First Verse: David Koehn and Sally Wen Mao

First Verse is a series of conversations between David Koehn and another poet who has recently had a first book accepted or won a first book prize. These conversations navigate the process and experience of conceiving, developing, and bringing a first manuscript to its final form as a finished book.



SallyMao-1248Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award and a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Pick of Fall 2014. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013 and is forthcoming or published in Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, jubilat, The Missouri Review, and Washington Square, among others. A Kundiman fellow, she holds an M.F.A. from Cornell University, where she was a lecturer in creative writing and composition. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches in the Asian American Studies department at Hunter College.






imageDavid’s poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks, Tunic, (speCt! books 2013) a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska, 1998), winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David’s first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the May Sarton Poetry Prize. David’s poetry has appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, Carolina Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram and many others. David Koehn received his MFA from the University of Florida, Bachelors from Carnegie Mellon, is an essayist for OmniVerse, and Chair of Omnidawn’s Advisory Board.







David Koehn: So, we’re here with you and Mad Honey Symposium.

Sally Wen Mao: Oh yes, that’s me [laughs].

David Koehn: And you can see all my, all my dog ears on the side, so — one of the questions I wanted to ask you, now here’s this book, this Mad Honey Symposium, and for those who might not know, mad honey is a food item, honey, that’s been — has — I think there’s spores or has been infused with pollen from rhododendrons or flowers like rhododendrons, and it catalyzes into a drug, if you will, in the honey, and this mad honey causes physical reactions.

Sally Wen Mao: Yes, yes. The honey is made from rhododendron. When you consume the honey, you get intoxicated. If you ingest enough, you would start hallucinating and vomiting. There’s all kinds of side effects.

David Koehn: There was also a side effect, or a theoretical side effect of being more passionate as well, is that correct?

Sally Wen Mao: Mad honey is a rumored aphrodisiac. In the study I read about the couple who ingested mad honey to revive their love life, they were listening to the advice of a shaman. So mad honey has a mythical quality — perhaps some magical elixir quality. But it’s not an elixir. It will fuck you up.

David Koehn: [laughs] yeah.  And it may be the source of the myth of the nectar of the gods or something like that.  But apparently, heart failure, and intense sweats, and feelings of paralysis, strange and perhaps not great.  So my question, of course, is then have you tried mad honey?

Sally Wen Mao: Oh, absolutely not.  I’d be kind of curious if someone offered a spoonful to me. I probably would have to try it.  I mean, I wrote this thing.  But I can tell you the origin story of how I came to mad honey.  And that is kind of interesting.

So I was working on a manuscript in 2012, and I had a lot of poems about honey badgers, but I didn’t think that this project I was working on was anywhere near what it should be, it didn’t feel complete to me. And so, it was actually a few things that led me to mad honey, which I recognized later, was kind of the missing puzzle piece in the collection.

I was hanging out with some friends from Carnegie Mellon at AWP in Chicago that year.  At CMU, throughout my undergrad life at CMU, they had these field trips to AWP.  So to me, AWP was just an opportunity to just have fun and go crazy with your friends.  This year was special because I had been away at Cornell, and I didn’t see my friends from Carnegie Mellon that often, so that year was kind of a reunion for us. So on Sunday night after everyone at the bookfair had packed their things and left, we just wandered around the book fair looking for junk.  And usually in years past, we found entire boxes full of books that people just left there. We didn’t find that many books, but what we did find was this plant.  It was sitting right next to the trashcan, and it was this beautiful azalea tree in a pot, with flowers, pink petals, very lovely.

We rescued the azalea, and brought it back to our friends. And my whole group of friends, we’re a little odd.  So we brought it back to our other friends, and they got so excited, they just flipped out.  The AWP dance party was starting up, and my friends were so excited they started eating the azalea flowers. They started plucking the petals out and eating them. We didn’t question it.  We just said, oh okay, that’s what we’re doing. People were staring at us.  There was this woman who was shaking her head at us, judging.  But then by the end of it, like, she was down on the floor with us just like, eating the flowers.  It was just crazy.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, the azalea eaters.

So we brought this houseplant to the club with us, and we danced with it, and we got free drinks because of it, it was a really great night.

David Koehn: So, from the azalea to mad honey?

Sally Wen Mao: Yes, yes.  In this obsessive research I found that there’s actually a honey that is made from azaleas and rhododendron, and that is mad honey.  So I then caught onto this idea of mad honey, a poisonous honey.  Ancient Greek texts describe the effects of mad honey, but in this very poetic way. Xenophon was a philosopher friend of Socrates, and he had written many different texts, including a text called Symposium, which is essentially just an exchange between him and Socrates.

