Rethinking Stealing with Jamaal May

Jamaal May

Jamaal May

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?’”

HumPerhaps 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.

-Mariana S.

Want to know more about Virginia Tech’s Visiting Writers Series? Click here!

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33 thoughts on “Rethinking Stealing with Jamaal May

  1. I understand what May means when he says that ““Your brain shuts down when it thinks, ‘I know where this is going,’ but then again I also think that towards the end of one poem’s writing the brain thinks “I know where I want this to go, and now have to figure out how to get there.” May’s remark about revising each line until it pleases him (let us all emulate that) suggests the same. Revising once you know what you want is, like openness in a first draft, also creative and exciting. For formal poems, this can be as mechanistic as “I need to eliminate one syllable in this line” and for all poems it might be something like “I want to recall that earlier reference to billiards.” His interesting remark about three ways audiences/readers can respond? My guess is that most non-writer audiences and readers start off wanting to feel the very same way the poet does: we want to experience what the poet experienced, as the poet experienced it. That is a generous and natural gesture. Another guess is that it is mostly in our graduate school days that we just “shut up and listen,” since that is the time we most are attentive to how other poets do things, as against letting art happen to us.

  2. What resonated work me the most about this article was May talking about education. I’ve written off college almost as a whole, not because I don’t want an education, but because I do. It all seems so…. Sterile. Programmed, like May says. It’s not about what you learn, it’s about how well you can pass tests. There’s something wrong about that.

  3. I like the personality presented in Jamal May and some of the things you quoted him as saying. I’m off to put some of those to work already. Thank you for bringing him to us.

  4. “Perhaps the best bit of advice he had for writers was that we should like our own work.” – Exactly! It seems like a simple and obvious thought but it is neither. As we learn more about the craft the more we start fearing the distance between us and the masters we try to emulate or who ever inspires us and end up measuring everything we do by that distance. May is absolutely right and I shall never forget it.

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