Jamaal May: Full Interview
This page contains a full transcript of my interview with Jamaal May. We did the interview over instant messaging, so what you’re seeing is 99% exact on what was said. (The exceptions are minor typo corrections and a couple places where I re-grouped comments for the sake of clarity.)
If you don’t have time to read the full interview right now, I encourage you to check out my interview highlights.
If you don’t already know who Jamaal May is, check out my spotlight page on him. If you do already know him, be sure you subscribe to Jamaal’s YouTube page, sign up for his mailing list, browse his website, and buy his books.
Now, on to the main event!
Interview with Jamaal May
Rob D Young: This is Rob D Young doing a chat interview today with award-winning (and truly bad-ass) performance poet Jamaal May. Let’s start with some of your basic FAQs.
First of all, I’d love your “summed up” version of yourself. Care to give an introduction?
Jamaal May: That’s kind of thing is always tricky since the overall goal of the art I make is to resist summary. The easier something is to summarize, the more limited it feels. So maybe that’s a way to sum me up: I try to move towards expansiveness. But I suppose my answer is supposed to be something less existential and along the lines of I’m a poet and performer and educator and editor from Detroit who dabbles in graphic design, music, and now photography and film.
RDY: The summary is great, but I think I like the refusal of summary even more.
So labels like this—for example, a “poet”—do you believe or buy into the notion that you are a “poet”?
JM: Yes I do. I just don’t think it captures the range. But I’m definitely a poet.
The reason it’s problematic isn’t because of some notion that I don’t think of myself as a poet as much as because the word is limited to context. If I tell one group of people I’m a poet, they’ll wonder if I’m published. If I tell a different group, they’ll wonder how many slam teams I’ve been on. Yet another will be perplexed that there even still are people writing poetry in this era.
RDY: Absolutely. And I’d love to jump back to definitions of “poet” and the context of different audiences in a bit. For now, I’d love to hear: When did you realize you were a “poet”? What’s the story of how you moved toward that identity, restricting and incomplete though it might be?
JM: I don’t think it’s an identity to move into. It’s more like a thing I do. I feel like when you say are a poet or sculptor or musician, it means you actively engage those art forms. Because of that, I don’t have a notion of when I took on said identity. The best I can do is say when I knew I was writing poems, and that was in the spring of 2004 when I went out for and made Detroit’s National Poetry Slam team.
RDY: That’s great. What got you into that scene?
JM: My twin sister used to tell me that the hip hop stuff I was working on was well-written and that I should consider getting into poetry. I resisted the notion but kept checking out the slam stuff she had put me up on. At time I tink Saul Williams and Jessica Care Moore was her thing. Eventually I got browbeat into agreeing to go with a friend to a slam venue in Detroit called the Key Club.
I rearranged a couple of the songs I was working on in my head (I didn’t write things down back then) and decided if I was going to try it, I was going to enter the slam.
I took second place and people afterwards encouraged me to check out other venues around the city. I won the next slam and then every one I competed in for the next several weeks, writing new poems for every one of them. 6 or 7 weeks after my first time walking into a poetry venue I was Detroit’s Grand Slam Champion.
RDY: It’s interesting to me that you didn’t write your poems down originally, especially since you work in a territory that often crosses, blurs, or rejects the lines between poetry of the stage and poetry of the page. Your video of “I do have a seam” is a wonderful example of this.
What are your thoughts on working in these different forms and contexts?
JM: One of the reasons I do write everything down now is because I wanted to start generating work that could stand up on the page. There are just so many writing shortcuts one can get away with in a performance for several reasons.
The page became an important goal for me because I realized what I could do in slam was limited by the format in some ways. I was fortunate enough to recognize early that slam had a ceiling and that I’d have to be proactive about learning more about the field of poetry as a whole.
This may seem paradoxical, but one of the reasons I’m able to blur that line, and why I suspect many can’t, is because I started off treating them as very different things.
