is that you really can get pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can.
The stories in Sabrina Orah Mark’s newest collection, Wild Milk, are as careful, diamond-sharp, and surprising as the narrative poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Dorothy, a publishing project, which is committed to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women,” has, for nearly 10 years, proven an ally to genre-bending writing. Mark’s book is on a par with the best work they’ve put out, such as Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories and Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest.
By turns absurd, fantastic, and autobiographical, these stories—all living in the exciting space between the traditional short story and the prose poem—build upon the world Mark has been constructing for 15 years, starting with The Babies (2004) and Tsim Tsum (2009). Within a single story, the register will shift with breathtaking speed from a fairy tale or Hasidic folktale to a Beckett play and then, in the blink of an eye, to the fiery candor of confessional poetry. At one moment you’re arrested by Mark’s wit, her penchant for puns and malaprops, and the next you’re soaring into the visionary territory of mystic literature. As in “Tweet,” when “following the Rabbi” on Twitter transforms into an actual ritual procession, the metaphorical becomes literal and the literal becomes metaphorical, much like Kafka’s play on Ungeziefer in The Metamorphosis.
First and foremost, however, this collection is about family and its various hoods—motherhood, step-motherhood, daughterhood, sisterhood, childhood, fatherhood, grandfatherhood, grandmotherhood, et al. Each of these roles is shot through with joys and obsessions and is taxonomically open, in that the roles shift and blur when emotional (or imaginative) pressure is applied. The narrator’s personas circle around an array of family members, such as the incorrigible brother Gary, a husband named Poems or Louis C.K., a usurping Sister, sons who metamorphose into daughters, a stepchild named Ugrit, a father shrinking (quite literally) before the specter of a pogrom, imaginations of mothers like Hillary Clinton and Diana Ross, and literary parents such as Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein.
Although Wild Milk is much more than the sum of its parts, a collage of lines from the stories “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” “Mother at the Dentist,” “For the Safety of Our Country,” “Spells,” “The Maid, the Mother, the Snail, & I,” and “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” can provide a small window into Mark’s unique world: “Poems cries so hard a cloud bursts, and children spill out”; “A man can only wait for his wife at the dentist for so long until he wanders outside to buy a newspaper and never returns”; “Under his left eye appears to be a small patch of moss where a flower could grow if only he believed in himself a little more”; “I dream my sons return to me, floating through the kitchen with bundles of wood”; “I read somewhere that some Jews escaped Poland by hiding in coffins”; and my absolute favorite: “With a stone in his hand, Mendelssohn reaches all the way into the bucket, past the hole, past god, and summer, and almonds, and shame, and the ocean, and mice, and love, and fevers, and worship, and snails, and teeth, and lilac, and forgiveness, and a song about a bucket with a hole in it, and past all the children singing the song, and past their children singing it, and their children’s children, and past my broken heart until he reaches the oldest water and wets the stone.”
To read a Mark story is a beautiful spectacle, to experience a wonderfully choreographed tightrope performance. But it’s a melancholy performance, too, since none of her characters are expert funambulists. They are nervous, tender, cruel, funny, and messy human (and sometimes nonhuman) beings.
Wild Milk is not fantasy untethered to our historical moment. The social commentary is cutting, sometimes on the nose and at others skillfully oblique: Mark’s narrators are bruised by an economy that doesn’t properly value teaching and creative writing, in which a patriarchal boy’s club (represented by “Donald … the man none of us will ever be”) presides over a moribund academic job market; the current presidential tragedy is given its day in court; age-old anxieties about miscegenation are addressed with bitter irony when Grandpa—who cannot escape his own legacy of persecution—grudges the narrator’s marriage to a black man; and the unabated ripple effects of the Holocaust are still felt powerfully by her Jewish characters in their inner and outer lives.
In short, Wild Milk is original and unforgettable—without a doubt my favorite book of 2018.