A Conversation with Jamaal May on Hum and Sound as an Intuitive Leap
Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit, MI where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer. His first book, Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), received the Beatrice Hawley Award, the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, and an NAACP Image Award nomination. Other honors include the Indiana Review Prize, the Spirit of Detroit Award, and the Stadler Fellowship. Most recently, Jamaal has been awarded a Rose O’Neill Literary House Cave Canem Residency, the Kenyon Review Fellowship, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy. Jamaal’s poems appear in such periodicals as The New Republic, The Believer, Poetry, Ploughshares, NYTimes.com, and Best American Poetry 2014. A graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers, Jamaal co-edits the poetry section of Solstice, teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, and co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series with Tarfia Faizullah.
On April 2, 2015, Jamaal May visited the Writing House to give a Q&A and reading for Interlochen Arts Academy creative writing students. During his visit, Interlochen Review editors Alexa Curnutte, John Baird, Sophie Coats and Nani Wachhaus sat down with him to discuss the mechanical age, sonic elements, and aesthetic decisions in his debut collection Hum.
Alexa Curnutte: When I was reading Hum, I definitely started to notice the sound and started to see it as a lynchpin for your poetry. I was wondering what happened while you were creating this book where sound became such a vital and important role in every piece?
Jamaal May: The reason sound became a vital aspect of my poetry was because several thousand years ago someone created a genre of writing that wasn’t quite prose and wasn’t song and they called it poetry. I don’t know what happened in the twentieth century where that became something you can give or take—like, you know, maybe there’s a music or not—but for me that was always the focus of it. Sound is annotating something that’s more complex, and beyond us, that we can feel underneath and I think that’s where it came from. I mean, really all writing is descended from the epic which is poetry and prose and mythology and song and all those things together. So, for me, if there wasn’t a sonic element to the writing I would just go ahead and write fiction or screenplays and make some money (laughter), so for me it was implicit. I didn’t think of it as, “Okay, I’m going to use sound in my poetry.”
I was writing poetry because I was doing something with the sound, with the music of the human voice and that’s what drew me to the art form. For me asking the question of why I chose to make the poetry sonic is like asking a painter why he chose to use color. The way waveforms work in general is that a waveform affects the sound but you can’t hear it, like we have frequencies so low that you can’t hear it but because it presses against other waves you get harmonics. You can hear those harmonics but you can’t hear that waveform. For me, poetry is our art form where we take meaning and human communication and interaction and we try to create space for that carrier wave that moves underneath. A lot of that is where the sonic play comes in.
John Baird: In your book Hum, I see that a lot of times, machines or mechanical things seem to be very present in it. What would you say that your relationship is with machines and mechanical things?
JM: My thoughts on machines and mechanical objects are very much paradoxically humor related. I can’t look at a machine or look at the human body and not see the parallels, parallels that are so in line that they kind of annotate the notion that when we build machines we’re sort of building what nature already has. We’re just creating new versions of it: computers are the human brain that just keeps evolving, a car is based off the notion of physical movement with pistons and gears and these things that are versions of what you can find in nature. So for me, the machine is a way of looking at a human aslant. Its like looking at a star; if you want to look at a start from a telescope, you can’t look at it directly on, you have to put it to the side of that star and catch it in your peripheral. So the machine is a peripheral version of humankind that I can use to, in this book particularly, to say something about human connection that I couldn’t say by pointing my telescope directly at interactions.
Sophie Coats: That’s an interesting view. We talked a lot about why we thought the book was titled Hum in class and the presence of this background hum made by the machinery and the people within the book. There were also a lot of poems that began with “Hum for…” I was wondering if the Hum was almost like a dedication. What was this Hum for you when you were writing the book and how did it come about?
