Interview with Jamaal May
Interviewer: Anna Claire Hodge
Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit, MI where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer. His first book, Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), received the Beatrice Hawley Award, the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, and an NAACP Image Award nomination. Other honors include the Indiana Review Prize, the Spirit of Detroit Award, and the Stadler Fellowship. Most recently, Jamaal has been awarded a Rose O’neill Literary House Cave Canem Residency, the Kenyon Review Fellowship, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy. Jamaal’s poems appear in such periodicals as The New Republic, The Believer, Poetry, Ploughshares, NYTimes.com, and Best American Poetry 2014. A graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers, Jamaal co-edits the poetry section of Solstice, teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, and co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series with Tarfia Faizullah.
Hip-hop artists are often categorized by region, and Detroit has produced both legends (Eminem, J Dilla) and newcomers making names for themselves (Danny Brown, Angel Haze, Big Sean). Who are the writers representing the Motor City and who should we be on the lookout for? Can you define the literary “sound” of Detroit?
Speaking of hip-hop, I realize I’m way more excited about Danny Brown and Angel Haze than my listening habits indicate. There’s an Angel Haze track on my “unfuckwitable” playlist that I just can’t stop replaying, and Danny Brown sounds like the truth every time I hear him. I’m embarrassed at how few tracks total I’ve heard from either of them. There just seems to be so little time to sit with the new jams lately, especially with the insane range of genres that vie for slots in the rotation. Catching another awesomely and hilariously ignorant verse from Big Sean here and there let’s me pretend like I’m still in the loop on what’s hot just before I listen to the first Portishead album for the 700 millionth time or try to play Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” terribly on guitar. I’m that guy that calls you out of breath to ask if you heard the “new” Big Boi album that came out two years ago.
It really has been an exciting time for Detroit writers. The names I can’t stop repeating are many: Vievee Francis, Matthew Olzmann, francine j. harris, Tommye Blount, Terry Blackhawk, Nandi Comer, Chace Morris, Robert Fanning, Natasha Miller—just to name a small sample of newer writers. Many of us are dispersed around the country, doing that mercenary writer thing. We also lay claim to a bevy of more established writers like Carolyn Forche, Phillip Levine, Jim Daniels, and Toi Derricotte.
I can’t really say that there is a Detroit sound when it comes to poetry—if anything, what stands out is the range of voices coming from the city right now. Chace Morris (who is also a phenomenal hip-hip artist named Mic Write) has a somewhat staccato style that hits with a lot of power, while Tommye Blount is one of the most patient and intimate writers I’ve met.
I will say that there is a certain work ethic though. Detroiters tend not to be all that precious about the making of art. There is a sense of urgency in all the writers I named, a sense that something is always at stake. That something is rendered and interrogated with a sense of craftsmanship that I do think is a part of the Detroit vibe. There’s something about that combination of people wrestling with this deeply personal art form living somewhere that gets painted in the media with a broad brush that can’t handle the detail in our faces.
I agree with Carolyn Forche’s assertion that the personal and the political shouldn’t necessarily get to have their own rooms. In Detroit there’s just no way to engage the interior without seeing the ramifications of society on the self and the self on society. The city is basically being run by an unelected (governor appointed) official who wants to sell all of our Picasso paintings. That’s a sentence that exists today in America. It is a sentence that necessitates more attention on the art, music, and literature of Detroit.
On a similar note, how did music factor in to the writing of Hum and your current work? Which artists were in heavy rotation during the book’s inception and how can we see their influence within the poems, ordering, or visual aspects of Hum?
I think whatever connection music has to my poetry, it’s much more subtle for me than a lot of other writers I know. I know music is there pressing against the words but I don’t often see a direct impact on the language choices or prosody. “How to Disappear Completely” is named after a Radiohead song, so there is one of the more overt influences.
I purposefully left hip-hop alone while working on the poems that eventually became Hum. Having spent a brief moment producing and recording in the genre, it didn’t offer up as subject matter the kind of new challenges that were drawing me deeper into poetry. I follow what’s new and frightening and I wasn’t afraid of hip-hop. I was afraid of the interior. So that’s where I went. I didn’t think I could do that while lugging around the tropes and diction and political baggage of a musical genre, especially one other poets have already mined for far better poems than I’d ever produce with those materials.
