Jamaal May

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Date: Dec. 21, 2017
Document Type: Biography
Length: 818 words

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About this Person
Born: April 17, 1982 in Detroit, Michigan, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Updated:Dec. 21, 2017


1982, in Detroit, MI. Education: Warren Wilson College, M.F.A.


Poet and educator. Instructor, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program; co-director, Organic Weapon Arts chapbook and video series. Formerly taught poetry in public schools and worked as an audio engineer.


Beatrice Hawley Award, Notable Book Award, American Library Association, Tufts Discovery Award finalist, and NAACP Image Award nomination, all for Hum; PEN Open Book Award longlist for The Big Book of Exit Strategies; Wood Prize, Poetry magazine; Indiana Review Prize; Spirit of Detroit Award; Stadler fellowship; Kenyon Review fellowship; Cave Canem resident, Rose O'Neill Literary House, and Civitella Ranieri fellowship, Italy.



  • Hum, Alice James Books (Farmington, ME), 2013.
  • The Big Book of Exit Strategies, Alice James Books (Farmington, ME), 2016.


Award-winning poet Jamaal May both celebrates and eulogizes his native Detroit in his work. In doing so, he joins the ranks of other artists who write about the Motor City. "It really has been an exciting time for Detroit writers," May told Sakinah Hofler in an interview in the Southeast Review. "The names I can't stop repeating are many: Vievee Francis, Matthew Olzmann, Francine J. Harris, Tommye Blount, Terry Blackhawk, Nandi Comer, Chace Morris, Robert Fanning, Natasha Miller--just to name a small sample of newer writers. ... We also lay claim to a bevy of more established writers like Carolyn Forche, Phillip Levine, Jim Daniels, and Toi Derricotte. I can't really say that there is a Detroit sound when it comes to poetry, if anything, what stands out is the range of voices coming from the city right now."

May's first collection, Hum, wrote David Winter in the Journal, is "'dedicated to the interior lives of Detroiters and the memory of David Blair,' the book takes its formal structure from the combination of that landscape with the speaker's anxieties, which range from the mundane to the mortal." "Noting the empty shells of grand colonials lining the streets and battered cars sitting on cinder blocks," stated Joelle Biele in the Boston Review, "May argues against romanticizing urban decay." "The collection is fueled by compelling contrasts between a difficult, often ugly reality, and an aesthetic capable of finding beauty in anything," observed Corrina Bain in Muzzle. "It is a book of contrasts between innocence and experience, and a book of place, intimately and proudly about Detroit (and how satisfying it is that Detroit be shown every inch as mythic as Blake's London.) May is also doing one of the most urgent works of the poet, to show the fractal containment of people and their environment--what befalls the city comes into the lives of individual people." The poet "is a storyteller," declared Mark Eleveld in Booklist, "and his imagery is often easily decipherable. What's more, he pays attention to sound."

At the same time, reviewers note, May's work is just as much about the people of Detroit as it is about the city itself. He "seems acutely aware of the injustices in our current condition," asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "but he seeks to educate rather than preach." May excavates "the bottom of inner-city culture," said a contributor to GC, "and reveals acts with such vibrancy that the emotions and actions can be felt through the pages. May unveils broken Detroit and the struggle for life, love and happiness with undeniable passion." "But what makes Hum remarkable, perhaps more than its structural sophistication or thematic content, is the intimacy and authenticity May's voice conveys as he thinks and feels his way through each line and stanza. ... Ultimately, the book invests the word 'hum' with a particular sense of the human, a spiritual music that finds its way up from between May's words and defies straightforward analysis," Winter continued. "Formal sophistication and conceptual implication may make Hum a significant work of literature, but it is May's human touch that fills these poems with the irreducible combination of feeling and music."

The poet's second collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies, also uses imagery drawn from May's urban home. "Like the Detroit that May describes," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "these poems are full of both shadow and light." "These poems don't make me want to sit in my chair and read them and be sad," exclaimed Bess Cooley in the Sycamore Review. "They make me want to go to Detroit and Ferguson and everywhere in the country and do something. I want to tear down barriers and yell in the streets. May, it seems, wants to, too." "The book ... keeps one eye on the street," Stephen Burt stated in a review on the American Academy of Poets Web site, "on the Detroit upbringing to which the poet returns." "Whoever says poetry is dead, has not read Jamaal May's cunning collection," asserted D.M. O'Connor in the San Diego Book Review. "Image, voice, beauty and pain is alive and well in Detroit, and so exactingly personal, it is universal."




Booklist, November 15, 2013, Mark Eleveld, review of Hum, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, September 23, 2013, review of Hum, p. 55; February 15, 2016, review of The Big Book of Exit Strategies, p. 43.

Southeast Review, June 27, 2014, Sakinah Hofler and Anna Claire Hodge, "Interview: Jamaal May."

Sycamore Review, April 10, 2016, Bess Cooley, "Jamaal May's The Big Book of Exit Strategies."


Academy of American Poets, https://www.poets.org/ (February 20, 2017), Stephen Burt, review of The Big Book of Exit Strategies.

Boston Review, https://bostonreview.net/ (June 26, 2014), Joelle Biele, "Microreview: Jamaal May, Hum."

GC, http://gcmag.org/ (March 4, 2014), review of Hum.

Jamaal May Home Page, http://www.jamaalmay.com (February 20, 2017).

Journal, http://thejournalmag.org/ (September 5, 2014), David Winter, review of Hum.

Muzzle, http://www.muzzlemagazine.com/ (March 4, 2014), review of Hum.

San Diego Book Review, http://sandiegobookreview.com/ (January 9, 2017), D.M. O'Connor, review of The Big Book of Exit Strategies.*

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000319946