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Sally Wen Mao


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Sally Wen Mao

The Spring of Terrible Fevers

                               "oh you who are young, consider how
                                          quickly the body deranges itself..."
                                                        -D.A. Powell


In February, a fortuneteller
ran her fingers over my palms
& said, dear, you're cursed. let me help you

fix yourself. When I recoiled,
the season began: a slow,
beating bicycle.


That spring I learned about Ginsberg's
Chinese lover--the one from Shanghai
who pan-fried their suppers on winter nights.

Later they'd lie on the cot like a pair of hatchets.
The ginger & chives he tossed into the wok,
he tasted on his lover's breath.


In March I caught a horrible disease,
my windpipe catching fire. For twelve nights
I retched into the sink, cast in a spell

of bloodless quivering, this heat-filled dreaming
about somebody's faraway music, prophetic
between           heart/liver/tourniquet.


That spring I learned about Chairman Mao's
propensity for virgins. He called each girl mei mei,
& coated their bodies with plum juice.

Their cries kept his skin ruddy like Buddha's.
To each ear he crooned metaphors of fruit:


In April, my fingers cold as chess pieces,
I salvaged heat, miserly, hopeful.
Sick boys & girls marched beside me, asking:

When to touch?
Where to navigate? Why this roiling
      inside the blood?


That spring I learned about flesh, its riverbeds
of silt. I ate spicy gooseberries to still
this oxytocin - the chemical of trust. Next to me,

an androgynous boy played the piano, smiling
with cold olives in his mouth. And I tried
hard to calcify.


In May, the windows opened, washing
our bodies of thirst. His teeth-scrape, his shhh
left me barren, spiritless. I kissed him goodbye

on the stone rotunda, follicles
stinging, skin molting like a lizard's,
      & how I wanted to run.


The night my sex returned, I shut the door,

barricaded it with a rattan chair. The banging

curdled the egg pudding and for ten minutes

it was all tremor, all the time. There my mother

was, half-asleep in her gender, and there my sister

was, locked inside her purity panoply. And I, shut

inside, obsessed with the insides of me, obsessed

with the open-and-close of me, dead-sexed, hyper-

sexed--I couldn't stop mulling over how every seed

burst, pummeled into pulp, jejune nectarine jabbed

to the pit. Could anyone forget--the horrible panache

of fruit? I despised softness, how a bite can sluice

the flesh with teeth. I wanted to disperse like creosote

in water; I wanted to reproduce like spores, tease

like those stars seen so plainly out in the thawing sky

but nonexistent, having exploded long ago.

So entered sex, who loaded a carcass, asphyxiated

creature, into the open suitcase. We shut it tight,

zipped it, but the miasma stayed with us, angry visitor,

as breath on the cinders, as grease in my hair.

Monstera Deliciosa

I'm a monster because I poison the children.
They dance around me and my fronds flutter
with holes. They invite: eat my fanged fruit.

Each scale will peel off easy, but if you eat it
unripe, it will steal your voice. Your gums
will blister little stars. You'll vomit, swell, tremble.

When ripe, it is sublime. Better than banana,
soft mango, sweeter than wild yellow rambutan
coated in syrup. It only takes one year. Bite.


                               -from Mad Honey Symposium, selected by Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award, a Poets & Writers Top Ten Debut of 2014, and a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Anticipated Pick of Fall 2014. Her second book, Oculus, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2019. 

Her work has won a 2017 Pushcart Prize and is anthologized in The Best of the Net 2014 and The Best American Poetry 2013. Recent poems have been published or forthcoming in A Public Space, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, The Missouri Review, Tin House, and Washington Square, among other journals.

The recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Jerome Foundation, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and Saltonstall Foundation, Mao holds an M.F.A. from Cornell University and has taught writing at Cornell University and Hunter College. She was the 2015-2016 Singapore Creative Writing Residency Writer-in-Residence at National University of Singapore, and is currently a 2016-2017 Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library.


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

A Review of Sally Wen Mao's Mad Honey Symposium by Alex Crowley, first published at The Literary Review

“I imagine a star. A clove bullet/ ripping through me.” This is one way to render the feeling—a massive nuclear reaction; an intensity of flavor that parts flesh—of losing yourself in Sally Wen Mao’s debut Mad Honey Symposium. It’s a “dendriform paradise” birthed from seeds of sensations of hunger, desire, and danger—among a host of other subjects—all fertilized by a visceral, textural synaesthesia.