Ordering is where a musical impact starts to show. One of my considerations was how to make it feel kind of like a good playlist or studio album. I love when the next track feels unexpected yet perfectly matched with the previous song. There’s a temptation when ordering a collection to put everything in the neatest thematic order possible (war poems all go here, love poems, you’re over there, etc). Hum is arguing for an intrinsic connection across many disparate people and things, so it made more sense for it to move in a way that felt varied while maintaining cohesion—like an album. I heard C. Dale Young call this organic ordering. I make sure to mention that every time it comes up so that he doesn’t retroactively fail me or something. I’m sure he has such powers.
I also wanted my “album” to have zero filler tracks. I was warned that a lot of young poets rush and that they try to put every poem they ever wrote in the first book—especially the previously published ones. It’s obvious why you can’t just throw a track on the album that isn’t mixed as well as the others and I think it should be just as obvious to poets. I asked every poem what it was doing in the book and “I look like those poems” or “I was published by that good journal” just weren’t good enough answers. Musicians are always cutting bad takes and dropping songs off albums. I hated that moment after Tupac and Biggie when everyone thought they needed a double album. They all produced mediocre at best projects that would have actually been solid if distilled down [to] the best songs. I fought with Hum until it was just above the minimum page count (49pgs). I just couldn’t fathom that every one of the 70+ poems that could fit and could work in the manuscript could argue they too were all songs from “Thriller.” Turns out none were, but you get what I’m saying.
It has been my observation that writers (myself included) often ping pong between feelings of extreme egotism and self-loathing. What tactics do you use to quiet those dissonant states and find a more balanced, optimistic emotional space for yourself?
My answer to this question these days keeps coming back to the work. I’ve found that when I focus on the work there isn’t much time for feeling either grandiose or defeated. Those feelings come and go and the work stays. That’s what I tell myself when I need to get back up off the floor. I used to have this thing I called the “get off the bathroom floor” conversation with myself. It was so named because it helped me peel my face away from the tile on two separate occasions. I would basically run through what I should do next if I’m right that my poems are abominations and the fraud police are going to show up at any moment. Turns out the answer is always the same as what I would do if I could bring myself to wholly trust all the kind emails I get about my poems: try to write better poems. Write closer to the bone, think more carefully, listen more, read more. This is where my logic brain could overpower my anxiety; If I had to write poems anyway, and I had to try to do it better than before anyway, it doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong about how much I suck. I might as well get off the floor and started.
Lately I’ve been feeling healthier around all this than I ever have. It helps that the book is out in the world having its own life, but more importantly, I’m just in a better emotional place generally. Looking back, it feels so cynical and arrogant to be wholly convinced that I was the only one smart enough to know that the poems that so many people support and connect to are actually terrible. Maybe they are, but it takes a certain kind of asshole to look at literally thousands of people and think you’ve duped them all. I learned to accept that other people connect to the poems even when I don’t believe in myself and eventually I just found myself worrying about it less and less one way or the other. I just do the work.
I’m enthralled by your poem, “How To Get The Gun Safely Out Of Your Mouth” and upon reading it, furiously emailed it to nearly everyone in my contacts, non-writers included. Can you name a poem to which you reacted similarly and describe that experience?
I know I should have some famous dead person cued up for these kinds of questions, but I just had that experience with the poet I mentioned earlier, Tommye Blount. He has two absurdly powerful and brilliant poems in the recent New England Review. It’s not easy to say which is more devastating, but “The Black Umbrella” is probably the jam. That Dickinson thing happened when I read the first poem, “What Are We Not For.” After “The Black Umbrella” I was undone. It’s so precise and engaging and deliberate. The poem never lets go.
Between residencies, touring in support of Hum, and your teaching position at the low-residency MFA program of Vermont College of Fine Arts, you’re constantly traveling. Though you have a more permanent home in Detroit, how does moving in and out of these liminal spaces of residency inform your writing habits? Are you able to draft poems on the road?
I draft pretty sparingly in general. It looks like I crank out poems to some people because the last couple of years I’ve submitted most of my new work to lit mags in big chunks. They all get picked up and come out in various journals over the next several months and looks like a steady stream of production. But those are poems I drafted and then spent the next several months (or a couple of years in many cases) thinking over and editing. Most of the new drafts happen in a single month and then I take the pieces that aren’t terrible and try to build working machines from this fan blower and that throttle. Anybody who has ever done a month with me in the Daily Grind writing group can attest that I barely ever write anything worth a damn. But if I build enough clumsy devices I usually end up finding the part another poem was missing, or I find the pieces to build a gizmo that works.
So, I don’t really generate new drafts on the road, but the road does feel like part of my writing process. I used to write all of my poems in my head back when I only recited them and never sent anything out for publication. I still find myself holding on to lines, or more often these days, images or strange connections. I always know I’m filing stuff away for later. I like to write when it feels like there’s so much in me I have to get it out so I can go back into the world and be filled with more chaos to parse.
