Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit where he has taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His first book, Hum, received the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books and an NAACP Image Award nomination. (Photo by Tarfia Faizullah)


“I don’t always go into a poem wanting to address a specific issue,” says Jamaal May. “I’m usually led by language and discover what’s nagging me through the process of arguing with a draft. The E.M. Forster adage, ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’ definitely applies to this process…Over the years, editing, rather than drafting, has become the core of my writing process. This is a value instilled in me by C. Dale Young. He thinks of drafting as the gathering of materials and editing as the shaping of those materials. The model has served me well.”

Natasha Trethewey calls May’s debut collection, Hum, “a meditation on the machinery of living, an extended ode to sound and silence.” These themes artfully emerge not only in May’s subject matter, but also in his skillful use of language and sound. May hails from Detroit, and his poetry buzzes with machines—cars, factories, freezers, foundries.

But as Marty Cain insightfully points out in his review, “…in Hum, machinery isn’t a predictable representation of modern despair. Instead, it embodies a spiritual force, presenting a potential for energy, for both violence and renewal…What makes Hum stand above so many other debuts is not only May’s willingness to expose his own vulnerabilities, but that he isn’t paralyzed by his personal perspective. The poems move increasingly outward from the self as the collection progresses; in several poems specifically focused on war, technology’s potential for violence becomes fully realized—war begins to function as a kind of machine.”

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When it comes to technology, May is no alarmist. It’s the friction between machines and humans (and humans with each other) that fuels these incisive, original poems. “Technological advancement is perhaps less frightening to me than to many of my peers,” May tells Stacy Balkun:

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.