JM: I think dedication is a really good word because dedication is related to honoring praise and the poems that became titled “hum for this” and “hum for that,” most of them have a lot of different titles. I’d basically just write a lot of poems and figure out what I was obsessing about later—I didn’t sit down to write a book, I sat down to write a bunch of poems and then I saw the different conversation and played that up. The idea for Hum came when I was looking at some of these poems that were written to inanimate objects like hammer and stone and they felt like... in praise of. There’s a poet named Matthew Olzmann from Detroit who has a poem called “Praise Song for a Nail” and so I thought that my poem with the hammer was in conversation with that and so it became “Hum for the Hammer.” That word became a way that I could yoke a lot of disconnected things together as though all of these things were a hum because it was such a broad connecting thing. Then also I feel like the word hum, why it fits the book, keeps evolving for me even after the book’s publication like, I keep coming across things like, “Oh wow, that fits, that works too.” The most recent is that hum is the sound that you were chanting for the heart chakra. You have the om chant and then you have the hum chant and that’s the most recent one and it works in the context of the book too.
So there is, if you want to get to the science of it, all this background vibration that is running through the universe. Bring it to the human level, just our voices and the way we speak to each other that affects us, the way sound travels and moves through the cochlea, vibrates those little hairs that are tuned to certain frequencies and then our brain pieces that together into a symphony or conversation. So that hum gets at that too. Then the mechanical aspect of it, that’s the most immediate, obvious hum to leap toward, ‘cause in culture right now there aren’t very many places right now where you won’t hear the hum.
I’ve been teaching down at Kenyon College which is in this tiny village by Gambier that feels really isolated in my faculty apartment, and I’m surrounded by trees and I feel like I’m out in the middle of nowhere, but there’s never total silence. If it’s not the nature hum outside, then it’s the thing that’s keeping the place lit. It’s so quiet that you can hear the machinery of the heating and electrical equipment working. It made me realize that silence doesn’t really exist in our world; what we have is basically just different degrees and comparisons of the sound and so the hum is also that. There’s always noise, just at different volumes, and the book, I think, tries to play with the modulation of those volumes.
AC: Going deeper into Hum, the phobia pages go from really, really dark to lighter in the book and I was wondering why you wanted your work to be presented like that with the phobia poems.
JM: The choice to do a lighting gradient with the phobia poems came about it a few different ways. Both me and my press wanted to do something to make the phobias stand out because they act as anchors for the structure of the book. For how well it goes together, there’s actually a crazy number disparate things in the book—if you were to take a poem from early in the book and one from later in the book and set them on a desk next to each other, you could argue that they didn’t go in the same book—so the phobias act like centers of gravity the poems can rotate around. So we wanted to play that up since the book was going into sections. I wanted the book to flow right through while having these different movements so the phobias gave us a way to do that and I wanted to play that up artistically and functionally in the book. We came up with the idea of knock-out pages that became that idea of the gradient, and we talked about the gradient getting darker as the book went but that actual arch of the phobias is toward white.
The first phobia, the Athazagoraphobia which is the fear of being ignored, ends with the speaker looking down at a body of water and then I rephrased it to reflect it back up and then the last one ends with the face turned toward the sky watching, waiting for, a firework explosion. In a stretch of space you just get a lot of black pages and then you turn the page and the first line of the next poem is “Tonight the tide will stretch out” and I want to have the feeling of a curtain coming down and then coming back up. So the phobias being that dark to light gradient served several functions at once.
Nani Wachhaus: What was the response to that design choice?
JM: People loved that gradient. I’ve seen arguments like some people wanted it to be just one thing and then I’ll show it to a class and I’m basically there to debunk their classmates. Then they’re always just a little bit pleased and disappointed that they’re right, but not the only one that’s right, and that’s what I think I’m trying to argue for writers in general is that there isn’t just a right, there’s just degrees. I think people picked up on that function of the gradient if nothing else, this idea that life is always a gradient, it’s never a black and white thing. Most of the poems play with that duality between that light and dark. It’s unity of opposites or coincidence of opposites but this idea of energy that moves us forward is that fact that things are opposed and that brings you back to the waveform, the up and the down. You have the up part of the wave and then this down part and so the hum comes back into that. I think people on the surface level really like that aesthetically and then as they start discussing, debating, or contemplating the reason why I did it, it does what I think all good poems should do and gives you a way to participate in the way of it. Where your ideas come into play are a fact of how you read it.
