I spent a good chunk of February 5th with Jamaal May. In hindsight, I should have chugged a gallon of espresso in order to keep up with this fast-talking, passionate, Detroit-based poet. Over lunch with a few Virginia Tech MFA students, May gave away morsels from the craft talk he would be delivering soon afterwards, titled “Steal This Class.” Having experienced teaching poetry in Detroit public schools, May deplores how something as idealistic as the U.S. education system has been boiled down to the place where we are merely programmed.
He elaborated on this during the craft talk at Shanks Hall, where he demonstrated how intelligence is nowadays assessed by how well we are programmed.
“What’s 1 plus 1?” May asked the audience. The chorused reply: “Two.”
“Let’s complicate the question,” May proposed. “One of what?” He went on to explain how this outside-the-box thinking in schools is often interpreted as disrespectful and results in reprimands.
“It depends. For example, if you combine a ball of clay with another ball of clay, you get one ball of clay. 1 plus 1 can equal 1.”
On the subject of looking at things from a different point of view, May shared his perspective on creativity when it comes to writing. “Creation is not making something out of scratch,” he said. “Writers’ building blocks are words that already exist. Creation is in the arrangement.”
And here’s where “Steal This Class” comes in. Art, according to May, is about stealing… and then transforming what you’ve stolen until it is unrecognizable. “Your brain shuts down when it thinks, ‘I know where this is going.’ That’s why clichés don’t work in poetry. Give every line you write something unexpected, while still leading them on with familiarity. If I started with ‘once upon a time,’ you know you’re about to hear a story. But if I said ‘once upon a clothing line,’ that makes your brain go: ‘Wait, what?’”
Perhaps the best bit of advice he had for writers was that we should like our own work. While he spoke of editing his manuscript for his award-winning poetry book, Hum, he said: “I rewrote every line until I liked it.” Devoid of arrogance, May professed his love of sounds (which makes sense, given that he also works as a freelance sound engineer) and language. These are what guide his attitude toward his own work. This was made even clearer later that night at his reading, where he delivered an impassioned performance of his poems (from both Hum and an upcoming publication) at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.
“Poetry is always about the space between,” May said. When asked about what he attempts to achieve with his poetry, he answers that he explores opposing forces and emotions and how they attract and repel each other, representing “the uneasy spaces between human connection.”
According to May, there are three ways to respond to poetry. When a poet is telling you they “feel ways about stuff,” you as a reader can also “feel ways about stuff.” Or you “don’t feel ways about stuff.” Or… you could shut up and listen.
And when you shut up and listen to Jamaal May, you’ll see the space between.
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