She opens with “Valentine for a Flytrap,” using this carnivorous plant to set the stage for the tug of war to come: “You are the caryatid/ I want to duel, dew-wet, in tongues.” The caryatid, a sculpted female figure that serves in place of a regular column as an architectural support, melts into the sonic double pun on duel/dual and dew-wet/duet, hinting at a sort of shifting nature of roles in feminine competition and cooperation. Thus, Mao sets loose a high voltage barrage of “feral” images—angry bees, poisonous flowers, dire wolves—that take their turns in a wild dance that unfolds over the course of four movements.

On their own each element of her catalogue of symbols—numerous plants, bodily organs, wild animals—feels familiar, yet the manner in which they are employed is assuredly not. The honey badger (mellivora capensis) makes several appearances; its fearlessness, cunning, and voracious appetite marking it as perhaps the collection’s spirit animal. Mao uses feminine pronouns when referencing the creature, blurring the lines between badger and speaker. And in “Searching for the Queen Bee,” as “Honey drips from glaciers,” the speaker addresses her again: “May you never sleep, badger:/ ever-droning, ever-hunting.” Such a gift for recontextualizing images amid gushes of lush descriptors lends a disorienting air even among signs of comfort. It’s an intoxicating mix, and as with any intoxicant, you’re better off surrendering to its effects than fighting to control its power.

The central intoxicant here is one of the book’s less common objects, the eponymous “mad honey.” This is honey that contains the nectar of plants from the family Ericaceae—generally rhododendron or azalea—and causes what is known as grayanotoxin poisoning. Mao’s poison takes the form of a sweet, alluring food; one that in small amounts heightens experience as an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen, but which in larger doses acts as a purgative, laxative, and paralytic: “we found traces of mad honey they’d ingested/ to revive desire, as if poison answered all the questions// about their bodies.”

And where is this consumption of mad honey happening? A party, of course, though not one we regularly participate in today. The text is a “symposium,” a classical Greek drinking party that served as the eponymous settings for Socratic dialogues by both Plato and Xenophon. The latter figure, a “Greek scholar and commander of 10,000 Greek soldiers,” appears here to deliver one of six “Mad Honey Soliloquies” on account of leading “his soldiers to Trebizoid [sic, Trebizond], where poisonous honeycombs grew wild and,” as Mao notes, “he witnessed the effects of mad honey.” Similarly, Roman general Pompey delivers a soliloquy following his own account of when, centuries after Xenophon, he led his own army “through Trebizoid [sic] where the enemy laid traps of mad rhododendron honey.” Xenophon’s presence, in light of his own encounter with mad honey and composition of a symposium, adds a delightful looping element to the work. This is no Socratic dialogue, but it does feel like a tripped-out party, where one watches “plastic ribcages melt in starbursts,/ drip like watermelons” and “Saguaros// peck at pterodactyl clouds.”

But this is all merely context, the grounding that allows Mao to charge her poems without electrocuting the reader. Though that risk of shock—through image, through description—is a major part of the book’s allure, as the its most immediate and rewarding sensations are found in how Mao crafts musical textures, the way she enacts being “strangled by language.” Not only is the tongue among the most prominent recurring images, the reader’s mouth is continually physically stimulated as the tongue ripples through lines like “I despised softness, how a bite can sluice/ the flesh with teeth,” and “Some kisses make me eat holes/ through wet kitchen towels until my teeth shine/ with detergents.”

In similar fashion, over and over you’re enveloped by the pungent aroma of that clove bullet cleaving your skin; the moments when Mao’s “emotions/ stunk of excess, so pure they could only belong/ in the gutter.” Does your whole mouth pucker as you say to yourself, “Dung describes my lips/ on your lips”? If it does, try cleansing your palate with “Junk in the organs, kinks clone the thyroid,/ diaphragm punctured like a paper lantern/ blown out.” This constant flood of diction swells the brain and excites nerve endings. It’s like being at a concert where the bass frequencies rise from the floor and suffuse the air; tightening your chest, setting your hair on end, and relaxing certain muscles that should stay constricted in polite company. Is this the dissociative intoxication of a touch of mad honey? If so, how much can one ingest here before a purge of bowels, before the dangers of cardiac arrhythmia and paralysis become very real?

