Poetry Centered

Sally Wen Mao: Poetic Awakening

November 29, 2023 University of Arizona Poetry Center Episode 37
Poetry Centered
Sally Wen Mao: Poetic Awakening
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Sally Wen Mao shares poems that trace her awakening as a poet, invoking teachers both in person and on the page. She introduces Claribel Alegría on how to express the unknowable and untraceable (“Savoir Faire”), Terrance Hayes on transformation as the role of poetry in the world (“The Deer”), and Bhanu Kapil on poetic language as a means of collapsing borders (“Humanimal”). Mao concludes with her poem “a dream or a fox,” written after Lucille Clifton’s “A Dream of Foxes.” 

Find the full recordings of Alegría, Hayes, and Kapil reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Claribel Alegría (1997)
Terrance Hayes (2016)
Bhanu Kapil (2008)

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.48] Welcome back for a new episode of Poetry Centered coming to you from the University of Arizona Poetry Center. As always, the show features recordings from Voca, our online archive of poets reading their work, curated for you by a contemporary poet. 

[00:00:19.52] I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, the archivist for the Poetry Center here to say hello. Today our host is Sally Wen Mao, author of three collections of poetry. Her most recent is The Kingdom of Surfaces, which just came out a few months ago. Next May, her debut collection of fiction will be out titled Ninetails. 

[00:00:43.37] In this episode Sally brings together recordings by poets who shaped her own journey as a writer giving her a new understanding of poetry's ability to engage with complexity and connect us to one another. These poets are Claribel Alegria, Terrance Hayes, and Bhanu Kapil. Sally's own poem is sparked by another poetry hero, Lucille Clifton. Sally, thank you so much for leading us through the archive today. 

Sally Wen Mao:
[00:01:12.54] Hello my name is Sally Wen Mao, and I am recording this at my desk in Harlem, New York City, on a crisp and beautiful October day. I would love to take you on a brief journey through my poetic awakening, the poets and poems that shaped me in my earliest days as a reader and writer. The first recording I want to share is the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria reading her poem “Savoir Faire” recorded on October 22nd 1996. 26 years ago to the day. 

[00:02:02.16] I first encountered this poem in a world literature textbook in my English world lit class during my sophomore year of high school. In class, I liked to wander around in the textbook, looking for poems that moved me that I knew we wouldn't study or cover. 

[00:02:26.96] I found poets that would become very important to me such as Bei Dao, Nazim Hikmet, and Claribel Alegria. Writers who were often exiled, who were orphaned in the world in a way that I couldn't yet articulate as a young immigrant budding poet. I loved these poets so much that later that year my mother got me a Poetry Anthology for my 16th birthday. 

[00:03:00.86] It was The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry edited by JD McClatchy, full of translations of writers from around the world. “Savoir Faire” was one of the poems in this collection, one of my favorites. 

[00:03:22.37] I've been thinking a lot about how people relate to one another and how people relate to other beings, whether animal or alien, the unique momentary awe that arises in encounters between species before, say, fear materializes. How poets especially take to their imagination the feelings and mysteries of these encounters. And I venture that the poet uniquely knows how to arrange this syntax of wonder, of marvel. 

[00:04:01.58] That the poem permits an imagination that can dwell, even thrive, in what may be unknowable, untraceable. The feelings and thoughts of a cat, for example, even if she is your cat, carries at least a measure, a drop of mystery. The poem becomes the way to cross this divide to identify with a cat even when the feeling is envy. 

[00:04:33.79] In Claribel Alegria's “Savoir Faire” the poet encounters her own black cat with a sense of wonder and admiration. The word “Savoir Faire” in French denotes a kind of social grace or know how, a polished sureness in social situations, and ease and dexterity. That's where the word savvy comes from. 

[00:05:04.27] The speaker of the poem admires her cat for being so savvy, for knowing how to blithely live, free from the knowledge of death or danger. The speaker herself, however, is trapped by such human limitations. Her awareness of danger prevents her from taking risks, unlike her cat who, quote "Falls in love with every cat he meets." Unquote. 

