Jamaal May vs. The Multiverse

April 3, 2018

Danez Smith: She's the crab that started a labor union to get out the barrel, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) And they’re the corner of the party you want to be invited into, Danez Smith.

Danez Smith: And welcome to VS, the podcast where poets confront the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: Brought to you by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

Danez Smith: Hmmmm, that PP, yes…

Franny Choi: Ew…

Danez Smith: Ooooh!

Franny Choi: Girl…

Danez Smith: Eeeh! Hey, Franny, how you doing, girl!

Franny Choi: Heyyyyy! I’m good how are you?

Danez Smith: I’m doing pretty good, doing pretty good, you know, feeling young, wild and sexy and free and…

Franny Choi: That’s great!

Danez Smith: … also oppressed. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Still.

Franny Choi: (SINGING) Young and wild and oppressed.. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Oooooh, I hate that. Well, I mean, we’re young.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: You are young.

Danez Smith: Hey, OK, so in this episode we get to talk with Jamaal May. We get to talk a lot about, like, waves, right.

Franny Choi: Like, literal, like, sound and light waves.

Danez Smith: Yes, yes, and speaking of young, what waves were you a part of when you were young? You know, the fads, you know, you know.

Franny Choi: I was never, like, a full card-carrying member of any of these... waves.

Danez Smith: OK.

Franny Choi: But I do feel like at one point I had aspirations to be, like, a scene kid, you know what I mean?

Danez Smith: What’s a scene kid?

Franny Choi: What I mean is that I had, like, some Hot Topic regalia.

Danez Smith: Oooooh….

Franny Choi: You know?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I had some fingerless gloves. I had some arm warmers.

Danez Smith: Oh wow. That’s a scene kid? What scene? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Well… this is a very good question. More scene as in, like, drama club.

Danez Smith: Scene as in trying to be seen? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Please, somebody look at me… (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Alright. That’s an interesting wave, that’s cool.

Franny Choi: I suppose. Was it cool? It was fine, it served me well. I’m here now. I survived it. What about you, what waves were you part of?

Danez Smith: Well, I was a heavy fan of the snap bracelets, you know?

Franny Choi: Ooooh.

Danez Smith: Those were very much my jam.

Franny Choi: Were the snap bracelets the ones where the different colors were, like, the different sex things?

Danez Smith: I didn't... See, that was some shit that my corner of the hood didn't necessarily get into. I just liked the slappy sound. Like, I wasn't…

Franny Choi: Oh wait, that’s the ones where you, like, slap in on your wrist and then it stays. It’s like a stick and then it bah! A bracelet.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: OK.

Danez Smith: Yeah. Not, like, Snapchat-your-titties bracelet. Just a snap.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) God, thank god we didn’t have Snapchat as children.

Danez Smith: It would have ruined us. We were kids, yo. But I think the scene that I most, like, heavily wrapped up out was, like, when everybody decided that Pokémon was cool. I was, like, yes, you're right. Pokémon is cool.

Franny Choi: Yeah, for sure. For sure I was in that.

Danez Smith: But all it took was, like, my fourth-grade friend Joseph to be, like, “Pokémon” and I was, like, yep, we're into it.

Franny Choi: Sold.

Danez Smith: I don't know what it is yet, but I'll ask my mom for it. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Are there a hundred and fifty or are there a hundred and fifty-one…

Danez Smith: Yo, you really fucked me up. Speaking of creatures from outer space that come to our earth to bless us, Jamaal May is the author of Hum and The Big Book Of Exit Strategies, he’s a professor at Wayne State up in Detroit and he’s also the co-editor at Organic Weapon Arts. We are so happy to bring y’all this amazing interview with Jamaal, let’s get into it.

Franny Choi: Yeah…. My former teacher!

Danez Smith: Yeah! My homie, I wanna be like him.

Franny Choi: Yes. Me too.

Danez Smith: Hmm.


Danez Smith: (SINGING)

Jamaal May: Sing it, daddy, sing it.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)  

Jamaal May: Oh, yeah.

Danez Smith: (SINGING) That’s what I really wanna be. The Chaka Khan of poetry.

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That is all I really want to be.

Franny Choi: Are you living the double phone life?

Jamaal May: Not trying to.

Danez Smith: You selling drugs again?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Just, one of my personalities wanted his own phone.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So I decided to give it to him just to shut it up while still trying to remerge all my lives.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Jamaal May: Let me see, where is the airplane mode on this one. There it is.

Danez Smith: That was brilliant. I know you were talking some real shit, but that was, like, great. And a lot of people need to hear that.

Jamaal May: I feel like I should make more sense when I just, like, talk from, like, a metaphysical standpoint. I’m trying to bring shit down to terrestrial terms is confusing everybody.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So I’m just, like, people go, yo, where have you been, and I’m just, like, yo, I just got back from hyperspace.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Well, we are extremely lucky to have one of my No.1 heroes of poetry in the house...

