The Sunday Poem: Jamaal May’s Hum

Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit where he has taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His first book, Hum, received the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books and an NAACP Image Award nomination. (Photo by Tarfia Faizullah)

 

“I don’t always go into a poem wanting to address a specific issue,” says Jamaal May. “I’m usually led by language and discover what’s nagging me through the process of arguing with a draft. The E.M. Forster adage, ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’ definitely applies to this process…Over the years, editing, rather than drafting, has become the core of my writing process. This is a value instilled in me by C. Dale Young. He thinks of drafting as the gathering of materials and editing as the shaping of those materials. The model has served me well.”

Natasha Trethewey calls May’s debut collection, Hum, “a meditation on the machinery of living, an extended ode to sound and silence.” These themes artfully emerge not only in May’s subject matter, but also in his skillful use of language and sound. May hails from Detroit, and his poetry buzzes with machines—cars, factories, freezers, foundries.

But as Marty Cain insightfully points out in his review, “…in Hum, machinery isn’t a predictable representation of modern despair. Instead, it embodies a spiritual force, presenting a potential for energy, for both violence and renewal…What makes Hum stand above so many other debuts is not only May’s willingness to expose his own vulnerabilities, but that he isn’t paralyzed by his personal perspective. The poems move increasingly outward from the self as the collection progresses; in several poems specifically focused on war, technology’s potential for violence becomes fully realized—war begins to function as a kind of machine.”

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When it comes to technology, May is no alarmist. It’s the friction between machines and humans (and humans with each other) that fuels these incisive, original poems. “Technological advancement is perhaps less frightening to me than to many of my peers,” May tells Stacy Balkun:

I’m not terrified of the presumed oncoming apocalypse facilitated by Facebook or the new Playstation. Television didn’t end the world and neither will Tumblr. I believe in something intrinsically human that will always exist outside of popular culture and the latest grown folk bugaboos. That intrinsically human thing is often ugly, narcissistic, and petty, but it was there before status updates and anonymous comments existed. Before our current age, “trolls” would just show up at your lunch counter, sit-in protest and dump ketchup and sugar on your head.

The other side of this paradigm is that some of the cooler things about people have also been around for a while and aren’t going anywhere. For example, our ache for the connection we find through art only seems to have been brought into relief by the modern era of immediate, low-effort gratification. If technology was as capable of short-circuiting what is at the core of humanity, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to walk into classroom after classroom of teens and preteens and get them excited to write poems. There wouldn’t be more poetry readings and journals and more Americans writing than ever before in the country’s history.

May, who is also the founder of Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press, has been busy speaking, reading, conducting interviews, and attending literary events, such as the recent AWP conference in Seattle. Inevitably, the issue of Detroit’s financial crisis arises. “I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry being pretty much the only art form in which the practitioners are regularly called upon to explain if and how their art will solve society’s ills,” Mall says in his interview with the Kenyon Review:

I’ve never seen or heard an interview with Jack White that asks him how his guitar solo on “Ball and Biscuit” will cure cancer and stave off the zombie apocalypse. I once worried about the fairness of this paradigm, but I’m starting to see it as a show of respect. That people keep wondering how poetry will change the world seems to start with the implicit assumption that it could. I believe it already does, but not in the singular immediate way that seems to be demanded by some to justify the creation of literature. It is one of many human endeavors that, taken together, help to repair our minds into more thoughtful devices.

Art, be it poetry, music, sculpture, puppetry—the whole of it, inspires change on a personal level rather than a global one. This is important because the individual is the whole. The creation of art argues that people are connected, ideas are connected, the past and future are connected by this moment. Meanwhile, exploitation of the poor, drone strikes that kill hundreds of children, slavery, genocide, land theft—these are all acts that depend upon convincing large groups of usually well-meaning people that “they are not us.” Dean Young once said, “The highest accomplishment of the human consciousness is the imagination, and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” Poetry, along with every other art, is a tool for teaching and expanding empathy. Violence and injustice cannot endure empathy.

You can hear Jamaal May read and celebrate the launch of Hum at 5 Elements Gallery in Detroit on April 9th and at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival at the Peabody Essex Museum at 10:30 a.m. on May 4th (in the Bartlett Gallery).

If you’re in New York City mid-April, you can see Jamaal at the following events:

  • The LouderARTS Project at Bar 13, E. 13th Street at 7:00 p.m. on April 14th

  • The Sidewalk Cafe, East Village at 7:00 p.m. on April 15th

  • Sarah Lawrence College, 7:00 p.m. on April 16th

  • NYU’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, 5:00 p.m. on April 18th

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    Still Life

    Boy with roof shingles
    duct taped to shins and forearms
    threading barbed wire through pant loops.