This is how the mad honey party plays out: waves of pleasure and terror intermingle as the scenery changes, as Mao migrates from antiquity to modernity and from continent to continent. Even what is consumed morphs. Those recurring themes of hunger, desire, and intoxication find expression through the eating of durian and monstera deliciosa fruits. Though both are often described as delicacies, the former, which Mao dubs “a weapon of truth,” emits an overpowering, revolting odor that “may erase a child’s immediate memories./ So I am addicted, of course. Not to eating// but to sniffing it like glue.” The latter, meanwhile, will “poison the children,” and if eaten unripe “will steal your voice. Your gums/ will blister little stars. You’ll vomit, swell, tremble.” What’s more, when “the hunger stalks/ close enough to scoop the pupils/ from our eyes,” the starving will eat whatever they can scavenge, as North Korean children do in her poem “The Azalea Eaters”: “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 this light, swallowing the all-consuming “Bunsen flame” of the Trinidad scorpion pepper in “Capsaicin Eclogue” seems almost a relief.

Towards the collection’s end, Mao muses that, “If I could do girlhood again, I’d ask/ to be scarier. Less whimpering—more pyromaniac/ urges, more flirting with kerosene.” It would seem, then, that through these poems she has found some measure of that childhood she wishes she’d had. There is no whimpering here, no shying away from action, but there is plenty of squirting more lighter fluid on each little fire. She gave her honey badger instincts space to flower and that nectar, however toxic, is delicious.


A Review of Sally Wen Mao's Mad Honey Symposium by Stacy Balkun, first published at The California Journal of Women Writers

Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium is a collection of poems exploring obsession, honey, flowers, bees, and sex. Like a true symposium, there is a conflagration of voices, all coming together to discuss rather than tell the reader, creating a dialogue rather than a lecture. Wen Mao shows us some bizarre situations grounded in truth. Several “case studies” are referenced in the “Notes” section at the end of the book; notes which range from a medical article entitled “Mad-Honey Sexual Activity and Acute Inferior Myocardial Infarctions in a Married Couple” by Mikail Yarlioglues, MD, et al. to Chinese folk myths, Greek scholars, and film.

The collection begins with “Valentine for a Flytrap,” a poem addressing a Venus flytrap plant. Though sonnet-like, this poem does not fit the form completely—only just enough to help the reader conjure up the idea of a sonnet, which is Italian for “little song.” And so the scene is set for this collection, part symposium, part song. Poems in Mad Honey Symposium take the form of arias, duets, soliloquies, and songs. In a way, the reader is moving through an opera: a musical journey sung by several voices, all with some sort of love or obsession. Take these finals lines from “Valentine for a Flytrap”:

…Your mouth pins every sticky

body, swallowing iridescence, digesting

light. Venus, let me swim in your solarium.

                        Venus, take me in your summer gown.

Wen Mao celebrates the violence and sexuality of flowers. We celebrate with her as “an anthem begins” in the following poem and again as the speaker tells us about “The night [her] sex returned.” The first section is full of love and odes, including “Sonnets for Kudryavka”—or Laika, the first dog to go up in space—and ode to the “Mellivora Capensis” or honey badger, which is later recanted in “Honey Badger Palinode” in Section II. In this poem, Wen Mao focuses on the fragile aspects of this otherwise fearsome and fearless animal: “Even the thickest skin is still a membrane.”

The third section of this collection is one long poem broken into sections, titled “Migration Suite.” These sections create a sort of discussion, introducing a slower rhythm than the rest of the poems in Mad Honey Symposium, but with the same undertones of fixation and passion. Take these lines from Section V:

What if I told you to eat my red corona,

What if I told you to eat my breeze and my bullets,

What if you hang glide over my marbled barb—

The fourth and final section returns us to the world of honey with “Honey Badger Duet” and “Mad Honey Song,” a double-spaced prose block of sensory insanity that has become one of my favorite poems in this collection. Wen Mao’s poetry is both musical and thought-provoking. Any reader will leave Mad Honey Symposium having learned a thing or two about science, but it is also helpful to have Wikipedia handy when reading these poems.