[00:05:38.04] As a 16-year-old with so many fears about entering the world, about adulthood, I must have identified with the speaker even as she admits to being unable to embrace life as her cat does. So here is Claribel Alegria reading “Savoir Faire.”

[00:06:01.20] [MELLOW MUSIC] 

Claribel Alegria:
[00:06:04.44] This is called savoir faire. Es chiquito. It's very short, so I'll read it in both. That's for my son, Erik. It says my black cat doesn't know he will die one day. He doesn't cling to life as I do. He leaps from the rooftop, light as air, climbs the the tamarind tree barely scratching it. Doesn't dread crossing bridges or dark alleyways, nor the perfidious scorpion.

[00:06:34.98] My black cat falls in love with every cat he meets. He refuses to be snared by a single love, the way I did. Mi gato negro ignora que va a morir un día. No se aferra a la vida como yo. Salta desde el tejado, ligero como el aire. Se sube al tamarindo, arañándolo apenas. No lo amedrenta el paso de los puentes, ni el callejón oscuro, ni el pérfido alacrán. Mi gato negro ama a cuanta gata encuentra. No se deja atrapar por un único amor, como lo hice yo.

[00:07:15.96] [LAUGHS] 

[00:07:18.90] Thank you. 

[00:07:21.48] [MELLOW MUSIC] 

Sally Wen Mao:
[00:07:25.33] The next poet I want to discuss is someone whose monumental body of work has shaped not just my poetics but probably a whole generation of poets because of his incredible and steadfast mentorship. It is Terrance Hayes reading his poem The Deer recorded on February 4th, 2016. 

[00:07:49.26] Terrance Hayes was my first poetry mentor. When I was 18 I took his class reading contemporary poetry at Carnegie Mellon University, and it transformed my ideas of poetry's role in the world. In high school, I had always felt poetry was so intrinsically interior, inward, an emblem of one's solitude in this world. The poets that I had discovered on own in high school at the school library and read privately with much relish were for the first time on a syllabus, and it was his syllabus. 

[00:08:34.51] Terrance gave me a new sense of recognition for these poets it was a moment of immense joy to be able to recognize Audre Lorde, Yusef Komunyakaa, and June Jordan, to encounter them in a classroom under the guidance of Terrance who helped us see the connective tissue between each individual poet's voice. Who mapped out a whole Atlas of poets and the ways in which we relate to one another. No poet is an island, he taught me, and I have carried that with me ever since. 

[00:09:15.23] Terrance is the rare kind of mentor who keeps up throughout the years. Over the past 15 years, Terrance and I have had many coffees. And I remember how in these conversations he would talk animatedly about what he was working on, and I'd be so excited to see his ideas go on to become actualized. In his fourth collection, How to Be Drawn, Hayes turns to the themes of how the artist sees and is seen. He is also a visual artist, a painter. 

[00:09:52.86] What I find remarkable about many of his poems is the sinuous quality of his lines, the way each turn of phrase marks a revolution, a visual mapping of images that culminate to a brutal and often unsettling moment. Hayes shapeshifts on the page and the result is often astonishing and transformative. 

[00:10:21.17] His poem The Deer, begins with an encounter where the speaker sees a deer with quote "Two eyes blind as holes." The speaker lets his imagination leap as the deer does switching bodies. Quote, "I could be the deer," he declares, and lets that embodiment lead him to other memories, other lives, the smell of muscadine that his mother used to pluck, the memories of a friend recounting an encounter with a half-naked woman on a road who was begging for help. 

[00:11:03.23] The speaker also dreams into the deer's mind quote, "Foolish enough to ignore anything that runs, but is not alive." The poem truly builds a world out of this encounter with the deer. A network of images, and associations, and memories, slipping into the uncanny. 

[00:11:27.99] When this speaker sees quote "The mind separated from the body, the holes of her eyes, the white fuzz on her tongue," he uses the earlier description of the deer to mirror the imagined memory of the woman creating an uncanny, uncomfortable moment of recognition. Here is Terrance Hayes reading The Deer. 