AC: How did the exploration of the phobias get started and did you intend for them to go like that, from dark to light?
JM: I didn’t intend that initially. My whole process has been to do a lot of things... let me backtrack. Ian Forester has a quote that says, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s very much a part of my process, where I discover things as I make them and I knew I was grappling with fear in some kind of way with my work but it was very, very cursory knowledge that I was, and the phobias got a lot of things when we started with just a formal attempt. I just found at that there were all these different phobias that are actually obscure and that seemed fascinating to me, to find the obscure ones and try to create poems out of them. A lot of those poems are terrible, they just didn’t work, but the ones that did showed me something else, so I discovered that the rationale for what the phobias were doing way later (it was after I’d written a bunch and pretty much had two that were working). Once it was a manuscript, I realized I had six that were going to stay and then in the editing process I realized that two weren’t as strong as the other four so I rewrote those phobias; at that point I had a structure that was dependent upon the phobias but the poems weren’t strong enough and I’m always interrogating like, “Is this working or is it just hanging around because it matched the other the other things?” So those became an integral part of the book once it was a manuscript. Before that it was just me trying something out, again wondering what happens when I try something else.
What I discover in that experimentation is that the phobias could serve in a similar way that an extended metaphor does where if you get a conceit at the beginning of the poem, everything in the poem gets checked back against that conceit. The reader’s mind does all of this extra work effortlessly. It’s just being involved in the poem because it’s always thinking like Robert Pinsky’s poem “Ode to Meaning”, as you’re reading the whole poem your brain is going, how does this compare to meaning? Sometimes it almost forgets that it’s in that and so we look at a poem like “Macrophobia: the Fear of Waiting” where there’s all these moments where the poem could just say, “There’s a wanting in wait in waiting in rain with two concert tickets,” or “There’s a challenge against the locked door of a closet,” where your brain is connected back to the idea of waiting. So when a poem plays around with that idea of trying to be okay with waiting, it’s still pressing back against that so I found the function of phobias after I experimented with them. If I had set out to do something, I probably wouldn’t have come up with as much. Somebody I was on panel with quoted someone else and said that, “If you show me a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing, I’ll show you someone that has no idea what they’re doing.” (laughter)
SC: As you share more of your work, do you find you have to have a degree of separation from the poems? Have you ever struggled with wanting to keep your poems private while also wanting to share them?
JM: I’ve been thinking a lot about how modern privacy plays inside of poetics because I’ve always thought of making art as being something that’s an analogue that’s before and after me. In that context, I think of people writing right now—we’re shaping the 21st century’s literature—and there are people who pick apart our writing and make decisions about who we were and how we felt and thinking in that context didn’t really leave room for thinking about things personally. I do use some autobiographical elements and I tend to use them the same way I use everything else in poems, like whatever the materials are in my hands to make the thing in front of me. But with the book coming out it’s really fascinating to see what’s not in my control, how people just decide that I have a dead brother and people write me emails about how elegantly I wrote about my dead brother when I don’t have a dead brother. (Laughter) There are no poems in the book about a brother dying and people are more willing to make that leap.
I was taught that (and I think this has always been standard for teaching poetry) you don’t presume the speaker in the poem is the writer and that’s become so difficult now that a lot of people don’t even bother trying and poetry isn’t taught very well for the most part nationally. Now we’re seeing poetry with a broader and broader national stage because of the internet. Those are people that have never sat in a poetry classroom in their life. A lot of those people can google me, see my Twitter feed, think about stuff, and attach that poem to me. I’ve always felt that there is no separation between what I make and who I am and I’m still fascinated and I’m still learning what that means in the context of using that work as a lens into your life. I think with the poetry people are going to fix me to a meaning where they can or want to. If getting me right was more important, then I’d probably be an essayist and I’d really have a lot of control over how you see me, but I’m a poet because I believe that things are slippery, things are wobbly. Our perceptions are how we interpret and our perceptions are screwed up, so if you having a screwed up perception of who I am allows you to get inside my poetry and have an experience that you couldn’t otherwise, then get me wrong on things.
