Peter Markus, Bird by Bird


In The Fish and the Not Fish (Dzanc Books), Trenton, Michigan-based writer Peter Markus takes us inside rustic river towns turned mythic through the eyes of childhood and the innovative use of language. We meet a boy called Bird, a teacher named Sir, a woman named Girl, and death, named Death. Together, they explore the change inherent when a fish dies by hook, when a boy turns Bird by inhabiting the tops of trees, and what happens when you leave the world you were born in, walking the only road out to the sea.

Inventive and inspired, Markus’ entire book is built solely of monosyllabic words. Out of this restriction, familiar nouns shape-shift into something between poetry and prose, both grounded and maverick. Here, words stack like solid things, building a new way of seeing and saying.

We spoke with Markus about the difference between a song and a story, how darkness can bring characters into a greater understanding of light, and what is up with all the mud.

SARAH HERRINGTON: I got about two lines in before this book begged to be read aloud. I’m curious how you enter a project. Is it through sound? Image? Is this a song or a story?

PETER MARKUS: I’m a failed musician, so yeah, everything I do aims to be a song. Through a sentence I hope to approach something close to singing. I hear words first, and that’s what pulls me in. I hear the word as sound—not to be confused with the thing that the words refer to—write it down, and then try to bring others into play. Play and sound are the main members of the band here. I hope the reader, if there is a reader, might wish to sing along.

HERRINGTON: You teach poetry to elementary school kids in Detroit through the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, and a lot of your narration is from the child’s point of view. How does working with children and their sense of language impact your own?

MARKUS: I think it was Gertrude Stein who said it best: “Children themselves are poetry.” All I really teach them is how to be who they already are. By doing so, they teach me how to be a child again.

HERRINGTON: Yes, I love their fresh way of seeing and telling things. I hear something similar even in your naming of characters, like Dog and Link and Who Know Who. What’s in a name?

MARKUS: If a character is named Boy or Girl or Jane they somehow live inside the given letters of those words. In each case, I just gave them a name, made up right there on the spot, or truth better told, they each told me what to name them. I always listen and trust what I hear, the voice inside my head.

HERRINGTON: So, it seems like you are a musician in the way you so carefully listen.

MARKUS: The stories that I write get told, made, or are born from what I hope is my close attention to the shapes, sounds, and acoustics of each sentence and word. I draft word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, so there is little revision to the whole once the sentences are laid into place. It sounds silly but that’s the only way I know how to make it work.

HERRINGTON: How does repetition work for you? Mud shows up a lot in your work, along with boy and sea and fish.

MARKUS: I know you can make a multitude of songs out of a few notes. So it must be true with words. I’ve made worlds out of nouns I love, like “mud,” “river,” and “brother” in my previous books. Now with this book my fingers and ears were drawn to “fish,” “bird,” “Jane,” and “Death,” among others. Out of the words themselves, the places grew.

HERRINGTON: Some of the places turn really dark, in a way that I love. One section that haunted me was the part about Dead Dog who managed to stay alive even after the violence in the main characters’ home and despite Death itself showing. Some of the tone reminded me of fairytales. Were you particularly influenced by them?

MARKUS: I wasn’t the kind of kid growing up who read fairytales. It wasn’t until much later in my life, when people who’d read my books started making connections to certain elements found in fairy tales, that I began to spend just a little bit of time with Grimms’ and other things. What I like about the association is that in fairytales invention is king, strangeness is queen, and pretty much anything can happen in the darkness of those woods.


MARKUS: Yes. As for the dark, my work has never not been dark, in the eyes of some people. In the stories from my other books about the brothers—We Make Mud, The Singing Fish, The Moon is a Lighthouse, Good, Brother—there the acts of violence like recurring beheadings, the nailing of hands into a backyard telephone pole covered with the heads of fish. The violence in these stories is merely temporary, not even worth a wince. The violence leads the characters into a better place, a new way of seeing and being in the world. I think that’s true in this new book, too.

HERRINGTON: I was pretty surprised by Death showing up the way it did, and I’m being vague so I don’t think that’s a spoiler. [laughs] How often are you surprised by your own work?

MARKUS: I am never not surprised by what comes out of the pencil, or out of the hands that are punching away at the keys. If there ever comes the day when I am not surprised by what I’m writing, that will be the day that I’m fishing in dead water.