Jamaal May's ideas crackle with electricity, and his words come quickly, with brilliance.
Jamaal May's ideas crackle with electricity, and his words come quickly, with brilliance. A few minutes into my interview with the Detroit poet, I knew it was going to be an unusually interesting one. He talked about his initial experiences with poetry, his books and what he has planned for his first time in Taos. May is an award-winning poet who authored "Hum" (Alice James Books, 2013) and "The Big Book of Exit Strategies" (Alice James Books, 2016).
An evening of "Poetry & Jazz" featuring readings by May with improvised jazz accompaniment by the John Rangel Trio is planned Friday (April 12) at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street. The performance begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20. Members of SOMOS, the Taos Jazz Bebop Society and the Harwood will be admitted for $16.
The event is part of the National Poetry Month activities organized by SOMOS.
May said his early encounters with poetry in school were uneventful. In high school, he was interested in music - writing his own songs and working on a hip-hop recording. His twin sister started encouraging him to look into performance and slam poetry, recognizing that his music had a lyrical quality. Then, a coworker encouraged May to get out and attend a poetry slam. Once there, May signed up for the slam, got up onstage and shared some of his song lyrics.
He recalls how that experience forever changed his sense of who he was and who he could be. "I got to see a version of myself I didn't recognize … I could communicate with people in a way that I never could before. That's what basically drew me into poetry. What made me a poet was later working with other poets like Vievee Francis and other people that taught me, but what launched me was that moment … where I saw myself [and asked], 'If I can do that, who am I?' "
May went on to receive a Lannan Foundation Grant and American Library Association's Notable Book Award, and was named a finalist for the Tufts Discovery Award and for an NAACP Image Award for his book "Hum." In addition, May has been awarded a Spirit of Detroit Award, the Wood Prize from Poetry, an Indiana Review Prize and fellowships from the Stadler Center, The Kenyon Review and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy.
I asked May to talk about his two books, and what inspired each of them.
"The first book, 'Hum,' is very much influenced by Detroit, but I didn't know it when I was working on it because I was focusing more on people's interior lives," he said.
"The second book is very much a conversation with the first," May continued. "Exits were a big part of the work -- escaping, enclosing -- you exit one room and you enter another. It was derivative and also conversational. The first book ends with a poem called 'Ask What I've Been' and the second book ends with a poem 'Ask Where I've Been.' The first book is very much about becoming, the second book is about traveling and moving."
When I asked May what current poetry projects he is working on, he said he is exploring ideas of vibration and sound. One project involves a modulator synthesizer and plants. The synthesizer picks up the plant's signals from its natural biorhythms which are quantified into musical tones. It enables a person to interact in real time with the plant and co-create in music. May is also interested in artificial intelligence and how it can interact with our humanity.
"I'm really interested in what we look like -- what we do as the world shifts and changes and moves around us … I'm very interested in what literature looks like in a very human way going forward, not how to replace literature with a techno version of it, but how do we keep evolving as creatures in this ecosystem, and take advantage of what's new to us and not lose what is of value to us," May reflected.
For his Taos performance May will read from both of his books, as well as from newer work.
His reading will be accompanied by John Rangel, a Santa Fe-based musician and producer. As a jazz pianist he has worked with diverse artists, including Nat Adderly, Marcus Printup, Ira Sullivan, Bobby Shew, Sam Rivers, Ravi Coltrane, Pharaoh Saunders, Sonny Fortune and Billy Higgins. He is a sought-after music producer, composer and pianist, and has been on the music production teams of many films and television programs. He is working with Barbara Bentree to develop several original screenplays and a jazz series for television.
Last year's "Poetry & Jazz" concert co-presented by SOMOS and Taos Jazz Bebop Society featured poet Tyehimba Jess and the John Rangel Trio. Those who attended the concert know that Rangel and his bandmates are phenomenal at carrying and enhancing the spoken word. For more information, visit johnrangel.com.
For those interested, May is planning also to teach a holistic, informal workshop Saturday (April 13) from 10 a.m. until noon at SOMOS, 108 Civic Plaza Drive. Cost is $85, $75 for SOMOS members. To register, go to somostaos.org.
For more on the performance or additional Poetry Month events, call the Society of the Muse of the Southwest at (575) 758-0081. For more on May, visit jamaalmay.com.
Gregorio and Brandi reading at Fechin
SOMOS and the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House will present poets Renee Gregorio and John Brandi reading from their works Tuesday (April 16) at 7 p.m. The event is part of the SOMOS Poetry Month slate of activities. Admission is free, donations are appreciated.
Gregorio’s poetry is informed equally by the stillness, expansiveness and landscape of northern New Mexico as it is by her travels in a wide mix of countries, cultures and languages. She has lived in New Mexico since 1985. Her recent books include “Drenched” and “Snow Falling on Snow." She will be reading from a new manuscript, titled “Communion," which was recently shortlisted for the Phillip Levine Prize.
Brandi has been an active walker, writer, and visual artist since boyhood rambles in the mountains of California. He continues to seek source and renewal in his travels abroad and in New Mexico, his home for 50 years, a press release states. In 2015 a limited edition of his Southwest prose poems, “Into the Dream Maze,” was issued by the Press at the Palace of the Governors, followed by "Planet Pilgrim," his tribute to Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki. He will read from “The Great Unrest," his new collection of poems from White Pine Press.
The readings will be given at the Taos Art Museum at The Fechin House, 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For more information, call (575) 758-2690 or visit somostaos.org.
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