Terrance Hayes:
[00:12:02.50] All right, all right. I got to figure out how to work this thing. OK. So, cool. So now we're actually getting to the present moment. And I thought I would just read two poems from How to be Drawn. And a lot of stuff is going on in the book, but one of the things that only gets framed now recontextualized based on tonight's occasion, is thinking like trying to braid those two things inside and outside to bear witness to it, to enact it, to be a victim of it, of spectacle of violence. 

[00:12:37.34] So I think in some ways-- I just picked two poems that I thought were trying to do that on this book, and then to see what that means for the next. Like what comes after that, is sort of what I'm thinking about in this last poem that I'll share with you. But here are two from How to be Drawn. 

[00:12:55.64] So this one is The Deer. I guess there's not much to say about it. Muscadine is like a little berry that grows in the Southeast, and it is like a-- the joke that I tell is that, they would sell him in Whole Foods like in Tucson, and you would buy them. 

[00:13:13.28] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:13:14.30] But in South Carolina, they're just wild little berries, but my mother would get them. And then there's this muscadine wine, if you know anything about that area. So I guess that's all you need to know. And Pataskala is a town in Ohio. 

[00:13:28.10] The deer. "Outside Pataskala, I saw the deer with a soft white belly. The deer with two eyes as blind as holes. I saw it leap from a bush beside the highway, as if a moment before it leapt it had been a bush beside the highway. And I saw how if I wished it, I could be the deer. A creature bony as a branch in spring. 

[00:13:56.87] And when I closed my eyes, I found the scent of muscadine, the berry my mother plucked Sundays from the roadside where fumes toughened its speckled skin and seeds slept suspended in a mucus thick as the sleep of an embryo. It is the ugliest Berry along the road, but chewed, it reminded me of speed. And I saw, when I was the deer, that I didn't have to be a deer. I could become a machine with a woman inside it, moving at a speed that leaves a stain on the breeze and on the muscadine's flesh, which is almost meat. 

[00:14:37.62] The sweet pulp a muscadine leaves when it's crushed in the teeth of a deer, or a mother for that matter, or her child waiting with something like shame to be fed a berry uglier than shame. Though it is not like this for the deer, it is not shame because the deer is not human. It is only almost human, when it looks on the road and leaps at least 30 feet covering in a blink. The deer I cannot be. The dumb deer. Dumb and foolish enough to ignore anything that runs but is not alive. 

[00:15:13.22] A trafficking machine filled with a distracted mind and body deadly and durable enough to deconstruct a deer when it leaps, I'm telling you, like someone being chased. I remember, a friend told me how when he was eight or nine a half-naked woman ran to the car window crying her man was after her with a knife. But his mother locked the doors and sped away. Someone tell him his mother was not a coward, that's what he thinks. Tell him it was because he and his little brother were in the car that she would not let the troubled world inside. 

[00:15:53.99] It was no one's fault. The mind separated from the body. I could almost see the holes of her eyes, the white fuzz on her tongue, the raised bud soft as a bed of pink seeds, the hole of a mouth stretched wide enough to hold a whole baby inside. I could almost see its eyes at the back of her throat. I could definitely hear its cries. 

[00:16:20.84] [MELLOW MUSIC] 

Sally Wen Mao:
[00:16:28.00] The third poet's recording I am covering is Bhanu Kapil, who read from her book Humanimal, on November 20th 2008. I first encountered Bhanu Kapil's work in 2011 at the Harvard Lamont Poetry Library when I discovered her first collection of poems, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, and read it in one sitting. 

[00:16:57.34] It was early spring, March, I was in graduate school pursuing my MFA at Cornell at the time. It was hard to describe the impact the book had on me. All I knew was that the next day I had to rush back to the library and read it all over again. The poems, their structure of questioning, the language, all felt so vibrant, so new, and so true to me. Yet, they were familiar, in that they resonated emotionally in a way that I didn't know I needed. 

