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Jamaal May

Visiting Poet

Jamaal May

Jamaal May, described by the Boston Review as a “poet as machinist”, writes exquisite paths between the melancholy and the sublime. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, May explores themes of community, dichotomy, and obsolescence. He is the winner of awards ranging from Poetry magazine’s annual Wood prize to the Spirit of Detroit award, given to Detroit citizens for outstanding achievement and service. He has also been a fellow of Cave Canem, The Kenyon Review, and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy.

A smash success, May’s debut collection Hum (Alice James Books, 2013) catalogues the anxiety and magic of machines. According to reviewer Marty Cain, the poems of Hum are “a spiritual force, presenting a potential for energy, for both violence and renewal”. Each line is carefully constructed and wired among the others, his vision like an engine that supplies dizzying power and movement. May’s home city, Detroit, is the setting and centerpiece of his mechanical whirr and buzz. He possesses a striking ability to peel back layers of the city, breaking down and reconstructing its image as one builds a machine. Poet Natasha Trethewey praises this quality of his work, remarking that “Hum is concerned with what’s beneath the surfaces of things—the unseen that eats away at us or does the work of sustaining us.” Hum was the winner of the 2012 Beatrice Hawley award and a 2014 Notable Book Award from the American Library Association, as well as earning a spot on The Boston Globe’s list of best books in 2013.

May’s second collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies (2016), was also published by Alice James. In a Publishers Weekly review, each line is said to “turn the next, like a skeleton key opening an endless hallway of doors”. May often revisits the stark beauty and pain of Detroit in poems such as “There are Birds Here”, while other poems like “FBI Questioning During The 2009 Inauguration” explore moral and political challenges. In an interview with The Normal School, May points out that those who ask how poetry will change the world “seem to start with the implicit assumption that it could.” He says he believes it already does, “but not in the singular immediate way that seems to be demanded by some to justify the creation of literature. It is one of many human endeavors that, taken together, help to repair our minds into more thoughtful devices.”

Jamaal May is currently a contributing editor of The Kenyon Review, co-founder, along with Tarfia Faizullah, of the Organic Weapon Arts chapbook press and video series, and serves as Distinguished Writer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Select Poems

for Detroit

There are birds here,

so many birds here,

is what I was trying to say

when they said those birds were metaphors

for what is trapped

between fences

and buildings. No.

The birds are here

to root around for bread

the girl’s hands tear

and toss like confetti. No,

I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,

I said confetti, and no

not the confetti

a tank can make out of a building.

I mean the confetti

a boy can’t stop smiling about,

and no his smile isn’t much

like a skeleton at all. And no

their neighborhood is not like

a war zone.

I am trying to say

the neighborhood is as tattered

and feathered as anything else,

as shadow pierced by sun

and light parted

by shadow-dance as anything else,

but they won’t stop saying

how lovely the ruins,

how ruined the lovely

children must be

in your birdless city.

From THE BIG BOOK OF EXIT STRATEGIES (Alice James Books, 2016)

      The heart trembles like a herd of horses. –– Jontae McCrory, age 11

Hold a pomegranate in your palm,

imagine ways to split it. Think of the breaking

skin as shrapnel. Remember granada

means pomegranate and granada

means grenade because grenade

takes its name from the fruit;

identify war by what it takes away

from fecund orchards. Jontae,

these are the arms they will fear from you.

there will always be at least one like you:

a child who gets the picked-over box

with mostly black crayons. One who wonders

what beautiful has to do with beauty as he darkens

a sun in the corner of every page,

constructs a house from ashen lines,

sketches stick figures lying face down––

I know how often red is the only color

left to reach for. I fear for you.

My heart trembles like a herd of horses.

You are writing a stampede into my chest.

This is the same thumping anxiety that shudders

me when I push past marines in high school

hallways, moments after their video footage

of young men dropping from helicopters

in night vision goggles. I want you to see

in the dark without covering your face,

carry verse as countermeasure to recruitment videos,

and remember the cranes buried inside poems

that hung in Tiananmen Square––

remember because Huang Xiang was exiled

for these, exiled for this, the calligraphy of revolt.

You will stand nameless in front of a tank against

those who would rather see you pull a pin

from a grenade than pull a pen

from your backpack. Jontae,

they are afraid.

In a waiting room at the Kresge Eye Center

my fingers trace the outline of folded money

and I know the two hundred fifty dollars there

is made us of two hundred forty-five I can’t afford to spend

but will spend on a calm voice that can explain

how I can be repaired, Instead, the words legally blind

and nothing can be done mean I’ll spend

the rest of the week closing an eye to the world,

watching how easily this becomes that.

The lampposts lining the walk home

are the thinnest spears I’ve ever seen, a row of trash cans

becomes discarded war drums, and teeth

in the mouth of an oncoming truck

want to tear through me. Some of me

always wants to be swallowed


The last thing my doctor said before I lost

my insurance was to see a vision specialist

about the way light struggles and bends

through my deformed cornea.

Before the exam I never closed my right eye

and watched the world become a melting watercolor

with the left. Before a doctor shot light

into the twitching thing, before I realized

how little light I could handle, I never

thought much of the boy who clawed up at me

from beneath my punches, how a fingernail scraped

the eye, or how it closed shut

like a door to a room I could never leave


I could see the reflective mesh of his shoes,

the liquor bottle tossed in an arc

even before it shattered at my feet, and I am embarrassed

at how sharp my eyes were, how deft my body,

my limbs closing the distance––how easily

I owned his face, its fear and fought back tears––

all of it mine. I don’t want to remember the eyes

that glance over shoulder just before

I dragged him like a gazelle into the grass

that was a stretch of gravel and glass

outside a liquor store. How easily this becomes that.


On a suspension bridge I close my bad eye

and it’s like aiming through a gunsight;

even the good eye is only as good as whatever glass

an optometrist can shape. I watch sundown

become a mouth. Broad and black-throated,

it devours the skyline and every reflection.

Horns sprout from the head of my silhouette

rippling dark, dark, dark against the haze of water

and I try to squint that monster

into the shape of a man.

From HUM (Alice James Books, 2013)

About Jamaal

Personal Website
Poetry Center Reading Dates: April 2017