In 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