David Koehn: I mean, from Xenophon, and the medical stories, and the sort of contemporary mixed with this — like, you talked about this nectar that is both mythic, mythic poetic, but also kind of deadly.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: And it — well, number one, I wanted to thank you for eating the azalea because it led us to this —

Sally Wen Mao: [laughs] well, I should thank my friend Allison who did it first.

David Koehn: [laughs], which has led us to this —

Sally Wen Mao: Or I wouldn’t have thought of it.  There were a lot of kind of these windfalls that led me to mad honey.  I really would describe them as windfalls because when I ate the azalea, that was the first windfall.  And then, I mean, it was a very potentially dangerous windfall. But later, I remember, I had already known about mad honey, and I was just walking in Cornell’s science library. Sometimes I would look for titles that interest me because the sciences, plant life, animal life — there’s just such a rich treasury of things that poets can use.

So I found a book, and I was just attracted to its title.  Its title was Plant Hunter’s Paradise. I thought oh, that’s an interesting title.  I opened the book, and in the book there was a description of this honey that was getting these people sick.  And here’s the crazy, wild thing is that —

David Koehn: So this led to Mad Honey number 6, correct?

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.  Yeah. So the book turned out to be written by this botanist, Frank Kingdom Ward, who was a rhododendron specialist.  And that was a complete coincidence. I took this book because I was interested in its title.  I had no idea that it held this entire saga of Kingdom Ward just journeying through southwest China toward Tibet, looking for rhododendrons.

I was looking at several passages in this book where there was this honey being offered by the locals, and whenever Kingdom Ward and his companions ate the honey, they would get really sick.  And then Kingdom Ward actually cited the he cited Xenophon, and the kind of ancient Greek texts about the mad honey.

This was in the 1920s, 1930s.  So it kind of unearthed this new geography of mad honey because in the ancient texts, and even the medical study that I found, all pointed mad honey to the region around the Black Sea, Turkey, but in this text, the mad honey exists in parts of Asia.

David Koehn: So this F.  Kingdom Ward text, and its stories of mad honey in Asia.  You found something in it to connect to, I take. And that —

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: And there’s something allegorical or maybe not allegorical, but elusive in that botany story that you were able to mine.

Sally Wen Mao: And to me, there was also something that shocked me about that book — the descriptions of the locals, oh my god, they were so terrible.  They were described as ugly, boorish, primitive. This text was — in a sense, also about colonialism. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of colonialism and science.

David Koehn: Did that colonial text or that exploration of that colonial text by Kingdom Ward trigger Yellow Fever in any way?

Sally Wen Mao: Oh, no. Yellow Fever was completely different —

David Koehn: Okay.

Sally Wen Mao: Some of these poems I’ve written recently in graduate school. And some of them I wrote before that.  And Yellow Fever is a poem I wrote before that because it’s kind of a more contemporary frustration.  Like, Yellow Fever is a slang that is used in pop culture now, you know, in recent years.

David Koehn: That’s fair.  That’s fair.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: So, that is a creation story.  And I think that’s incredibly compelling on a couple levels.  One is that you had been working in a trope with these honey badgers that are both talked about, and then un-talked about in your palinode where you disclaim these honey badgers, and then these bees that are throughout the function of the hive, and the queen.

And then, as you were working with those poems, there was an emergent of this serendipity that the prospect of chance —

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: — that — of randomness, sort of attaching itself to the intentional.  And the fact that you were simply in the open field, and the azalea showed up randomly, and danced with you at a night club, and didn’t kill you, which is nice, we’re really grateful for that.  And that the azalea transferred itself into a more sort of — I don’t know if academic is the right word.  But into a research project, that led you into another step of serendipity.  And so these prospects of chance are kind of an interesting back story to the book.

Because I think that maybe some of our assumptions about the construction of our first books is that somehow it’s all preplanned or what we intend is what it will be.  And —

Sally Wen Mao: No, I think that’s a pretty false assumption.

David Koehn: [laughs]

Sally Wen Mao: Most cases, I don’t know anyone who plans.  As a poet, you have to believe in the beauty of chance, right?

David Koehn: So I thought that was fantastic.  So with this great creation story about mad honey, and in particular, the — perhaps some of the history behind the azalea eaters, would you read us a part of the Azalea Eaters?

Sally Wen Mao: Okay, sure.

