This Tuesday I had the great privilege of hosting Jamaal May at what was one of the best poetry readings I’ve seen on the Marymount campus (and we’ve had quite a few prominent poets visit us in the past few years, so this is no small compliment). May’s poems are beautiful on the page, but his performance of them is equally beautiful and moving and breathes life into the words in a way few poets can manage. I always prep my students on proper poetry-reading-etiquette ahead of time, but my usual mandates to keep cell phones put away and to pay close attention to what was being said were hardly necessary–there was no way not to be completely engrossed in every poem as May moved us seamlessly from love and personal insecurities to the impact of war and violence on contemporary society.
May’s discussion with students following the reading was as thoughtful and thought-provoking as any Q&A I’ve attended; so thoughtful that at one moment I had to scramble to find something to write with so that I could take notes–I’m not used to taking notes during poetry readings. He spoke of poetry as a space for bringing things together in opposition to one another to create torque; a poem can’t just present an idea, he told the students; it must have movement. In poetry, many things can be true at once, and both harmony and discord can coexist. This fact simultaneously attracts and repels readers, simultaneously positions poetry at the margins and keeps people seeking it out in spite of its marginalization. I am not often surprised or energized by a writing Q&A, but this was an event I will not forget for a long time.
Keep an eye on Jamaal May: he is not a poet to miss.