Jamaal May, Poet & Realist

Jamaal May Picture - McKennaIn poetry class my Junior year, we recited poems we found intriguing or moving in order to practice our oral interpretation skills and bring us closer to the work of other poets. Before I knew who Jamaal May was or heard he would be attending Douglas Anderson’s Writer’s Festival, I recited his piece “There are Birds Here,” a piece of his which is dedicated to Detroit. Previously, I read it as a jab to critics who tried to put symbolism and emphasis into every poem they read, but today, understanding who he is as a writer, I see it as him asking people not to sugarcoat what is real and true.

This piece connects to his other work, where he writes to show what he sees as true and does not attempt to hide it under any circumstance. In every piece he builds up cohesive images and ideas until the final sentence where he adds something impactful, something you didn’t expect when reading about a boy whacking fireflies with a stick. In poems like “Hum for the Hammer,” there is a more industrial focus that involves more tactile imagery like in the line, “May sandpaper be the rough hand that rubs you smooth,” and still captures this human feeling as naturally as his childhood and community-centered poems.

Upon reading more of Jamaal May’s work, I’ve also come to admire how he can bend a narrative into poetic format. As a writer who leans more towards the fiction genre, creating poems focused on single emotions or moments without full flourishing sentences and thoughts is extremely challenging. Yet May manages to pull off this poetic vibe even when there are long sentences, like in his piece “On Metal,” published through Gulf Coast Journal. Despite there being a whole narrative focus, there are still poetic elements, abstract ideas, a meaning that could only be provided through the poetic format he gives it.

Balancing between gritty textures and light or sometimes religious imagery, Jamaal creates statement pieces about the state of the world he grew up in and the one he lives in now, including both man, machine, and sometimes even God. His narrative pieces remind us as both writers and readers that there are no limitations in poetry and the poets that show us that are the ones that we should look forward to seeing again and again.

-McKenna Flanagan, Senior Art Editor


Movements of a Trapped Animal

Maddie-Jamaal May Pic BlogpostA few years ago I discovered the poet, Jamaal May doing a spoken word piece on Button Poetry, which I recommend checking out, “Movements of a Trapped Animal.” I instantly became drawn to the rawness and honesty he achieves in the poem and knew that was something I wanted to achieve in my own writing. Hearing that he was coming to Writers Fest on March 5th was incredibly exciting and I really can’t wait to meet him and be able to learn from someone who has achieved the art of being able to do spoken word and write poetry really well while also keeping them in very separate worlds. He started out being better known for his slam poetry, being a member of six national slam teams, most from Detroit where he grew up and one from New York. He has won the Rustbelt Regional Slam three times and has been a finalist for many national and international slams.

When I first heard his piece, “Movements of a Trapped Animal,” I was just flipping through Button Poetry on YouTube. Listening to spoken word pieces is one of my favorite past times. I almost skipped past it because I assumed it was going to be about hunting or trapping and that didn’t exactly appeal to me, but I listened anyways. His presence on stage immediately eases you into the piece, welcomes you. He is comfortable and it allows you to fall whole heartedly into the piece, something many spoken word artists still work at achieving, something I still work at achieving. His purposeful hand gestures, full voice, inflection, and well-placed pauses force you to listen as he takes you on the journey of PTSD in Americans, not just war veterans, but everyone.

Also on Button Poetry is his piece, “Sky Now Black with Birds,” which he performs in his hometown Detroit at the Rustbelt Regional Slam. He walks us through the feelings of grief and the anger that comes with it and the eventual acceptance that one needs to forgive.

I swear,
the word has feathers. I want
to learn to get its wings between my teeth
before more retribution
blots out the sky.”

I ordered his poetry collection, “Hum,” online. It was the first thing I had read and enjoyed in a long time because it was something I was genuinely interested in. It wasn’t an assignment or anything, I read it because I wanted to. I want to be able to walk up to him at Writers Festival and tell him his poetry has made a difference in my poetry. I will also be able to tell him that I’ve spent the time I should have spent writing, reading and listening to his work. I hope he takes that as a compliment.

-Madison Dorsey, Junior Poetry Editor