David Koehn: Do you want to do the whole thing?  Or is there a particular section that you are fond of that you think will dovetail with some of the conversation we’ve had?

Sally Wen Mao: Well, if you want me to read the whole thing, I can read it.

David Koehn: Let’s do it.

Sally Wen Mao:

The Azalea Eaters
Daehongdan County, North Korea, 2008

Mother begs us not to eat the flowers.
We scrape the pots for blubber. Fat
scalds our dreams, broils our sweat.

            Softly, azaleas kill our hunger.
            Because we believe in pink spadix,
            the fragrance pollinates our tongues.

Before the farmers bulldoze them,
we smuggle fistfuls into our knapsacks.
Now we are sick but only as sick

            as the river that fed us golden tadpoles.
            The river is a gutted diorama: the dire
            wolf, awakening, spits out teeth and fur.

                                     * * *
In our retching, we summon the aphids.
We enter the malnutritive night.
            Stag beetles and horntails

swarm the wax leaves, calm
            the poisons in our too-hot
            cotton mouths.

In our fevers, we summon summer.
            Weevils swim the length of lake. Toads
                          tease us with their fat slime.

No water makes us believe we have gills.
            Frogs hatch from fuzz. We pity their birth.

                                     * * *
It’s the eleventh season of hunger. Ding dong,
            belts the frog in the muck. Ding dong,
            sings the salamander.

                          Fetal and feral, we curl
            in our beds.
                          Fetal and feral, we drink
            in the dusk,
                          hands damp with loam. Old cures
            for sadness
                          don’t work anymore—

                                     * * *
            ailing, we lean against the window,
            mother’s ailanthus,
                          & mother, panicked,
            wilt on the sill. We grow red welts.

We ask her will we grow red whiskers.
            We ask her will we grow red feathers.

                          She covers our mouths,
            breathes hush hush. How will we fall asleep
now that the skink has grown a new tail?

                                     * * *
We’ve eaten toad, weevil, roe. We’d eat a houseplant
or your pet. We’ve kissed poison flowers and retched
it all but we’re hungry still. In the forest we pantomime

guns with our hands. Bang, bang: let’s kill the deer, drag
it by its hooves to the fire pit. Gather its juices, grease

the grasses. Hunger strikes—our teeth, our laughter—
we’ll eat & eat & eat: It’s our rebellion and our disaster.

David Koehn: Intense, as always.  Yeah.  There’s a stance throughout the book that I think is vivid — that distinguishes you.  It’s not only image, or metaphor, or trope, it’s also a way of attacking the language that seems intense, I think was the word I used. And attack might not be the right word, but there’s an intensity to the way you compress syntax.  The way you bump syllables up against each other.

Is that something that you’re aware of?  Or not?

Sally Wen Mao: Language is my first love.  It’s just the sound mixed with an image, there’s a certain pleasure to it.

David Koehn: Yeah.  In your work, I sense that there’s these — there’s the frame, and then there’s the reframe within — just by twisting syntax within just a small stanza.  But there’s also the — you use the like the mini-litany as well where the suggestion, the suggestion, the suggestion. And of course, without going too far and actually completing the suggestion at times.  And those are really attractive, and sort of qualities, if you will.

But very quickly, flashing back to the Azalea Eaters, that is the poem that we were sort of making an assumption was sort of generated by our poor azalea plant, which was consumed by poets.  But that is in section 2 of a four-section book.  Maybe — and also alluding back to Terrance’s work with you, and first thinking through what it means to put a collection together.

In your mind, sort of how did you get to and arrive at these four sections?  Was it sort of a quartet mentality?  Or kind of how did the frame emerge, these four section emerge for you?  And did it start out in other shapes?

Sally Wen Mao: Oh, absolutely.  I had a completely different manuscript at any given time of that year.  I definitely submitted other versions of this manuscript that were not ready at all.
Because I was on my crazy zombie submitting mode.

After Alice James took the book, I continued to rearrange it. The first section set some of the themes.  The second section developed on those themes.  The third section broke those themes. The fourth–

David Koehn: Well, no.  What I noticed in the fourth section was, it was sort of a — it it was kind of a return, when you undo or being undone, that was something I sensed.  It was almost like a different kind of allowance in the tone.  There was a softness that emerged that was part of the undoing.  There was a distancing that occurred that was part of undoing.

Sally Wen Mao: Mm-hmm.

