A Normal Interview With Jamaal May
By Stacey Balkun
Jamaal May is the author of Hum (Alice James Books, Nov 2013), two poetry chapbooks (The God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth), and the winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. His poems have been published widely in journals such as The Believer, The New Republic, POETRY, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. May’s poem “Hum for the Stone” appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Normal School.
Stacey Balkun: I re-read Hum during and after the Zimmerman trial and couldn’t read “Man Matching Description” without thinking about Trayvon Martin. This is an important poem about false accusations. What can we do? What’s next? How does this poem (or your poetry, or anybody’s poetry) play a role in ending violence and injustice?
Jamaal May: That re-contextualization happened for me as well. A few people reposted the poem, as it was readily available on Blackbird’s website, shortly after the shooting occurred. What is terrifying about how well the poem fit the moment is how long ago it was written, how many times before that a similar poem was written, and how many such poems will be written in the future.
I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry being pretty much the only art form in which the practitioners are regularly called upon to explain if and how their art will solve society’s ills. I’ve never seen or heard an interview with Jack White that asks him how his guitar solo on “Ball and Biscuit” will cure cancer and stave off the zombie apocalypse. I once worried about the fairness of this paradigm, but I’m starting to see it as a show of respect. That people keep wondering how poetry will change the world seems to start with the implicit assumption that it could. I believe 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.
Art, be it poetry, music, sculpture, puppetry—the whole of it, inspires change on a personal level rather than a global one. This is important because the individual is the whole. The creation of art argues that people are connected, ideas are connected, the past and future are connected by this moment. Meanwhile, exploitation of the poor, drone strikes that kill hundreds of children, slavery, genocide, land theft—these are all acts that depend upon convincing large groups of usually well-meaning people that “they are not us.” Dean Young once said, “The highest accomplishment of the human consciousness is the imagination, and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” Poetry, along with every other art, is a tool for teaching and expanding empathy. Violence and injustice cannot endure empathy.
SB: I keep thinking of Tracy K Smith’s poem “The Museum of Obsolescence” from Life on Mars. In “How to Disappear Completely,” you acknowledge the idea of obsolescence and the fear of the human (or old machines) becoming obsolete. The poem urges the reader to “become origami. Fold yourself smaller than ever before. Become less.” Meanwhile, our culture continuously urges “more more more.” What’s going on here? Can we, as humans, resolve this conflict?
JM: Before delving into your question, I would like to comment on my fascination with the way association works in a collection of poems. Like you, I think of “How to Disappear Completely” as a poem about obsolescence, but I didn’t quite think of it as such until it was in a collection with “Mechanophobia: Fear of Machines.” It’s one of the more exciting aspects of putting together a collection of disparate poems and figuring out how they speak to each other.
It’s worth noting that the poem goes on to say “more in some ways but less in the way a famine is less,” which is to say quietude stands out in a cacophony. What’s more noticeable than a famine, meaning lack? I suppose the inverse truth of this is that “more more more” can equal less and less. The poem is trying to do a lot of things at once, but a center of gravity can be found in the simultaneous distress and solace that comes from solitude. Another is grief. I often render emotions by creating the space around it rather than going right at the thing. “How to Disappear Completely,” engages the weight and significance of loss by reifying an absence. The reader is promised she will finally be seen when she is missing from our world.
Can the “more more more” societal conflict be resolved? I’m not sure if this makes me a cynic or an optimist, but I’ve stopped looking at conflicts as things that either will or won’t be resolved, at least the kinds of conflicts good art tends to engage. The demand for more is just another way to say “desire.” Humans will never resolve desire and want. With the myriad ways we are exposed to greed and selfishness through all our media access, it’s easy to think of “more more more” as a modern phenomenon. But as a person of color writing in a country built on colonialism, genocide, and a vast slave workforce, I’m not allowed such delusions. So rather than wring my hands over how the conflict will be resolved, I investigate how we can live with such conflicts and work to become better humans inside of it.
SB: Technological advancement often makes obsolete people’s knowledge and livelihoods. “On Metal” addresses a group of mechanics huddled “around a car, admitting some small defeat” because “Detroit’s building’em like robots now,” and they cannot fix it. For me, the theme obsolescence ties the book together. What were your intentions for this poem and this collection as a whole?
JM: Technological advancement is perhaps less frightening to me than to many of my peers. I’m not terrified of the presumed oncoming apocalypse facilitated by Facebook or the new Playstation. Television didn’t end the world and neither will Tumblr. I believe in something intrinsically human that will always exist outside of popular culture and the latest grown folk bugaboos. That intrinsically human thing is often ugly, narcissistic, and petty, but it was there before status updates and anonymous comments existed. Before our current age, “trolls” would just show up at your lunch counter, sit-in protest and dump ketchup and sugar on your head.
