Jamaal May

Meet Faculty member Jamaal May

Meet Jamaal May, Detroit poet and assistant professor at Wayne State. May was welcomed to the English faculty as a visiting lecturer during the 2017-18 academic year and has since taken on a full-time position teaching literature and creative writing courses. As a native Detroiter, May writes with a distinct angle of vision that gives voice to the city and its complex history. His published works and poetry performances have garnered national recognition, with poems featured in venues spanning from Gulf Coast to The New York Times. Thus far, he has published two volumes of poetry, Hum (2013) and The Big Book of Exit Strategies (2016), along with two chapbooks of poetry, The Whetting of Teeth (2012) and The God Engine (2009). His book, Hum, has received numerous awards, including the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books and an NAACP Image Award nomination. In addition to teaching, writing and performing, May also co-directs the chapbook publishing company, Organic Weapon Arts. The following is a transcript of a conversation with May, slightly edited for clarity.

What first inspired you to write poetry?

It started out as just a challenge to myself, but my twin sister really encouraged me to give it a shot. I had a lot of social anxiety at the time. I was really shy and mainly just kept to myself. In poetry, I found something I could do that took something from inside of me and became a mode of expression in an exterior way. After that, it was like going down the rabbit hole.

Since you’ve begun writing and performing, how has the poetry landscape changed in your opinion?

I’d say the biggest shift has been the perceived division between what would be called “performance poetry” and what would be called “page poetry.” I would say that because of various things like Bloody Publishing and the increasing number of books being published by people who have won things like national poetry slams like Danez Smith, we basically have a new landscape where aesthetics are less important to the quality of work, and people are more willing to check out different kinds of poetry.

What are your thoughts on “Insta-poets” and social media’s impact on poetry in general? Do you think it’s a positive thing?

I’m still kind of tracking that, but it’s definitely a new phenomenon. I would say that the net value of it is going to be positive just in general. More people seeing poetry as something that they’re used to is always a positive thing. What I’m interested in, though, is the aesthetic impact. I’m seeing poets, that wouldn’t necessarily be called Instapoets, that are working with really really short lines, and that’s something I’m interested in, too. I mean, technique-wise, how does that impact people, the way people write and express themselves?

I think it’s really exciting that more people are engaging with this side of poetry. I’ll meet students that find a way to connect with me by saying, “Hey, my friend is an insta-poet and they’ve got friends.” It’s sort of like trading cards, like trading little poems and poets with people. So, I like the social aspect of that, too.

How has growing up in Detroit influenced your writing career?

My first book was very influenced by Detroit, and it was something I didn’t really realize was happening until I was outside of Detroit. I went to Pennsylvania to do a fellowship at Bucknell University while I worked on my first book, and I had all these poems where I didn’t necessarily want to write about Detroit because I felt like a lot of lazy art gets made about Detroit. I was more interested in people and their interactions. But then, when I was looking at all these poems that I had grouped together, I saw and felt this texture of Detroit. I found a lot of concrete and rough and broken glass, stuff like that. So my first book very much has this sort of Detroit-textural overlay.   

You mentioned a while back that you were developing a creative writing course centered on inventing fantasy realms. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Yeah, so it’s going to be about world-building. We’ll be looking at things from the perspective of creating characters, and creating landscapes and places for those characters, and then creating scenarios out of that. It’s kind of like working the wheel backward. So, the fantasy aspect of that is speculative in general. How do you create a world that is parallel to the one that you live in? We’ll look at how, when you create a fantasy world, you automatically tend to critique the world that you’re making it out of. So, those kinds of concepts come up.

It’s going to be fun. It’ll also be good for people that get stuck creatively in the academic space. There’s something about deadlines and schedules that can throw off the creative vibe. I’m hoping it’ll be a new way into students’ creativity. Someone who might have trouble getting a story started might have this new approach where they just start with a character, or they start with the city that they’re creating. So, from a creative standpoint, it’ll give students some tools to get their stuff done. Something that’s really advantageous about working at Wayne State is that they give me a lot of freedom with what I teach.

By Amelia Mazur