[00:17:42.32] It became the first book of poetry I ever taught to my own students at Cornell, the first semester that I taught in 2011. Every time I taught this book, I discovered something new, and so I had to read all of her books. The next book of hers I taught was Humanimal, an innovative and powerful hybrid text that leans into the violence and slippages between different categories. 

[00:18:16.92] Humanimal is a dazzling study in collapsing borders. Past and present, human and non-human, civility and wilderness, poetry and fiction, mythology and history, personal and political. National and temporal borders also seem to break down in her work. The present gives a way to the past, the poet crosses borders and evades categorization as she collaborates with documentary filmmakers who trace the lost story of the wolf girls of Midnapore, Kamala and Amala. 

[00:19:04.29] These wolf girls at the center of the story refuse to be tamed with language, which becomes a dominating force, a tool of power and control. Kamala and Amala, after being discovered in the 1920s by a Reverend, refused to assimilate into girlhood. And it's that refusal that Kapil reveals with a shimmering, brutal urgency. 

[00:19:38.80] Humanimal is constantly questioning the ability of language to hold all of its contradictions and wildness. Here is Bhanu Kapil reading from Humanimal. 

[00:19:53.88] [MELLOW MUSIC] 

Bhanu Kapil:
[00:20:00.67] I shall read tonight from Humanimal, which is a non-fiction project, based upon the true story of two girls Kamala out in Amala who were found living with wolves in 1921, in India. And I went there, to India, and found the places where they had been kept, where they were rescued when they were found by a missionary called Joseph Singh. 

[00:20:29.09] I found his house, I found his grandson, and his great grandson, and they gave me photographs of the wolf girls. And I went into the jungle a little ways. So some of this is more related to filmmaking, and part of it I suppose through scar tissue, through the liquefied form a body can take. At certain parts, the wolf girls' bodies connect to the bodies of my father as a child in India. So I'm going to read it from various places, so I don't know if it will be clear where I am. Oh dear. Can I borrow a clock, a watch? 

[00:21:14.21] [INAUDIBLE] 

[00:21:19.09] All right, it's 8:40 PM. This will be all over by 8:58 PM. 

[00:21:24.76] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:21:27.22] And then someone calls you, and [INAUDIBLE]. Right. There are two spaces in which I took notes for this project. An investigation of feral childhood. I'm not sure if childhood is the correct word. The first space was a blue sky fiction, imagining a future for a child who died. The second space was real in different ways, a double envelope, fluid digits, scary. I was frightened, and so I stopped. 

[00:22:01.08] There were two kiosks like hard bubbles selling tickets to the show, A Feral Child is Freakish. With all my strength, I pushed the glass doors shut, ignoring the screams of the vendors inside with a click. I clicked the spaces closed, and then because I had to, because the glass, broke I wrote this. 

[00:22:24.24] Humanimal One, Blue Sky Fiction for a Future Child. "Holed up with her shaven head and spine visible through her skin, the wolf girl was a singular presence almost butter-yellow against the granular fabric of the Kodak paper. When she died it was Easter, the hot, dry month before monsoon. Bound to custom, the priest covered her face with marigolds, soaked the stems with olive oil, then lit a match. 

[00:22:56.37] Behind the graveyard was a church, intensely white in the pale pink day. Behind the church was the jungle. At the edge of the jungle was a scene, a dense shedding of light green ribbons of bark, a place where things previously separate moved together in a wet pivot. I stood and walked towards it in a dream. 

[00:23:21.89] Her eyes were grim, intensely clarified against her charred skin as she looked up. Above her, the trees were dense with a dark green fruit I could not identify. In the minutes before capture, the girl reached up, her arms criss-crossing rapidly beneath the bleached low hanging vines of the perimeter. She was wearing a white cotton dress shredded at the sleeve and hem. 

[00:23:50.04] When I developed the film in New Delhi, the X-ray of a marine skeleton was superimposed upon her left arm, her elbow as thick as a knot. I said it was cartilage. The body incubating a curved space, an animal self. Instead of hands, she had four streaks of light. An imprimatur, she saw me and flinched." 