The road also keeps me balanced and actually living. If I didn’t have an aspect to my life that consistently makes sure I end up in places where there are other humans, I probably wouldn’t do it much. I know I need to connect with other people, it’s why I write, but I kind of hate going outside. Most people assume I like being out because they only see me when I’m out. In small intervals, I can kill it as a human. But then I have to go hide and recover. That’s why I don’t go out on the road for much more than a few days usually.
I’ve also spent the last 10 years learning social skills and getting over a level of anxiety that has caused me panic attacks in the past. A long bout with stage fright that kept me off the road for a chunk of 2011 brought into relief how little face-to-face interacting I do when I’m not giving readings. I remember a particular two-week stretch where I didn’t go outside until I ran out of food. I went to the grocery store, used the automated checkout so I didn’t have to have to talk to anyone and then went back inside for another week or so. I’m also aware that I keep adding skillsets that make it dangerously easy to avoid the outdoors as a career (web design, editing, audio engineering, book design, video editing, color grading, etc). So touring is a way for me to know, when push comes to shove, that there’s a day on the calendar where I am contractually obligated to go outside and meet people.
Your academic experience was non-traditional, having leapt directly into Warren Wilson’s low-residency MFA program rather than an undergraduate degree. Do you champion even more non-traditional pathways to literary success, possibly outside of academia?
In the sense of academic experience I guess it was non-traditional, but if we pan out to the bigger picture of education, rather than just education in the academy, we can see that my route is actually pretty old-fashioned. I learned through self-study and mentorship just like most poets did before the very recent development of the creative writing workshop. I think the notion of learning poetry writing primarily inside the academy is somewhat non-traditional. Once upon a time, if you wanted to be a poet, you read a lot and followed the poet you revered around and begged them to mentor you. The first creative writing program was started in 1936—and remember, it didn’t spring up alongside several hundred other programs. America has to be the only place that thinks of a system created less than 90 years ago as being “traditional,” while the mode that predates said system by thousands of years is considered innovative. I hear professors complain about the workshop model all the time as if it’s this 2,000 year old, tried and trued system that we’re just stuck with. The thing hasn’t been around as long as network television and we’re already one generation or so from people having no clue what a TV network used to do. Yet we talk about the workshop model like it’s the sphinx or the Great Wall.
Sorry, been waiting for an excuse to bring that up in an interview. So, yeah, I do champion paths outside of the academy. But not because I’m on that generic “the academy is evil” bandwagon. I think the academy is vital to contemporary poetry right now for a few reasons, the most basic of which being that it puts food on certain tables and enables thousands to hear poetry readings for free. I also think workshops can be crazy useful at certain stages of a writing life. The most dangerous thing about the academy is probably that people think it’s the only route, which is absurd when you consider the range of personalities one finds at a lit conference. There’s no way all these people are supposed to have the same path and the same job description.
Then there’s just the practical job issues. There are too many poets graduating for everyone to work in the academy, so much of that is working itself out right now on its own. More and more people are wondering why they adjunct for schools with awful labor practices when they could bartend and get more work done, make more money, and have something more interesting to write about. It’s more important than ever for people to figure out if teaching is something they want to do, or something they’ve assumed they have to do to be a writer. Being a teacher is not for everyone and if we had less writers out there doing it because it seems to be the correct path, there would be more jobs for the people who live for being in front of a class.
Your second manuscript, The Big Book of Exit Strategies, has not yet been published. If you were to liken Hum to an artist’s debut album and The Big Book to his/her sophomore effort, who would you choose and why?
I’m going to go with Outkast on this one. I thought about Portishead and A Tribe Called Quest and Fiona Apple, but there’s something about the way Outkast seemed to transform sounds and go to this new place on Atliens while still maintaining the core of what made Southernplaylisticadalacfunkymusic a classic. I think the new manuscript is in conversation with the first while approaching new concerns and moving language around in ways that feel different for me. The poems are more intimate and mostly shorter than the average poem in Hum. I want to pull off that same impossible trick Outkast did, the sophomore that shows growth and doesn’t supplant the debut. Instead it complements it with its difference as much as its similarities.
Anna Claire Hodge is a PhD student at Florida State University and a recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in The Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Collagist, Willow Springs, Copper Nickel, MiPoesias and others. Her poems have been anthologized in It Was Written: Poems Inspired By Hip-Hop and Best New Poets 2013.