Bob Hicok and Jamaal May
The second speaker was Jamaal May, a young writer whom the poetry world has taken definite notice of lately. His first full collection just won Alice James Books' Beatrice Hawley Prize, and will be available in fall 2013. In the meantime, readers should check out poems in online journals and YouTube clips or, better yet, purchase his two available chapbooks, God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth. May is currently a Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University, and has been a fellow with Cave Canem, a literary collective for African American artists. I heard him read earlier this year at the AWP conference and at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. He blew me away, which is not saying much because he has been blowing everybody away. Partly it's the power of his writing, and partly his talents as a reader, reciter, and performer of his work. Pointing out May's background in hip-hop and his national accomplishments as a poetry-slam participant will give readers a helpful initial sense of his delivery and stage presence, but really, you need to hear him for yourself, even if for now it's by means of YouTube.
Introducing May, Thomas Lux spoke of the poet's "tremendous energy" and praised him for being "unafraid of being understood." In his emphasis on recitation and a spoken-word style of reading, he was, according to Lux, bringing poetry back to its roots in oral speech. May's book will be called Hum, a title likely related to a poem he read, "Detroit Hum," with its focus on cabinets rattling and the whir of a laptop on his sister's lap. It may also allude to the noise of the GE freezer that is the title poem's opening focus in God Engine, or the "motor and thrum" in a later poem about the fear of machines, one of several May has written about various phobias. That laptop image captures well the youthful outlook and lifestyle that May memorably records in his poetry, reflected as well in his black-framed glasses and a heart-shaped Lego pin he wore, which for some odd reason I keep remembering. One love poem develops from a habit of mis-typing "I live you" in a text message. (This reminded me of a less romantic but funnier message I recently received that said "I have been looking forward to sending this massage"—well, hello there.) The poems often have that quality of immediacy as when friends talk to friends: "You know how I get," one speaker casually says. May's figures of speech, too, begin as everyday objects that become striking in the poet's hands: "We move quiet / as fluorescent lights going dim."
Seen another way, there is little that is casual about May's writing. Some poems feature an impassioned speaker addressing a lover—"When did we become so fluid in this ghost talk?"—while others assume an almost homiletic or prophetic tone as speakers observe the land's social challenges. "Granada" was one of the memorable examples of this poetic mode at the Georgia Tech reading. May has also worked as a poet in the public schools, and he began by quoting some of the sublime output from these young writers: "What sky did we fall from?" wrote one sixth-grader. In "Granada," the speaker addresses one such student, Jontae, 11, whose own line of verse becomes the epigraph here: "The heart trembles like a herd of horses." (These Detroit poet kids are good!) "You are writing a stampede // into my chest," the poet says, as he grows concerned about the crossroads awaiting his pupil, the choice between war and art, a choice that the poem makes more etymologically stark in the title word, granada—pomegranate or grenade, which one will the boy hold in his hand? The poet wishes for his student a different kind of infrared, an artistic seeing in the dark, and wishes for him poetry "as a countermeasure to recruitment videos," wishes for him the knowledge of the example of Tiananmen Square. Jontae will not stand alone, the poem reassures him, and the poet will be joined, he hopes, by this younger fellow artist. The pen taken from a backpack stands as a better alternative to the pin pulled from a grenade.