JB: What were some problems that you encountered when you were writing the poems for Hum? How did you overcome those problems?
JM: Basically there are going to be an infinite number of challenges for every aspect of putting a book together. It’s weird to even think about it as a physical complete thing because once I held it all of a sudden I could flash back to all these different things that had to happen for the book to be in my hands. It overwhelmed me. I cried holding the book for the first time from the box of books when they came to the door. I had read from a physical copy because someone gave me one at a reading I was doing. The books had shown up there before I’d ever seen them and when I got home my copies were there and I took them out and I had time to breathe for a second and I could remember everything it took for that moment to happen. It was overwhelming.
Actually, it’s a scientifically incalculable thing to place which means almost and incalculable number of challenges. There’s the challenge all the way from “How do I write a poem?” — because the oldest poem in the book is from is from not that long after I decided I was going to write poetry—and “What is a poem?” all the way up to “Should my brother’s name appear in ‘On Gentleness’?” That was one of the last problems I grappled with (I actually called him and ended up having a really good conversation about it). So, some of the challenges weren’t technical, trying to be a good enough writer for what I wanted to say. I was trying to say something about duality and complexity but I wanted to say it for lots of kinds of people, so I had to figure out how to write about complexity in what felt like some straightforward language and that created other problems. It was just this can of worms and through that it was like “Do you really enjoy this thing?” Because I found out that they became a metaphor for life that’s really served me. This notion that it’s not are things are going well or not, it’s basically that there are challenges and opportunities to meet those challenges and make something beautiful out of it. Putting the book together really did teach me that problems are infinite because solutions are infinite. That means that there is always a way around a problem even if it’s accepting that you don’t have the tools to fix it.
SC: There are a lot of birds mentioned within your poems and, I don’t know if you had anything to do with the cover, but they are also all over it. After reading the poem outside of Hum, “There are Birds Here” I was wondering if you did that on purpose or if it’s just something that you find yourself writing about?
JM: The poem “There Are Birds Here” was actually a joke to myself about that fact that there were so many birds in my book that most people didn’t tend to notice. This is one of the fascinating things kids doing in the modern world where everyone’s on the internet (everyone’s famous now) so you can do your own case studies. I was fascinated with the fact that mostly there’s machinery in the book but I was surprised by how many birds were in the book. I didn’t plan to put that many birds in the book. Once I was organizing my manuscript I saw all the birds and of course I played that up and organized poems based on some of those notions and it became a trope through the book. When the book first came out I was reading every review that came out (and I don’t do that anymore, it’s too nerve-wracking) but when I was looking at the reviews, everyone kind of went to the machinery side of it and I just thought “There’s birds in there too you know.” It became this metaphor for how people look at Detroit; they’ll look at an aspect of it and that aspect is not untrue but there’s all these facets and they just never turn the gem. The birds started riffing on that almost as a joke and then that became something that I really thought more deeply on and I notice more deeply. Since the publication of the poem “There Are Birds Here” people notice birds all through the book. I get asked about the birds in Hum all the time now because knowledge... it really does change constantly backwards and forwards. The past changes because what we call the past is just a collection of our memories and our memories can be altered surprisingly easily. Now a book that could be written with just desolation and machinery, all of a sudden it’s a book with all these birds and hope in it because I wrote a poem that’s not in the book. That goes back to the earlier question of having to work out in the world and seeing how that moves things around.
NW: In the book, mainly in the first half of it, there’s a boy. I don’t know if this is one character or many, but why were you so focused on young men?