The other side of this paradigm is that some of the cooler things about people have also been around for a while and aren’t going anywhere. For example, our ache for the connection we find through art only seems to have been brought into relief by the modern era of immediate, low-effort gratification. If technology was as capable of short-circuiting what is at the core of humanity, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to walk into classroom after classroom of teens and preteens and get them excited to write poems. There wouldn’t be more poetry readings and journals and more Americans writing than ever before in the country’s history.
The focal point of “On Metal” is a kind of resignation about the decline of our machinery, but it is not nostalgic. If anything, the poem is reaching towards acceptance. The point isn’t that the men can’t fix the car because of time’s relentless march, it’s that we eventually have to choose between peace and stubborn arrogance when faced with mortality. The speaker hopes for that kind of grace (“a diminishment I’ll live with”) while also understanding the impulse to fight decay to the last cell: “…I get this…why my dad once fiddled daily with a dead Camaro, refusing to believe its silence.”
I’m not sure Hum hinges on the idea of knowledge and livelihoods becoming obsolete in the face of new technology, though abandonment and mortality are definitely key features. My intentions for the collection were to let the writing of individual poems guide the making of a book because ultimately, I’m trying to say something about dichotomy, the uneasy spaces between disparate emotions, and by extension, the uneasy spaces between human connection. For these reasons, if the collection hinged on a single idea, it’d be a failure of my broader project (which it very well may be, mind you, but art should risk failure). I’m crossing my fingers in hopes that I’ve written a many-hinged book with several possible openings.
SB: Hum weaves together the human with the robotic, and also formal poems with more open forms. What was your thought process in both crafting the formal poems (“Hum of the Machine God” and “Neat” particularly”) and including them in this collection?
JM: I think of all poems as having a formal project that must be defined by the needs of the particular poem. Sometimes a received form fits those needs perfectly, which was the case with “Neat.” I wrote it as free verse but realized quickly that the form was working against the emotion I wanted to evoke. I was looking for something that felt more cyclical and lingering, which the pantoum form is great for. The work of fighting the poem into the form gave it the torque I needed to get where I was going. This is typical of my process; when a poem doesn’t have a sufficient level of trouble, I look for something that threatens its safe little nest.
On other occasions, which are somewhat more rare, the received form gives me a launching pad for working out a concern. The mind tends to seek patterns and repeat them reflexively, so starting with a formal project can be useful in drawing out the untapped subconscious.
“Hum of the Machine God” started off as a challenge from my thesis advisor, Rick Barot, to help me see the core tropes and textures of Hum. He suggested I write a sestina using the six phobias that appear in the book as the six repeating words (machine, waiting, snow, etc). After submitting to the Beatrice Hawley Award, I put the manuscript away for 7 weeks. When I returned to it I wrote a second sestina from scratch, “The Hum of Zug Island,” using the same six words. The new poem illustrated what the first sestina was missing. I rewrote “Hum of the Machine God,” and now the two poems act as a pair of subtle bookends that tie the phobia thread together and, by extension, the core tropes of the collection.
Redundancy and tedium are always a danger with such an insistent form. Though it may seem sensible to use the most flexible words possible in a poem that demands they appear seven times, more inflexible words actually work better. This can be seen in Bishop’s “Sestina” with her use of “stove” and “almanac.” More recently Jonah Winter’s hilarious “Sestina: Bob” uses “Bob” as all six repeating words. What happens when the poet isn’t caught up on trying to use the words in various ways is the rest of the line demands more nuance and deftness. It relieves the pressure on repetition to carry all of the resonance and lets the repeated words do their more important job of cycling around in a more subtle, incantatory way.
SB: “I Do Have a Seam,” appears in two columns stitched together by the word “here” in the center. The poem can be read down either column, or across both—leaving the reader with three variations on the same theme, maybe more. Can you talk a little about the process of writing this piece?
JM: This poem falls into the same category as “Neat,” in that I originally wrote it as free verse and saw that it could be doing more formally. The form screamed at me one day in the editing process and the work that followed brought into relief what I saw as a paradox of healthy romantic engagement: the maintenance of individual self in midst of a certain, necessary vulnerability. As a student pointed out when I visited Indiana University (wish I had her name), the seam that splits the poem is also the space that holds it together. I couldn’t get at that kind of simultaneity in the free verse version.
The form is called “contrapuntal.” Its history, as I know it anyway, is that a poet who had also been a choral singer, Herbert Woodward Martin invented it. He wanted to capture an approximation of what happens in the contrapuntal musical form. Poet Tyehimba Jess in his collection Leadbelly, which contains several masterful contrapuntal poems, brought it into the contemporary American poetry spotlight recently. An exciting aftereffect is the popularity the form has enjoyed among younger writers and on the poetry slam scene for the past year or so.