    Boy with a safety pin-clasped
    bath towel of a cape
    tucking exacto knife into sock.

    Boy with rocks. Boy
    with a metal grate for a shield.
    Boy with a guardian

    daemon and flawless skin.
    Boy in the shuttered district,
    a factory of shattered vials,

    green and brown glass.
    Boy with a tiny voice
    and crooked cursive handwriting,

    with bent nails in a pouch,
    metal flashing scavenged in bits,
    with half a neck tie

    tied around the brow
    pushing a fire door wide.
    Boy with a boy living

    The boy in the boy’s head
    watches sparse traffic
    from a warehouse window

    and takes notes on where
    overpass paint hides rust,
    where the cyan bubbles up

    into a patchwork of pock
    and crumbling disease,
    a thief in the bridge’s body

    he doesn’t see, but knows
    is coming tomorrow
    to swallow his song.
     
     
     
     
     

    Masticated Light

    In a waiting room at the Kresge Eye Center
    my fingers trace the outline of folded money
    and I know the two hundred fifty dollars there
    is made up of two hundred forty-five I can’t afford to spend
    but will spend on a calm voice that can explain
    how I can be repaired. Instead, the words legally blind
    and nothing can be done mean I’ll spend
    the rest of the week closing an eye to the world,
    watching how easily this becomes that.
    The lampposts lining the walk home
    are the thinnest spears I’ve ever seen, a row of trash cans
    becomes discarded war drums, and teeth
    in the mouth of an oncoming truck
    want to tear through me. Some of me
    always wants to be swallowed.

    The last thing my doctor said before I lost
    my insurance was to see a vision specialist
    about the way light struggles and bends
    through my deformed cornea.
    Before the exam I never closed my right eye
    and watched the world become a melting watercolor
    with the left. Before a doctor shot light
    into the twitching thing, before I realized
    how little light I could handle, I never
    thought much of the boy who clawed up at me

    I could see the reflective mesh of his shoes,
    the liquor bottle tossed in an arc
    even before it shattered at my feet, and I am embarrassed
    at how sharp my eyes were, how deft my body,
    my limbs closing the distance—how easily
    I owned his face, its fear, and fought back tears—
    all of it mine. I don’t want to remember the eyes
    that glanced over shoulder just before
    I dragged him like a gazelle into the grass
    that was a stretch of gravel and glass
    outside a liquor store. How easily this becomes that.

    On a suspension bridge I close my bad eye
    and it’s like aiming through a gunsight;
    even the good eye is only as good as whatever glass
    an optometrist can shape. I watch sundown
    become a mouth. Broad and black-throated,
    it devours the skyline and every reflection.
    Horns sprout from the head of my silhouette
    rippling dark, dark, dark against the haze of water
    and I try to squint that monster
    into the shape of a man.

     
     
     
     
     

    Neat

    Hidden by the overhang of a circular bar,
    lies a man who’s seen the bottom of his tumbler.
    No one is above being invisible,
    not even me, with my shirt tidily pressed,

    another man who’s seen the bottom of a tumbler.
    Each swirl of scotch nudges closer to the rim.
    Not even my shirt will stay tidy and pressed,
    my tie cinched and secure. It’s waiting to unravel.

    Each swig of scotch nudges me closer to a rim
    every day, drops roll off the cliff of my parted lips.
    My tie cinched and secure, I’m waiting to unravel,
    waiting to spill into sleep—joints sore and speaking.

    Day drops off a cliff. My lips part,
    I drool on scuffs and bruises from boot and heel.
    What I spill seeps, joins the floor, speaking
    about straight shots taken to the head.

    I’m all scuffle and bruises barely healed.
    A swallow of whiskey won’t drown my questions.
    Another shot won’t take me out of my head.
    Why do I dress with this much care?

    Swallow whiskey? Drown in questions?
    Why a beard so prepared, ensemble so neat?
    Why dress this carefully?
    Why bother to drag a razor through the shadow

    of a beard, prepare, assemble, neatly
    tie a loop with no beginning or end, only
    to be a bother, a draggled, razor-thin shadow,
    hidden by the overhang of a circular bar.
     
     
     
     
     

    Coming Back for You

    Tonight the tide will stretch out. Syringes
    and splinters of glass will be collected.

    Shells and stones that aren’t needed
    until morning will be left cleaving beach.

