“Linguistically acrobatic [and] beautifully crafted…[May’s poems are] exquisitely balanced by a sharp intelligence mixed with earnestness.” —Publishers Weekly
Jamaal May’s collections of poems are Hum (2013) and The Big Book of Exit Strategies (2016), both published by Alice James Books. His first collection, Hum, is a “bittersweet love song” to the ruined streets of his native Detroit—using images of technology past and present to render the “hum” that drives human identity and connection—while the poems in The Big Book of Exit Strategies “are at once an extended ode to his hometown, Detroit, and a resounding protest against the many violent and oppressive ills that plague America” (Publishers Weekly). For Hum, May won the Beatrice Hawley Award, the ALA Notable Book Award, and was a finalist for the NAACP Image award and Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He has also published two chapbooks, The God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth.
May’s poetry has been published in Poetry, The Believer, Ploughshares, New England Review and The Kenyon Review. His work has been recognized by Cave Canem, Bread Loaf, the Lannan Foundation, and the Indiana Review. He has also been a recipient of the Kenyon Review Fellowship at Kenyon College, Bread Loaf, Callaloo and the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship.
May’s career as an editor and teacher began when he taught poetry in the Detroit public school system. Since then, he has also been on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA. He has served as an associate editor of West Branch and the series editor, graphic designer and filmmaker for the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series. May is also an a member of six national poetry slam teams, including five from Detroit and the NYC-based LouderARTS team. He is a three-time Rustbelt Regional Slam champion and has been a finalist at several national and international poetry slams.
Jamaal May’s book Hum has won the Beatrice Hawley Award, the ALA Notable Book Award, and was a finalist for the NAACP Image award. His second collection is The Big Book of Exit Strategies and he has also published two chapbooks, The God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Believer, Ploughshares, New England Review and The Kenyon Review. He has also been a recipient of the Kenyon Review Fellowship at Kenyon College, Bread Loaf, Callaloo and the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. He is the series editor, graphic designer and filmmaker for the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series.
THE BIG BOOK OF EXIT STRATEGIES (2016)
Following Jamaal May’s award-winning debut collection, Hum (2013), these new poems explore parallel landscapes of the poet’s interior and an insidious American condition. Using dark humor that helps illuminate the pains of maturity and loss of imagination, May uncovers language like a skilled architect—digging up bones of the past to expose what lies beneath the surface of the fragile human condition.
“The Detroit of Jamaal May’s debut collection, Hum, is littered with broken glass, shattered vials, and discarded syringes. Noting the empty shells of grand colonials lining the streets and battered cars sitting on cinder blocks, May argues against romanticizing urban decay.” —Boston Review
“Hum is concerned with what’s beneath the surfaces of things—the unseen that eats away at us or does the work of sustaining us. Reading these poems, I was reminded of Ellison’s ‘lower frequencies,’ a voice speaking for us all.” —Natasha Trethewey
In May’s debut collection, poems buzz and purr like a well-oiled chassis. Grit, trial, and song thrum through tight syntax and deft prosody. From the resilient pulse of an abandoned machine to the sinuous lament of origami animals, here is the ever-changing hum that vibrates through us all, connecting one mind to the next.
A lot of it lives in the trachea, you know.
But not so much that you won’t need more muscle:
the diaphragm, a fist clenching at the bottom.
Inhale. So many of us are breathless,
you know, like me
kneeling to collect the pottery shards
of a house plant my elbow has nudged
into oblivion. What if I sigh,
and the black earth beneath me scatters
like insects running from my breath?
Am I a god then? Am I insane
because I worry about the disassembling of earth
regularly? I walk more softly now
into gardens or up the steps of old houses
with impatiens stuffed in their window boxes.
When it’s you standing there with a letter
or voice or face full of solemn news,
will you hold your breath before you knock?
THERE ARE BIRDS HERE
There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
and buildings. No.
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like a war zone.
I am trying to say
is as tattered and feathered
as anything else,
as shadow pierced by sun
and light parted
by shadow-dance as anything else,
but they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.
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