I started studying verse under a mentor, Vievee Francis, after I was already making my living as a poet and hip hop artist. Mostly a poet though.
I started from scratch and wrote poems that weren’t performable by any stretch of the imagination. Limitations can be a good way to grow. It’s like training with weighted clothes. Vievee didn’t let me use rhyme and repetition for a long time. That forced me to understand the music of a poem better. I also had to learn other ways to make a poem work, like careful diction and deft rhetorical moves.
These are, of course, all things that are useful to performance poetry as well, but to see it I had to strip away some of the more glaring devices.
I think a lot of performance poets want to believe they can just take their poems, slap them down on paper, and transform them into literature. There is a craft to making a poem work on the page that you just can’t learn without reading deeply and attempting to write for the page.
Once I had the lay of the land, I slowly started erasing my self-imposed divisions. At first all of my page work was really short (something else performers would benefit from trying), so to keep having new work to compete in slams with, I started combining shorter poems and tweaking them into performance pieces. From there I moved into a space where I just wrote the best poem I could write and then figured out if there was a way to perform it.
Now I don’t think I have poems I wouldn’t be comfortable reading anywhere or poems that aren’t publishable. The biggest testament to the merger is that the slam poem that currently nets me the highest scores is also the page poem being published by one of the most prestigious lit mags in the country, Kenyon Review. But it started with dissecting what worked in one format, what didn’t, and what was universal. Understanding the way performance work tends to wrap things up at the end, versus how work on the page should open up and resonate was vital to finding poems that have emotional closure, without shutting down neatly, so that the poems can be reread and keep resonating.
I think the best performance poets (I’m talking your Pattricia Smiths, Marty McConnells, and Anis Mojganis of the world) are usually pretty strong on the page because the way a good page poem resists easy summary may not be the end all be all in a performance, but it matters more than people assume. There are poets who can easily win a slam that no one in the room leaves thinking, I need to hear that poem again. The inverse of this is the best poets on the page usually have work that lives wonderfully in the air because that attention to music is more important than many writers may expect of something being read.
And I think that’s every damn thing.
RDY: This is all incredibly interesting stuff. As a quick side-note, how long do I have you for? I want to be sure I prioritize my questions.
JM: I planned on an hour, but we can go over. I’ll try to be concise going forward. That last one is a huge question.
RDY: And your response was packed with juicy stuff that I’d love to sink my teeth further into. For now, though, I’d like to hit on two side-notes before moving on to my next big question. First, you mention Vievee Francis. I found some work of hers published on. Rattle, etc., but I don’t see a website or profile page. If you know of one, that’d be great. If not, a rapid-fire bio would be useful.
JM: She doesn’t do facebook or a website and the like. It’s impossible to even snap a picture of her that she hasn’t commissioned herself. Kind of a semi-recluse. She does readings and and conferences and things but doesn’t move through the social networks
This is an interview and her bio is at the bottom.
RDY: Bingo. Thank you.
Second, you mentioned the need to abandon some of the more “glaring devices.” Do you have specific devices that you would point to? Any pet peeves of the performance poetry scene?
JM: Basically a key thing to look at is how emphatic the device. Even when it’s the same device like repetition. Performance work can get away with more didacticism than work on the page, so it’s more common to see tons of anaphora in a performance space whereas it tends to be used more sparingly on the page. A page poem that tells you what to think is really off-putting. There’s no one their to put a personality you agree with to it.
I’m not explaining this well. I wrote a 40-page paper on it that I’m trying not to rehash. Let me look at something else…. Endings. In performance, people can’t go back to the beginning or sit and reflect. The next guy is up doing his thing. So slam evolved to have a bow at the end of many poems. On the page a bow at the end of the poem feels insulting.
I think this is because a poem is always a participatory event. The only way the reader has to participate on the page is to think through things. In a slam there’s cheering, eye contact, score cards, merch, community, all that interaction. On the page my experience as a reader is dependent upon me being allowed to come to my own conclusions. This is why the bow doesn’t work.
