Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and the Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press. His poems can be found in the Summer 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poems? What was the hardest part about writing them?
The challenge of “The Sky, Now Black With Birds” was inherent in its subject matter. I don’t always go into a poem wanting to address a specific issue. 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. When I want to address something specific, the “this-should-be-a-poemness” of a subject actually makes the process more troublesome. This is often true of elegies and poems where the trigger is a bizarre bit of trivia as well. These poems are in greater danger of mono-dimensionality, which in a poem with sociopolitical concerns leads swiftly to didacticism. I find that an idea can be so good or important or jarring or socially relevant the poet can be less naturally inclined to find the other spokes that make the wheel turn. My mentor Vievee Francis always said a poem needs torque. I take this to mean a poem always needs a thing moving against another thing around a fulcrum, because without torque nothing moves. I’m kind of old-fashioned in that I want poems to move people.
When I realized Lawrence Brewer would be executed the same day as Troy Davis, I muttered under my breath, “fuck ’em.” My long-held stance against the death penalty was now turning against my instinct to want a white supremacist strapped down and injected. The fulcrum in this case was the question of forgiveness. But to get there I needed something more, I needed a trigger. In my process the trigger is usually an image or texture. For “The Sky, Now Black With Birds” this came in the form of a weird bird name I wanted to use in a poem, “pine siskin.” Once I was few drafts in, that bird disappeared, but the overall figuration of birds remained. From there the tricky part was keeping away from cliché uses of such recognizable symbols—not cull them, but try to look at them anew.
The challenge of “The Hum of Zug Island” is that it’s a sestina and sestinas usually suck. Sorry, I know that’s not deep, but it’s true. I sent it to Kenyon because I trusted it would be looked at skeptically and not make it into the journal unless it somehow managed to be a sestina without the sucking part. Similarly to what I mentioned above, a poem in a received form can fail to go deep enough because the “yay, I got the rules right” sensation can feel similar to the sensation of “I think this poem is doing the work it needs to do.”
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I learned that it can vary wildly and probably should. Being a part of a writing group facilitated by Ross White and Matthew Olzmann called The Grind changed my process into one in which I generate a burst of drafts in a month, then slowly go through them and edit or discard. I call the process “sifting through the wreckage looking for survivors.” Lately I’ve shifted to more of a one-poem-at-a-time approach, mostly because of this year’s many transitions. Over the last five years I learned how essential adaptability is. If I stayed rigid in my thirty-drafts-in-a-row process, my ability to generate poems would have been disabled by my recent schedule.
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. Speaking of editing, I’m not really sure how any poems ever got truly finished before I started working with Organic Weapon Arts Senior Editor Tarfia Faizullah. I’m amazed at how my poems have evolved from collaborating with her.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I almost skipped this question because it’s one of those impossible lists. Also, I hope readers will forgive that I’ve had work in some of these journals, understanding that I tend to only send poems to publications I’ve first enjoyed reading. Again with the old-fashioned.
The Collagist, Blackbird, and Anti are online journals that consistently publish poets who really fit what I love about poetry. It seems like whenever I find a new poet I like, a Google search for them turns up one of these three journals.
Indiana Review is always fresh and exciting to read. Speaking of Indiana, what Marcus Wicker has done over at Southern Indiana Review of late is remarkable.
I’m always excited to read the fiction in The Southern Review and West Branch.
Forklift Ohio is a unique pleasure. A recent issue has a chalkboard cover and came with a carpenter’s pencil.
New England Review was one of the only journals I subscribed to for a long time even though I was broke because I really trusted the editors’ choices. I always get my money’s worth.
Poetry has me fascinated with the ways I’ve seen it evolve over the last few years and I keep wanting to see what happens next.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
This is a question I’ve asked myself on more than a few occasions, since I’m obviously interested in learning so many things that could be primary disciplines. I look at my interests that are probably more marketable skills (website building, audio engineering, graphic design, dslr filming, etc) and wonder why my primary focus is writing.
An excerpt from a recent artist statement better answers this question:
I was told not to argue with fools but went ahead and became a poet anyway. I believe it to be a vocation that demands a certain kind of wise foolishness when looking at the world. A fool as sound as King Lear’s fool can’t help but grapple with contradiction, which in turn is a grappling with the self over the nature of reality. Many things are true at the same time, indeed it has been said (by Heraclitus) that the road up is the road down. Not only can opposites coexist, the definability of their nature is dependent upon that coexistence; violence and peace co-instantiate one another. Yet the mind is programmed to categorize and separate. I look to poetry, with its built-in capacity for compressed and multivalent language, as a place where many senses can be made of the world. If this is true, and I’ve built a life around the notion that it is, poetry can get us closer to reality in all its fluidity and complexity. This is arguably a fool’s errand and what could be more necessary?
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with brilliant teachers who were transformative at the right moments in my writing life, specifically at Warren Wilson, Bread Loaf, and Cave Canem. But if this spot is reserved for one teacher, I have to tell you about Detroit and Texan poet Vievee Francis. I came to her in my twenties having read something in the neighborhood of zero collections of poems. Within six months I was familiar with the work of more than fifty contemporary poets, I was a Cave Canem Fellow, and I had the language to discuss poems in a way that made me useful to my peers in a workshop setting. She challenged me and showed a remarkable amount of respect for my work, not by patting me on the head and telling me I was good, but by providing the rigor that one demands of much more gifted writers than I. She taught me how to write and how to be a writer in the field, the commitment and ethics that go with it. She instilled in me a belief in mentorship, the importance of sharing knowledge and resources, the responsibilities of being a conscientious artist. Her skill as a teacher is surpassed only by her skill with verse. I’m eternally grateful to know her.