Spotlight: Jamaal May [Poet]

Jamaal May performing poetry

Who Is Jamaal May?

Jamaal is a poet of both the stage and page. His background (which starts with “Detroiter” but extends to the point of breaking borders, breaking until borders extend) has given him a compelling voice loaded with a power that bridges the gap between raw and refined.

Jamaal May (Slam)

“The overall goal of the art I make is to resist summary,” he told me, which is why he’s sometimes uncomfortable bracketing himself with labels that are incomplete and often misleading. That said, Jamaal’s pursuits lead him naturally to the titles poet, performer, educator, and editor. In looking at modern poetry, Jamaal can give us a rare perspective that combines backgrounds often seen as incompatible: His work has been recognized in both the more academic end of the poetry pool and in the slam poetry scene.

On the “slam” side of things:

Jamaal is a three-time Rustbelt Regional Slam champion; has been a member of six national slam teams (including five Detroit teams and the 2012 semi-finalist NYC LouderARTS team); and has been a finalist at several national and international poetry slams.

On the “traditional” end of the spectrum:

Jamaal May (academic)Jamaal is a graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA program for writers and recipient of the 2011-2013 Stadler Fellowship from Bucknell University; is the recipient of the Beatrice Hawley Award; has poetry publications in Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Blackbird, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, The Believe, and New England Review; has received scholarships and fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Callaloo, and Cave Canem; and received the International Publication Prize  from Atlanta Review.

“Slam” and “page” are not two divisions of Jamaal’s character or capabilities: The greatest pleasure of watching Jamaal is seeing how he blurs the lines between traditional and 21st-century concepts of what poetry is and can be.

You can find out more on Jamaal’s website, which provides additional biographical information on top of a thick stack of extras.

My Experience with Jamaal

I had the opportunity to hear Jamaal May as the feature at December’s Salt City Slam (a monthly slam poetry competition taking place in Salt Lake City; locals can check out details and receive updates through this group). While I’ve seen some spectacular poetry performances up in Salt Lake, few poets earn the description “bad-ass” from me.

Jamaal May at Salt City Slam

Once I’d heard his work, I immediately started working toward scheduling an interview. Those efforts came to fruition earlier this week.

By the end of my two-hour interview with Jamaal on Wednesday night, I was a richer man. Jamaal is a poet—heart, mind, and soul. One of the most invigorating parts of that equation is how fully his mind enters the picture. The man knows and is dedicated to his craft. Before I share the interview, though, I want to be sure you understand who Jamaal is.

For those interested in seeing the poet at work in-person,  go over and sign up for Jamaal’s mailing list. This will provide updates on new content as details on events in your area. And, for you tweetoholics, Jamaal does indeed have a Twitter page.

Samples of Jamaal’s Work

Despite the efforts of these last few paragraphs, I’ve done a poor job of illustrating just who Jamaal is as a poet. So let me step aside and let you see it for yourself. Just watch what this man does with words:

I Do Have a Seam


“I Do Have a Seam” provides a wonderful example of how Jamaal fuses page and performance poetry.  This gorgeous video is just one of several being produced in 2013. Go to Jamaal’s YouTube page and subscribe to get immediate updates when new videos come out.

I also encourage you to check out Jamaal’s work in its raw text format, as you’ll see here with his poem Pomegranate Means Grenade.

Want to check out more of Jamaal’s work? You can find several of his poems on display here, or even pick up one of Jamaal’s chapbooks: The Whetting of Teeth and God Engine 2.0 each run at $10. Another collection, Hum, has been picked up by Alice James Books through the Beatrice Hawley Award and will be published in November of this year.

Getting the Latest and Greatest from Jamaal May

Go out and subscribe to Jamaal’s YouTube page, sign up for his mailing list, browse his website, and buy his books.

And stay tuned to this site, too. The full text of my interview with Jamaal (~3600 words) will be released in the coming days, with a “highlights” post published simultaneously or shortly thereafter. I was blown away by how much we were able to cover and by how richly profound Jamaal’s expression of the craft was. I look forward to sharing that experience with all of you.

Write on,