David Koehn: I mean, I was thinking about the Haibun, actually.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: The Haibun for Thawing, as being representative of both of those ideas.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: Of undoing, of a kind of changing tone, of a kind of distance, but also no loss of connection.

Sally Wen Mao: Mm-hmm.

David Koehn: It’s almost like a space was developing at the end of the book, allowing for a little bit more breathing room.  And yet, there’s no loss of what I called intensity, or no loss of connection.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: And Haibun for Thawing is also — it’s going to sound wrong, but it’s kind in a way that some of the other parts of the book don’t allow themselves to be.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.  Your reading of Haibun for Thawing is really interesting because I think that a lot of the book is about this need for strength that one doesn’t have.  One feels vulnerable.  Like, to me, that’s like what the honey badger represents.  The honey badger represents this creature that is all armor, and all strength, and that is its image in the world. But it’s not immune to bee stings, it’s not immune to the venom of the snakes…

David Koehn: A thick skin is still a dermis, or something like that.

Sally Wen Mao: Like a membrane, yes.  Yeah.  So a lot of the poems are about trying to survive emotionally, and finding some kind of strength, even though you’re weak, you’re vulnerable. That’s why a lot of it is about navigating it, that paradox.

David Koehn: So will you read us Haibun for Thawing just to sort of close out on that —

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: — conversation piece in this section four, which is this fourth section in a book, that like you said, is developed these themes of mad honey, of the honey badger.  Of our ninja girl, of poison, if you will.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.  And to me, like Haibun for Thawing and some of the other omens you know, of this admittance for desire, this like, moment where you want to just like, admit to someone that you have — you’re human, you desire and you long for things. And I feel like so much of this world is about hiding that.  So much of this navigating this world, especially as a young person today, I feel like is about hiding our emotions, hiding our sense of vulnerability, hiding our desire to connect with other people.

So I don’t want to lecture on like, what the poem is about. But here, I’ll just read it.

Haibun for Thawing

I long for an immigrant in my bed. One who is unafraid of knots. One who will arrive with hail on his eyelash. One whose memories are muddy as mine. One who feels the dirt in his marrow. One who guesses the words of his own father’s dialects. One whose skin leaps to touch mine. One who follows the floodlights north to me. One who discovers a hideaway, crouching with his palm above his throat where it’s warmest. One who trespasses arboretums soaked in manic light. I long to measure his body by its immateriality. Its ability to seep through borders. Someone formed from a womb of passage. Together we will incubate: one sleep, one tic, one uncombed head.

Too far from winter,
The distance to each face grows.
Quiet, said my wish.

David Koehn: That’s the way to end a poem.

Sally Wen Mao: Thank you.

David Koehn: So we’ve talked a little bit about kind of how the manuscript came together.  These movements and some of these key themes, the creation story is just fantastic.  And then, of course, in the structure of this book, how there’s sort of an argument built, and then an argument undone, which is I think smart, and a really actually mature idea where in a lot of first books, there’s only the argument built without the sort of acceptance of anything of the argument being invalid in some way.

And so this sort of acceptance of culpability is, I think, a strong part of the close-off of the manuscript.  But you said you were in a sort of a flurry of submission, sometimes it was ready, sometimes it wasn’t.  Are you submitting pretty much everywhere at this point?  Or just to a couple of places?

Sally Wen Mao: At the beginning of 2012, I had gone through a couple of difficult years trying to transition to grad school.  And I just made a pact with myself.  I made a pact with myself that I needed to write this thing because that’s what I came here to do.  I needed to write something.

I couldn’t let all the bullshit destroy me.  So I made a pact to myself is that I’m going to complete something.  It doesn’t matter if I finish it or whatever, I’m just going to start submitting it.  I just kept doing it as a routine.  I was like, oh, some kind of pipe dream, like, oh, I’ll just keep doing this, it doesn’t matter.  I don’t know.  When Alice James called me with the news, I was absolutely not ready for it.  I remembered I was on a bus from Ithaca to New York, and I got this phone call from Alice James saying that they picked the manuscript.

And I just remember being completely thrilled on one part of my brain, but the other part of my brain is thinking what?  Wait, wait a minute.  So what’s going to happen?  I thought it was not really done.  So a lot of writers say “oh, I have to get it absolutely perfect before I submit it”, but I say keep some of that roughness.

Maybe that’s terrible advice, but that roughness is what often makes a manuscript more charming.  Because when you have a perfectly polished manuscript, sometimes that polish might go against its ability to resonate.