JM: When putting the book together I noticed that it really does become your own therapy session when you’re editing your own book and so I saw this very early, before it was even Hum, when I putting it together, that there was this kid in there. I basically saw him as the person that I could use as the fueler but there always has to be an observer and it was an embarrassing amount of time that went by before I realized that kid was me (laughter). I just had that door, that barrier. This kid was coming from the city and I really think that was me trying to work some things out with me but I came at it from the angle of seeing that a young boy could be perfect for what I was going to talk about. You can look at things fantastically that are mundane down on earth and that’s the lens that I think I was drawn to. This little boy, this kid, just sees things differently and in the editing of the book and of poems that weren’t really in the book, I realized that there was also a young girl in the book and they both need to be in conversation. I think in my next book that those figures are even more in conversation and they do function as singular characters in a way.
The book is purposefully ambiguous like that, so that if one person wanted to sit down and read and say, “This is one boy named John,” and read Hum, you can see all of John’s adventures: You could see him grow into a young man, you could see him go off to war, you could see him come back home, and you can see that story. If you wanted to take the poems as they were written, all these little individual units, this becomes an opinion of young boys going through a variety of experiences. I very much wanted the book to be something where the individual parts stood on their own but when you put them all together they could tell multiple kinds of stories. Again, I like to play with mediums like movies or books even and take a conceit that’s not there and apply it and see what happens to the story then. A fun one that I did with my partner Tafia is that we watched a bunch of videos that producer Timbaland was in with the notion that Timbaland is actually the old man from the mirror’s video going through a fantasy life of him performing with all his favorite musicians. Then just saying that out loud, you get to watch all these Timbaland videos in a completely different way.
With Hum I hope that there’s a way to sit down with the book and see a story of one young man going through or a way to sit down with the book and see a story of a young girl who was invisible until that young boy got to a certain point. I think that story’s in the book as well — there isn’t a right one. The reason the boy became a figure for me, artistically, was that idea of that lens that I mentioned, and then emotionally I think that I was trying to work some stuff out, to be corny about it.
NW: In an interview you said, “Ultimately, I’m trying to say something about dichotomy, the uneasy spaces between disparate emotions, and by extension, the uneasy spaces between human connection.” What did you mean by that?
JM: Basically... I don’t know if anyone has ever had an emotion. Like when we say “an emotion,” I can’t imagine a situation where someone didn’t have a million of them at one time. When we say emotion, we’re trying to talk about something so vast and any one emotion that you’ve had at any given moment, if you think for a second you can find the myriad of other emotions underneath that. Many of them counter. So I think when we talk about emotional information, it becomes an oversimplification a lot of time and I was trying to write a poem where what you felt is actually about the space in between things. Like the friction, not the this thing rubbing up together with that thing, but I mean the friction in between. I think that’s what emotion is. I’ve heard the word tone defined as the speaker’s feeling toward its subject and that idea, the tone that we feel, is about two parts; the speaker and that subject and what we feel is that thing in between them. I think that’s how we can connect as people. What we feel is your rage or my fear, what we feel is the remaining sum of those two things colliding. What I was saying with that quote is about how our interactions become because we can only have our own perception. Hopefully, to get back on my corny soul vibe, I can make the argument that we could do that better and that if we are competing frequencies then there is a way to find harmony.
NW: You posted some of your poetry and other people’s poetry on YouTube. What has that been like and why have you stopped or gone on hiatus?
JM: I don’t like to think that I’ve stopped and I think that this is a byproduct of the modern world. I released the first ones and then the vision got broader and also the video equipment was stolen. All the video equipment I had someone stolen out of the trunk of my car at some college, boom. That set things back dramatically. I’m always trying to find the takeaway from every event, so I was able to get better equipment and broaden the vision and learn more and start studying it deeper. So when we launch the video project they’ll be coming more steadily, be more varied, and have a wider range of what they can do. That just takes time, to contemplate on it.
The reason I did it is that I’m always looking for ways to annotate something without replacing it and I feel like a lot of people have a fear of when new technology comes around that what they love may go away. I believe that things that are, at the core, necessary for us, can’t go anywhere, so I’m always about how I can make those things play together. What about a poem makes a poem a poem and what in the video format can I use to play to elements of poems up? Video is part of media effect and my process is multi-purposing things and so another purpose is to straight up get other people to check out all the poems and different kinds of poems.