Easy rhyme sounds fine one go through, but can feel childish on several repeats, which is what a poem on the page has to withstand. It’s not so much that the devices are different. The volumes are.
RDY: That makes a lot of sense to me. If we have time, I’d like to come back to the notion of “agreement.” It’s struck as vital in performance poetry to get your audience on your side, and the methods to do this are ones that—as a page poet—I find to be, at a minimum, strange. It’s not that I don’t agree with the same things, but often the obvious nature is off-putting. (For example, “Rape is bad. Incest is bad.” I’m not saying I’m on the other side of the fence, but it’s hard for me to grasp why this evokes a cheer.)
But for now, I’d like to move on to the main part of what you said at the Salt Lake City Slam in December that caught my ear. I don’t recall exactly what you said, but the note I scrawled on my napkin was this: “We create contradictory ideas wherein we seek to capture the real experience in the liminal space between.”
Can you unpackage, correct, and expand on what I jotted down?
JM: No doubt.
A friend of mine, Melissa Roberts, pointed out in a class at Warren Wilson that (and I’m totally paraphrasing and not doing this justice) our brains are designed for survival, but that design, in a way, obscures the way the world really works. For example, categorization is necessary to staying alive: berries=yummy, sabertooth tigers=dead. But so much of our lives, especially our engagements with one another, are not easily demarcated.
People we love make feel like shit. People we hate know how we like to be touched. We’re terrified of things that bring us true joy and we can laugh at funerals. Poetry, in a way, struggles towards that messiness as a way to make sense of the world. That gradient between all things is where true existence is. I think this is why metaphor is so important to poetry and so prevalent in our day to day lives. The experience of considering that liminal space where two unlike things cross over where our complicated and truer selves live.
I think we resist this space, because of the dangers that lie therein, while simultaneously craving it. This is why poetry has such a small slice of the culture pie, but won’t go away. It’s never been popular on the scale of music or film but people keep finding it.
We implicitly know the world is a gray, complicated place and want to get away from that. But [a] part of us need[s] to check in with that reality. Some us can’t help but build a house and live there, so we make challenging art.
RDY: As an attempt, in some sense, to re-expand a world that has been made two-dimensional for the sake of simple, linear, survivalistic comprehension?
JM: Well put. Though I am for the first time feeling the need to throw in a disclaimer and attribute this to [the] modern [era] after things changed so dramatically in the 20th century.
I think the prevalence of meter and end rhyme in western poetry’s history hints more to an attempt to render the ordered world as it was generally seen to varying degrees throughout history. But now I’m speculating beyond the bounds of my knowledge.
RDY: It’s an interesting idea to explore.
The other element of what you talked about at the SLC Slam that I made a specific note about was “torque.” You mentioned the need for poetry to have torque, and the idea caught me. What do you mean when you say “torque,” and how can we imbue our poetry with it?
JM: This is one of those words [where] applying its general definition to the idea of poetics immediately reveals how it can useful: It is a twisting force that tends to cause rotation. Something needs to [be] working against something else in a poem for there to be rotation. There has to be rotation for it go anywhere. I think that gets to the heart of it without me elaborating too much.
As to how to imbue poems with torque, the methods are legion. Metaphor is a good an example as any. In a metaphoric construction, what is important isn’t merely what the two things being compared have in common, but how they are different.
Black like a shadow.
Doesn’t have the same weight as:
Black like a clarinet.
Shadow is too close to black to have any torque. There’s no rotation. We don’t go anywhere.
One can’t think of a clarinet without seeing its shimmering onyx and all those polished valves. That turns against the general idea of black. (I’m pulling this out of nowhere so excuse me for not having more robust example.)
RDY: The spontaneity of it works in its favor, I think. Clarinet is surprising in a way that a more planned example may not be. I think it works well.