I appreciate rawness and roughness to a certain degree in a manuscript.  I don’t know, I feel like I’m overtly suspicious of perfection, and–

David Koehn: Yeah.  So there’s — I think what I’m hearing is this, that some of the wildness in what you were doing, which is just — as a matter of process, I’m building my manuscript, and as part of my process, I’m submitting and sending it out because that’s what I want to have happen with it, and there’s a — again, there’s this sense of chance, and of serendipity, and also of like the rawness itself is part of the energy in the book, and if — some of that can be lost if you sit on it too long, if it gets too stayed, and it all feels too tidy, then the editors kind of sense like, yes, it’s good, it’s done, but it’s so tidy already, maybe the press would want something a bit livelier.

Sally Wen Mao: I did do some research.

David Koehn: What were those presses?  I mean, just because I know lots of poets that are really appreciative of your work, that I’ve turned them onto your work, as a matter of fact.

Sally Wen Mao: Oh, wow.

David Koehn: Who are of like mind that — what do you say, there are some presses that you looked at that you thought might be a good fit.  If you could name some of those, I think that would jive with some of the folks that would be interested in hearing what those are.

Sally Wen Mao: Oh yeah.  I was looking at presses that didn’t have a specific kind of aesthetic preference.  Because I don’t consider my work to be to very traditional narrative, and I don’t consider it to be really, really — like the opposite, the opposite end of the spectrum, either.

David Koehn: It’s not post structural language poetry.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.  So, I looked for presses that published kind of a wide range of authors.  Alice James definitely fit the bill in that regard. I actually also looked at Omnidawn, and a bunch of first book prizes.  And Four Way Books is another press that I think is publishing really great work.  I looked at some of the smaller presses that I really admired, too, like Kaya Press, a great little Indy press focused on the Asian Diaspora. I think their books are really beautiful.

McSweeney’s was another one I looked at.  They’re a very small team, and their books are so beautiful, design-wise.

David Koehn: Yeah.  I was so sad when McSweeney’s sestinas stopped doing its thing.  I don’t remember if you –so I had published two — I was, I think, the only poet or — maybe one other poet had published multiple sestinas with McSweeney sestinas.  I was like, oh my god, who’s going to take a sestina anymore?  But McSweeney’s Sestina is — it was a great project, and then it went away.  And then they didn’t do poetry for four years, five years.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: So we’re coming up to the closing of our hour.  So I have sort of two comments.  One is, the book is beautiful.  What was the — did you pick the cover?  Did they pick the cover? How did the emergence of the cover happen?

Sally Wen Mao: Alice James asked for 10 to 15 works of art that I wouldn’t mind using as the cover. So I sent them 10 pieces by artists I found on the Internet. Angie Wong was one of them. I realized that she did some artwork for Hyphen Magazine, which is a Asian-American magazine.  I didn’t think we would get her because she’s done some really interesting illustrations for these really reputable venues.

But my editor said, oh we think this would be perfect for your cover, we got Angie Wong to agree to use this as the cover.  I was really shocked and very grateful.

David Koehn: It’s so fitting.

Sally Wen Mao: — [Interposing].

David Koehn: [Interposing] floating through space, there’s this woman sweating, the [Interposing] —

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.

David Koehn: — multiple women sweating.  There’s this — it’s completely the mad honey experience gone hallucinogenic.

Sally Wen Mao: I was like wow, these two women, like, maybe they ingested mad honey in the cover.  I thought it was very fitting.

David Koehn: Yeah.  I completely agree.  I actually was wondering if it had been intentionally designed for the book, it was so fitting.

Sally Wen Mao: Oh, yeah.  I mean, it wasn’t actually, I just found it on her website. And I thought oh, well, that could be good.

David Koehn: It’s perfect.  I mean, there’s so — it’s almost as if — yeah.  It’s again, open to chance, open to serendipity, but what a — it has so many of your — I guess the only guy missing is our poor honey badger, he’s not in there anywhere.

Sally Wen Mao: Oh, you know what’s funny?  One of the covers I proposed was a honey badger illustration that I did myself.  And I ended up using that for the book cover that we made up, me and a few other —

David Koehn: The honey badger tour, or — that’s right, you got a —

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah, yeah.

David Koehn: So talk a minute about your honey badger tour.  What’s going on with that?

Sally Wen Mao: Oh yeah.  It just concluded a week ago.  But it was fantastic. I got to tour with three women poets: Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, and Michelle Chan Brown. It was fantastic. We went to all these different cities, crashing on people’s couches.  We drove one car and just went on adventures.