We’re going to be publishing a video for every author we published in the [Organic Weapon Arts] Chapbook Press. There’s a lot of videos of me doing slam online and that’s my format but I think that by taking the poem as more of an art piece you get a whole other conversation that can happen. For me, that doesn’t take away from the poem. The poem’s still a poem, you can sit down and read it by yourself and have this intimate experience with and then have this other side of it. With that, the challenge of the videos is to make sure that it’s annotating what happens in the poem, not subverting it or just giving a visual version of it—it’s always trying to create some tension and harmony within the poem. That’s actually been a challenging thing to learn, I’ve actually been in the lab. That’s one of the ways I move; I come out, try something, have a little bit of success and instead of just standing there and just doing it, I say that worked, so why, and backtrack. The video is me getting deeper into that craft and not wanting to be a poet making films, but be a filmmaker who’s a poet.
JB: How did you prepare for writing your book Hum?
JM: There’s no way to prepare for writing a book of poetry. (laughter) I think that’s a good secret to tell people; the more you’re stumbling over yourself, the more complex the ideas are getting, so keep going. I guess to answer the question directly, I used the indirect route… The way I prepared was to not think about it—I didn’t think about writing the book Hum, I just wrote tons of poems for several years. I was working with a poet names Vievee Francis out of Detroit and that’s when I started writing poems that would eventually end up in Hum and I didn’t know I was writing my book there, never mind a book called Hum. I think the prep for the actual book in front of us now was a lot of learning. It was a lot of reading and a lot of writing and learning to rethink the writing process. I know we think of drafting as this magical wonderous thing that is writing and I think of it more as a component of writing, and real writing is what I do before and after the drafting takes place. It’s this collection of things. I talked about this idea that drafting is just bringing all of your materials together. I wander around picking up stones and things and one day I sit down at a table and collect them and arrange them in a way. Then I walk away from it, come back to it and see what I have and start shaping it. That’s the really important part of writing for me. The prep work was a lot of thinking and learning and living without knowing I was writing a book.
NW: What are you working on now and which projects are you most excited about?
JM: Right now I’m reordering my second book. It’s called The Big Book of Exit Strategies and has already been taken by Alice James Books and will be out next year in April, 2016. I’m really looking at the order of it, but what I learned from Hum is that book says something very different depending in what order the poems are. As an experiment, I just looked back at what would happen if the book was read backwards and it creates a very different experience. I had an order for The Big Book of Exit Strategies that looks like that’s what the book is, but some recent events and considerations, and recent readings from the book, have made me rethink the way it’s ordered. I’m in the process of reordering my second manuscript right now.
Also, the projects that arise are kind of a myriad. Because of a writer’s foundation, I’ve been able to refit my recording studio. I stopped recording music years ago as I got deeper into poetry and I realized that I had a block with it that came down last year so I could just hear music in a way that I haven’t in years. I’ve been playing guitar and working on some production stuff again, so I’m not sure what projects are going to come out of that, but a lot of them will probably be collaborative. I’ll collaborate with other artists for the first time in my life. That’s part of the myriad of collaboration project with other artists that will probably start production in the fall once I’m finished up with the Kenyon Review Fellowship.
Other projects include videos for the recent webinar’s chapbook prize winners Rachel McKibbens, Michael Lee, Michelle Peñaloza and Joseph Legaspi. All four poets are going to be published in the issue this year. I kind of want to go back through the catalog; I want to shoot videos with francine harris, Javier Samora, and Jane Wong (we already have a video with her but she has more stuff with her). Those are some of the bigger projects in the queue. Also, I've been writing prose. Eventually one of the many prose project is going to take precedence and I'll wind up focusing on it and I have some time, about six weeks, in a castle in Italy—for some reason someone gave me that—and a fellowship. So those are the projects I'll be working on for the next two to three years I'm guessing.