Detroit Poet Jamaal May To Headline Kalamazoo Poetry Fest

Apr 13, 2016

Credit Blue Flower Arts

Jamaal May is one of the guest poets at this year’s Kalamazoo Poetry Festival along with Natalie Diaz. Both poets will read at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts on Saturday, April 16th at 7 p.m.


May grew up in Detroit and taught poetry in the Detroit public schools for several years. For some people in the U.S., Detroit has become the symbol of decay. Tourists and artists alike snap photos of old factories and shops - now just a memory of the city’s once booming economy. There seems to be some kind of beauty in the ruins that draws people in. 

When he was writing his first book, Hum, May says he tried not to write about Detroit. It was too easy and everyone was doing it. But in the end, May says the book ended up being about Detroit anyway:

"I feel like I was more interested in people's interactions with each other and interior experiences - and once I had all of these poems together, I realized they were the interior experiences of people I thought of as Detroiters," he says.

May says other people around the country tend to forget that there are people who actually live in Detroit. He wanted to capture the people, the humans of Detroit.

"I think it was me trying to swerve away from the expected kind of lead me, hopefully - and people seem to agree - avoid the standard one-dimensional look that you tend to get about the city." 

How The Issues Of The Day Seep In

May's poetry talks about a lot of the issues we face today - gun violence, racism, even PTSD. But May says he doesn't really intend to write poems about those things, it just sort of happens. 

I think about the time I heard Serj from the band System of a Down. People were talking about why not all the songs were political or why sometimes the songs were really silly. And he said because music is a representation of all that they are - and they're not always very serious, they're not always like partying, but sometimes they're either of those things. And so the issues that come up in my poems are more just because I don't fight anything off. Anything that comes in makes it in. And so it's kind of hard to not be considering some of the issues that we're dealing with if you're paying attention. 

The Mechanical Can Be Spiritual

"What's more unnatural about the stuff that we've built versus like stuff that nature built like honeycombs and dams?" May asks.

In May's new book The Big Book of Exit Strategies, he looks at mechanical things as an extension of humankind - rather than something pitted against humans. May uses this idea in the construction of some of the poems.

"The machine becomes kind of a side-by-side extension of what humanity can do. And so in this weird way the machine kind of becomes a more spiritual experience in that it's an extension of the self that is outside of it," he says.

"The Pains Of Maturity And Loss Of Imagination"

The Big Book of Exit Strategies also talks about this topic. May says he sees the loss of imagination as a problem adults have, but mostly due to societal pressure. 

"What fascinates me is to see the increasing pull away from the imaginative as you age, but the increasing capacity for it if you're paying attention - because my brain is more...I have more experience. I have more memories. I have more things to tap. What's unfortunate is for a lot of us there's a pressure to not tap into that range of memory because we are made up of what our memories are. So to remain what we think of as solid or consistent, we may kind of narrow down the memories that we'll stick with."

May says he feels like poetry helps him to remember his fuller self.

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