We read at the standard venues: a library, a bookstore, a bar, art gallery, library.  But then we also read at a record shop, a dance studio, Bryant Park, a petting zoo complete with two goats and a pig. We read for the young writers workshop in Sweetbriar, Virginia, and that was by far our most enthusiastic audience.

I had never been to the south, so going to Nashville, Tennessee, and Lexington, Kentucky was definitely new for me. It was wonderful to be welcomed in so many different places.

David Koehn: Yeah.

Sally Wen Mao: And, yeah.

David Koehn: And the tour, it’s your — also your spirit is infused.  I mean, we just talked about the tour, which is kind of like your stand-up tour, if you will.   But I think there’s humor there.  I wonder like, I mean, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but is Hurling Durian like darkly comic as well as — or am I misreading that?

Sally Wen Mao: I mean, it’s interesting to me because I’ve always wanted to be funny.   I would invent this funny persona when I’m reading to kind of make up for the fact that some of my poems are not that funny.  The Honey Badger, for example, is a really absurd creature.  So I have a whole routine with that.  And with the Durian poem, I always ask, who’s heard of a durian?  I have some routines, but they are not necessarily a part of the poem.

David Koehn: [Interposing] I mean, durian smells horrible.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah, they’re terrible.

David Koehn: I have eaten things that would make a goat puke in my travels, but this is as far as I could get the durian before I gave up.  I just couldn’t —

Sally Wen Mao: Oh, yeah.

David Koehn: — I couldn’t —

Sally Wen Mao: It tastes like not that bad.  In my experience with them —

David Koehn: So we did talk about Hurling a Durian, and we also talked about Honey Badger.  It would be perhaps an insult to our beautiful Honey Badger if we didn’t at least have the Honey Badger show up in our conversation.

Sally Wen Mao: Okay, great.

David Koehn: So we could do Palinode or we could do The Very Last Undoing in section 4, or we could — you know, it’s such a beautiful strong piece in the front when Melavora Compensis [ph 1:25:28], that section 3 is kind of is this mini-frame for the whole book, if you will.  So I’m open to whatever you think.

Sally Wen Mao: Okay.  I’ll read Mellivora Capensis then.

David Koehn: Okay.

Sally Wen Mao: So this is the first Honey Badger poem.

Mellivora Capensis

Honey-eater of the cape – body skunklike, maw
of bones & soil: here is the honeycomb

where your heart surrenders. Here is the snakehole
where your body lies waiting. Under the acacia

you caper, you dance. Under the hives you shiver,
you prowl; oh puff adder, ibex, blood hook

& bees: what can the sand or teeth believe?

                                     * * *

The sun rises over
elephant grasses.
                                       We are everywhere
Assassinating wind.
For prey,
                                       We pray. Bee-trill
Humming viciously
                                       Against chest drum.
                                       Snakes splinter
As gutted shrapnel.
                                       Our parched mouths. Birds
                                       flap wildly.
Open my jaw: raw
the meat I swallow,
                                       Tender the mouths I bury.
Everywhere this viscous
                                       Rapture of stings.

                                     * * *
A broken badger is not a sad thing.
When the porcupine quills pierce her gullet
                          she does not wince.
When she wanders through the fire factory
                          she does not flinch.
When the leopard eviscerates the antelope
                          she does not malinger.
When the shower of bullets rips through the woods
                          she does not hide.
When the snake whispers venom into her throat,
                          she does not whimper.
A broken badger is not a sad thing.

                                     * * *
Spit me out, larger beast – find my paws
on your jaw, on your hipbone, on your feet.
Find my breath in your beehive.
Find my mouth on your pendulum.
Find your pendulum knotted, gutted.
Out of its socket like a blood-dipped
locket. Find the waterbuck heaving
in the swamp. Find gashes. Find heat.
Find skin molting but you won’t find me.

David Koehn: Thank you.

Sally Wen Mao: Thank you.

David Koehn: And gosh, I feel like we can go on forever.  There’s so much more to talk about in the book.  But I wanted to thank you for your time, and for your generosity in sharing everything from the creation story, to the back story around the composition of the book.  The discovery, the sort of theme of serendipity and chance, that sort of has populated this entire conversation.  Including the discovery of the cover, which is so perfect for the book.  And it’s — I think Alice James was a great press for the book, and I think it’s a beautiful book, and you should be proud.  And I’m excited to bring this interview to our readers.

Sally Wen Mao: Yeah.  Thank you so much.  It’s been a real pleasure talking.

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