[00:24:15.21] Humanimal Two, A Matrix of Fluid Digits, Images of Children in the Underworld, and Alphabet to O a Kind of Mouth. "One. The humanimal sky is copper like lids. Retrograde stars litter this intimate metallic curve above the jungle. Can you see it? Eh. All the branches stir in their silver. Like a liquid metal the jungle for her the girl tentacular. Does the skin crepe where her fingers are too wet trailing in the river? 

[00:24:58.99] This is what a child does as in fairy tales, this is walking, I want to. All branches fear life. It pushes and pushes life out to the tips where the color is. Does this happen in Asian forests? Does this tree say, Yes, damaged by its yes, to phloem, the food to the lips of the branches where the leaves are? And thus a leaf girl leaping from branch to branch in her dream of being a girl and not this other disaster thing. 

[00:25:33.75] Two. Like automata, the trees rise up in rows mechanically. Because it's January, we don't see scat or paw marks or tufts of blue hair caught in the low lying branches. This is tracking, that the wolves, wild black dogs with elongated torsos, are deeper in. 

[00:25:56.10] The district forest officer lifts a luminous skin from a termite mound with the snout of his rifle, and holds it up to show me. When I reach out to gather another section of the skin, he stops my hand with his. When I ask if snakes are active at this time of year. He says, Oh no, no Madam. The Indian Anaconda is not a problem at this time of year, not at all, no problem. 

[00:26:22.57] Nevertheless, we return in short order to the Jeep with footage only of a rudimentary perimeter in which giant insects have constructed conical temples from the moist ocher Earth beneath the trees. I want to stay, but the filmmakers are stubbing out their cigarettes in the dirt. I didn't know the jungle would be red. 

[00:26:46.18] B. I want to stand up, but I can't do that here. They would know I am a wolf by my sore hips, the look in my eyes. At the edge of the garden was a line of blue chalk. My mother was waiting there, waiting for me in her dark coat. In the dream I walked towards her and she stands up. She opens up her coat like two wings and I step into her cloth heart, her cleft of matted fur. 

[00:27:17.62] Three. The girl. I cannot retrieve even one foot from her small leg, a tendon, a nail, or an eye, I saw her grave in the city where the edge had been. In your city, or where you grew up, was there an overgrown scrubland? Was there a tree? Imagine a dark tree, like a lemon tree, its fruit still green and studded with green parrots. 

[00:27:46.45] The edge of sal. Lemon and banana plantings, intermixed with the regular blue. It is blue leaves at night and brown yellow, or doubly green by day. But it was day, but blue. I put my hand on her grave and waited until I could feel the rhythm faintly of breathing, of a cardiac output. 

[00:28:12.02] C. Mist rose in cubes, with hard fingers they tore strips from my spine. All blond black fur, all hair from a previous life. Four. Feral children are fatty, complex and rigid. When you captured the two children, you had to brush the knots out of their hair, then scrape the comb free of hard butter. Descent and serration. No, I don't want to ask primal questions. 

[00:28:47.48] Five. Kamala slips over the garden wall with her sister and runs on all fours towards the complex horizon between Midnapore and its surrounding belt of sal. The humanimal mode is one of pure anxiety attached to the presence of the body. Two panicked children strain against the gelatin envelope of the township producing through distension a frightening shape. 

[00:29:16.34] The animals see an opaque, milky membrane bulging with life, and retreat, as you would to the inner world. I am speaking for you in January, it is raining. Amniotic compelled to emerge, the girls are nevertheless reabsorbed. I imagine them back in their cots, illuminated by kerosene lanterns. 

[00:29:40.46] I illuminate them in the colony, the cluster of residences including the home around Saint John's. No. Though I've been there, it's impossible for me to visualize retrieval. Chronologies only recalled the bad days, the attempted escapes. 