    You’ll forget that sound in a month
    then remember it on a runway waiting

    for your ears to pop. In Pittsburgh
    a vat overflows and scalds a foundryman

    while a young chef somewhere smothers
    a fire because she lost control of it.

    In a backyard, a boy learns a boomerang
    doesn’t come back to you, only your location;

    if you should be elsewhere when I return
    I may be lost, twirling out of view, while

    exhaust hurries from a bus in Michigan
    hurrying a bouquet of passengers from an airport

    to the missed. An arm scratched red.
    A zippered pouch full of cures. An addict

    who can’t stop picking at his face
    rolls a scab between fingers

    for the remainder of the trip. You watch him
    while stroking a cowry on the necklace I strung

    in Oregon. A pair of teenagers too frightened
    to head home fall asleep watching dawn,

    the Pacific comes ashore to reclaim a hermit crab
    finding only the shell, immovable where it rests.

     
     
     
     
     

    Macrophobia: Fear of Waiting

    I love too many women is not the best lead-in
    for a conversation that will end
    with me telling you I love you
    for the first time. And this might not be
    the best first date topic. I know this,
    but I know it the same way
    twelve-year-old me knew the firecracker
    in my hand would be a dull burst
    lost in the grass if I let it go too soon—
    I’m asking if you are like me.
    Do you let go too soon? Are you afraid
    more of having hands covered in ash
    than you are of getting the timing wrong?
    This is stupid, but I couldn’t wait

    to tell you everything
    about the stranger, who after pushing
    a peppermint over my teeth with her tongue,
    told me she never wanted to leave
    the listening range of my rambling.
    This meant a lot coming from a wanderer
    who would never have to hear it again;
    I was booked on a plane that had already boarded
    when a voice calling my name over the PA
    reminded me I could not afford to wait for a later flight,

    and ever since, I’ve been wondering
    what runway my hesitation will invoke next,

    wondering if it was bad timing
    to finally ask for the dance I promised
    after you had already become a twirling body
    and nervous hand spilling rum across
    someone else’s shoes? I get it, you got sick
    of your life standing like a loaded gun—
    everyday with me another hangfire. This wait
    isn’t foreign to any of us. This wait is a friend
    splitting blinds, looking for his cliché of a father.
    It is a foot pressed against the door
    of a locked closet. A girl stands on line in the rain
    holding two concert tickets and this
    is what rattles us, the space after
    a question mark. Blood work and CAT scans.
    What man faces a firing squad
    without eventually longing for an exit wound.
    This is stupid, but I was afraid to tell you

    I kept fiddling with my phone through dinner
    because I was fascinated
    that every time I tried to type love,
    I miss the o and hit i instead.
    I live you is a mistake I make so often,
    I wonder if it’s not
    what I’ve been really meaning to say.

    I want to say there is patience at the center
    of every firework I hear bloom
    from my balcony, signaling the end
    of a Tigers game, but I can’t see them.
    The second floor isn’t high enough. Clouds
    above the taller buildings flicker, reflecting
    their light, so tonight I’m going to watch that instead.

    Make an evening of it. A dinner date
    with myself and a bowl of handmade guacamole
    from Honey Bee Market, and this time
    I’m going to wait
    to find out if one, just one,
    can get high enough for me to see it explode.
     
     

     
     
     
     

    About Jamaal May

    LA barely Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit, Michigan, where he has taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer, working with such artists as The Four Tops, The Last Poets, and Dead Prez. His first book, Hum, received the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, and an NAACP Image Award nomination. Other honors include the Spirit of Detroit Award, the 2013 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Frost Place, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, The Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University, and Kenyon College where we was named a 2014-2016 Kenyon Review Fellow.

    Recent poetry can be found in The Believer, The New Republic, Poetry, New England Review, Poetry Daily, Best American Poetry 2014, and the anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation (Viking/Penguin, 2015). Recent prose appears online from Poets and Writers Magazine as well as The Poetry Foundation. From Detroit, Jamaal mentors young writers, teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, and co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series with poet Tarfia Faizullah. 

    For more information about Jamaal May’s work please visit his website. Check out his Chapbook Press at Organic Weapon Arts website. You can subscribe to Jamaal’s poetry videos at his youtube channel
     
     

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    All poems © Jamaal May. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Hum (Alice James Books) and were reprinted with permission from the author and Alice James Books.

    By | 2016-11-11T21:48:46+00:00 04.05.14|The Sunday Poem, Words|Comments Off on The Sunday Poem: Jamaal May’s Hum

    About the Author:

    I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.