Despite the “Notes” section, I looked up several items and definitions. It was well worth it. Once I understood some of the words a little better, Wen Mao’s poetry opened up to me in a new way. Mad Honey Symposium has a lot going on. This collection is an equally disturbing and beautiful assault to the senses, perfectly mirrored by the cover art. Wen Mao’s poems complicate these notions and constantly search for the unseen power, as in these lines from “Flight Perils”:

My hair is burning down

                                    but what I see


surprises me: behind dread, a lighthouse;

            behind mourning, a weather vane;

                        behind the trees, a tiny skiff departing.

Wen Mao’s voice is the skiff departing. With the speaker, we burn, we’re surprised. We mourn and celebrate and revisit seemingly familiar curiosities—bees, honey, badgers, sex—in new ways within these visionary poems.


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

An Interview with Sally Wen Mao by Michael Mlekoday, first published at Indiana Review

Michael Mlekoday: What is the working title of the book?

Sally Wen Mao: Mad Honey Symposium.

MM: Where did the idea come from for the book?

SWM: Poetry books usually come from entire constellations of ideas. Here are some of the most pervasive ones, for me:

1. When researching names for an angry third world feminist girl band in 2007, I stumbled upon the fact that honey badgers aim for the scrotums when attacking larger animals.

2. Honey badgers pretend to be immortal when they are not. They may have thick skin and fierce claws but they do get hurt. Poetry is feral. So is desire. The honey badger denotes a feral desire. More so, it denotes a female, vulnerable desire. The honey badger exemplifies marginalized bodies. Such is the paradox of poetry: it’s vulnerable, yet attempts to be brave. We do not know whether to call it stupid, or admirable, or both.

3. Mad honey makes people go crazy. They eat it in a state of wonder or fit of hunger or desire. They experience hallucinations after eating it. They get drunk on this honey and vomit and tremble and cry. They suffer for their desires.

MM: What genre does your book fall under?

SWM: Poetry.

MM: What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

SWM: Hoo-boy. The “movie” rendition of my book would probably be a performance art piece, or an experimental silent film, or a music video for Blonde Redhead, or a collection of animated shorts. Can I name directors instead? For the first section of my book, Hayao Miyazaki would direct, and the voice actor of Totoro would play the Sputnik dog, Kudryavka. Gael Garcia Bernal would play Audubon in “Excerpts from the Dream Diary of Audubon”. In the second section of the book, Wong Kar-Wai would direct, and Takeshi Kaneshiro would play the love interest in every poem in the collection, including the venus flytrap. In the poem published by Indiana Review, Xi’er (the white-haired girl) is Maggie Cheung. In the final poem, “Drop-Kick Aria”, Chiaki Kuriyama from Battle Royale would play the girl student at the dojo.

MM: What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

SWM: Tiny but fanged weaklings with milky bones hurt, attempt to survive, fight, and then conquer the world with broken teeth.

MM: How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

SWM: About four to five years. From 2007 or 2008 until 2012, essentially.

MM: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

SWM: Watching a honey badger’s butt stick out of a log in the Prague Zoo. Dancing in weird places such as busses or beaches or parking lots. Adventuring, hitchhiking, trespassing. Yoshitomo Nara’s drawings. Walking on highways. Indignation. Reading James Baldwin at the mall. Returning to a familiar place where you’ve forgotten the smells, and having them suffuse your senses again as if attacking you. That moment in Left Eye’s documentary when she was in the jungle, naked, and friends with the animals. Field guides to trapped animals. Turbulent airplane rides. Emergency landings.

MM: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interests?

SWM: Xenophon, who first chronicled the existence of mad honey in Anabasis, also wrote a text, Symposium, which echoed/parodied Plato’s Symposium. Plato’s Symposium discusses love—Philia, Agape, and Eros. Xenophon’s Symposium is a drunken exchange of witticisms between Xenophon and Socrates at a banquet. A symposium in Ancient Greece was essentially a drinking party. My book is a mad honey drinking party of love.

MM: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

SWM: Mad Honey Symposium is the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award and will be published by Alice James Books in May 2014.

       An interview with Sally Wen Mao at Black Warrior Review


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