[00:29:59.38] D. I was almost to the gate. I was almost to the gate when a hand reached out and pulled me backwards by my hair, opening my mouth to an O. The next day I woke up with a raw throat. The cook gave me salt and warm water. I waited until she was gone and then I bit it. I bit my own arm and I ate it. Here is my belly, frosted with meat. Here are my eyes, bubbling in a tin. 

[00:30:29.50] Six. It's Palm Sunday, and Kamala with the other orphans in a dark, glittery crocodile walks from home to church. Her two arms extend stiffly from her body to train them to extend. Unbound, her elbows and wrists would flex then supinate like two peeled claws. Wrapped, she is a swerve, a crooked yet regulated mark. This is corrective therapy. The fascia hardening over a lifetime, then split in order to reset it, educate the nerves. 

[00:31:08.72] E. The cook fed us meat of many kinds. I joined my belly to the belly of the next girl. It was pink, and we opened our beaks for meat. It was wet, and we licked the dictionary off each other's faces. 

[00:31:25.31] Seven. Is this the humanimal question? No, it's a disk, transferring light from corner to corner of the girl's eye. Like an animal to tapetum. The way at night an animal. Animal eyes glinting, in the room where he kept her. His girl, deep in the home. 

[00:31:45.59] Eight. Where is the future child? Curled up with wolves, sub-bred, the wolf girl's eyes reflected light. She was seven when her father found her coiled in a den. A tall, extremely handsome father, sidetracked from his mission. Dressed in black despite the heat. Caught her in a bed sheet and wrote, I cut a hole and removed her from the cave. 

[00:32:13.82] Eight. Your scars lit up then liquefied. Lucidly, holographically, your heart pulsed in the air next to your body. Then my eyes clicked the photo into place. Future child in the time you lived in, your arms always itched and flaked. To write this the memoir of your body, I slip my arms into the sleeves of your shirt. I slip my arms into yours to become four-limbed. And I should pause there. 

[00:32:48.34] [CLAPPING] 

[00:32:48.83] Thank you. 

[00:32:49.81] [CLAPPING] 

[00:32:52.25] [MELLOW MUSIC] 

Sally Wen Mao:
[00:32:58.12] And lastly, I will read one of the poems from my most recent collection The Kingdom of Surfaces, which came out on August 1st, from Graywolf Press. This poem is written after Lucille Clifton's poem sequence, A Dream of Foxes, which describes with haunting precision and beauty, a series of dream encounters with the fox in the speaker's backyard. 

[00:33:29.84] My poem was written after I saw something remarkable, a fox on the tarmac of an airport as I landed. The poem is called A Dream or a Fox. Thank you. A Dream or a Fox After Lucille Clifton. 

[00:33:53.88] "Plane landing in Berlin, I saw a fox on the tarmac, beneath the wind, the fuselage. Its eyes barbed like concertina wire. Was it a dream? I do not know. And dangerously, I took it as a sign my ache would end. It didn't. But that's OK. 

[00:34:21.36] What would we all give for moments like that? Pure hope materializing on the bodies of animals we've seen lurching in those places they don't belong. How they refuse to recede, how they hold on, proving every human wrong." 

[00:34:48.23] Thank you for taking this journey with me. Until we meet again. 

[00:34:53.23] [MELLOW MUSIC] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:35:01.35] Thank you again, Sally, for this selection of poems and for sharing your poetic awakening with us. It was illuminating to go on that journey with you. Listeners, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. We always appreciate it. In two weeks, we have another new episode hosted by Jake Skeets. It's one to look forward to, and I hope you'll join us. Until next time, thank you again. 

Aria Pahari:
[00:35:26.91] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. 

[00:35:42.18] Located on the campus of the University of Arizona, in Tucson, the Poetry Center Library and buildings are housed on the Indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui. Poetry Centered is the work of Aria Pahari, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive online at voca.arizona.edu. 

Claribel Alegría's "Savoir Faire"
Terrance Hayes' "The Deer"
Bhanu Kapil's "Humanimal"
Sally Wen Mao reads “a dream or a fox”