For the sake of respecting your time, I’d like to ask my “standard closing questions” now. If you have more time to talk about some of the things we brushed past, we’ll double back. You already answered one of my questions: “What’s the point of poetry in an overarching, possibly melodramatic, universal sense?” If you have something to add to that, feel free.
JM: I can go deeper into the value of poetry, which to me can be expanded to include art in general. It begins with the supposition that people are connected. Cruelty and apathy are dependent upon the notion that we are not. Genocide, land theft, slavery, drone attacks, torture . . . none of this can exist without convincing large groups of people that “they are not us.” Engaging in art makes one participate on some level in the act of being connected to something outside of the self that is actively speaking to the self.
Not everyone comes out of this engagement a better person, but try to find a hundred people who did not. Art can change a person. It’s interesting that this point seems debatable when so many people attest to being changed by it. The more people that are thinking and feeling their way through the world in the way poetry encourages, the better off we’ll all be. I regularly get emails from changed people.
After 9 years I must have received hundreds of comments on poetry has enriched them. Those people go out into the world and interact with hundreds more. Some write poems that reach even more. We’re like a social ecosystem and poetry is one of our more healthy nutrients.
RDY: Who are some of the poets (slam and otherwise) who you enjoy? I’m especially interested in names we probably haven’t heard before.
JM: Some of my favorite emerging writers right now are francine j. harris, Vievee Francis, Tarfia Faizullah, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Matthew Olzmann. Favorite poets also working with performance right now include a lot of the usual suspects Rachel McKibbens, Roger Bonair Agard, Marty McConnel, Gypsee Yo, William Evans, Jeannane Verlee, Jon Sands. Other contemporary favorites right now are Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, Linda Gregerson, Bob Hicok, Ellen Bryant Voight. I could list poets forever.
RDY: Wonderful list. Thanks for giving me so many names.
What makes a poem a poem? Is it found in the form, in the lyric qualities, or is there something deeper that allows verse or prose to transcend, becoming something that is essentially a capital-P Poem?
JM: A poem is a piece of writing in which the line is the central element rather than the sentence. It has an attention to music, compression, and nuanced language. Not a sexy definition, but I think it serves. I kind of roll my eyes when people try to paint anything they decide to be poetry as poetry. I really do think there is a such thing as a poem. Can it take on many shapes, forms, and aesthetics? It better. But it matters to me that practitioners of the craft acknowledge that there is a craft to practice.
RDY: As a side-note there, I’m often lost when people talk about prose poetry, partially because no one has been able to provide a satisfactory definition of a “prose poem” that doesn’t simultaneously disqualify much of our historical canon of poetry. Do you believe in the prose poem?
JM: Yes. I have a friend that doesn’t “believe” in it, which is funny.
I had trouble nailing down when something was a prose poem until I read a lot of prose poems and realized two poems in my book worked better in the form
A prose poem still engages the line, by doing away with it. A true prose poem doesn’t read like prose. Line breaks add emphasis to specific words. In a poem where that’s not desired or is taking away from what the poem should do, a prose form may work better.
In a prose poem, the syntactical groupings demarcate the music rather than the line. This happens in lineated poems too, but in a prose poem, they are the central groupings, which may be the poet’s desired effect. But like with any form, many people use it willy nilly. Sometimes to be cool, sometimes to hide the inability to break lines purposefully. Form should always match the poem’s aims.
RDY: Great. Well, we’ve covered a hell of a lot of ground.
JM: Looks like we got it in in two hours. Not bad.
RDY: We have indeed stretched it to two hours, so I’m guessing doubling back to our other topics won’t work. You’re welcome to comment on some of those items now, or if you have time and want to send an email on that work, feel free. I’ll find appropriate ways to incorporate it.
JM: I feel like I got a lot in. I’ll hit you up if something vital leaps out at me.
RDY: So, for record-keeping and to mark the end of the official interview thank you very much for your time. It really has been a pleasure. This was jam-packed.
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Rob D Young