Danez Smith: Yeah. I’m always trying to have whatever Jamaal May had four years before.

Franny Choi: Right, right, it’s true.

Danez Smith: I’m still on it, that’s what my credo…

Jamaal May: Trying to have Jamaal as 2012.

Franny Choi: I’m still trying to have Jamaal 2012.

Jamaal May: And I’m trying to have Danez’s every week ever since.

Danez Smith: Na, fam, na. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: We’re really lucky to have Jamaal May in the studio, Jamaal, how are you doing?

Jamaal May: I’m doing really well.

Franny Choi: Yeah?

Jamaal May: Yeah, I’m back.

Franny Choi: How’s Detroit treating you these days?

Jamaal May: Good, good, I’m teaching at Wayne State in the city, and that’s been my really on point.

Franny Choi: Yeah. That’s great. You said you just back... from hyperspace? (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Yeah, I drop in and out of hyperspace from time to time. Yeah, I’m back.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Welcome back. I guess, maybe the first thing we want to ask you about was... was music. And, like, what… maybe just, like, start by what you've been listening to these days, like, what's been in your head, what's been in your headphones.

Jamaal May: OK, yeah. I’ve been putting together some interesting Spotify playlists.

Danez Smith: OK, OK.

Jamaal May: Spotify’s A.I is really interesting. It will find some good stuff for you.

Danez Smith: It knows you better than, like, a Pandora does.

Jamaal May: It does, it does.

Franny Choi: Better than some people do.

Jamaal May: I’m, like, Pandora, this is a little intimate, you must know I don’t like that song.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So I’ve been bumping kinda like a wide range of stuff, as usual with poets, you know, Kaytranada has been someone I’ve been going through…

Danez Smith: Kaytranada, if you listen to this, hollar, I know you queer, come on, boo.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Kaytranada’s in there. Mick Jenkins has been on the radar lately. I like the new Kodak Black song, “Roll In Peace.”

Danez Smith: I haven't heard that one yet.

Jamaal May: That's why I have a playlist called Ignant shit. Where it’s like, just, like, my ignant jams. So it got a lot of chest-thumping bravado-type stuff on air, like, that Kodak is definitely in the mix. A big one lately is Erykah Badu, like, I recently kinda had this, like, epiphany.

Danez Smith: Any particular album, or?

Jamaal May: All of her. Cause I recently had this epiphany that Erykah Badu has been, like, making music to calm and heal my soul for the past 20 years, you know. Like, so consistently that I didn't really think about that on that level, until, I just had a moment where I really appreciated the song “The Healer.”

Danez Smith: Yeaaah.

Jamaal May: Cause it is straight-up some healing music, y’all.

Danez Smith: I listened to that, probably, for like a good three hours on loop last winter.

Jamaal May: Yeah. But I put it on back to back last week.

Danez Smith: But I think it’s interesting, because Erykah Badu is, like, very interested in the vibrations of her music and what she’s sending out into the world, right, and, like, when you listen to her talk, she’s very much into what’s going into it. Is that something you’re also thinking about, maybe in your own work, are you thinking about the vibrations, like that you’re sort of..

Jamaal May: Definitely.

Danez Smith: … feeding into your reader.

Jamaal May: Yeah. Definitely. Vibration in a broad sense, too. I’m thinking about the vibration of sound and, like, and of the body. But then also, like, I’m just really fascinated by, like, the way a vibration connects us in a space. When you’re inside of a room, you’re in a pressurized system. Those little bones in your ears are always shaking and vibrating. And they generate sound, like, they actually have headphones now that can measure that sound and shift the frequency range of headphones to match your hearing.

Franny Choi: Oh my god.

Jamaal May: So it's, like, I mean, there's a thing happening, when we're in a space together, we're all kind of generating a certain frequency. And so I’ve been kinda really paying a lot of attention to that lately with some of the stuff I’m moving into. I’m doing some sound experiment stuff as well.

Franny Choi: Oh yeah, can you talk about that? What that means, like, sound experiment?

Jamaal May: It’s kinda hard to, like, talk about. Cause I’m still, like…

Danez Smith: Can you make a sound with your mouth that describes…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING) Hmmm. Wooooooooooo. (WHISTLING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Actually, fascinating. If you, um… Like, one of the things I have been doing is recording myself, making different tones, you know. And experiment with the amount of frequency distance between ranges. Because your brain will make up the difference between two frequencies.

Franny Choi: Wait, what do you mean by… what does that mean?

Jamaal May: So basically, if I was to play 40 Hertz for you and then play 47 Hertz, your brain will hear a pulse at 7 Hertz. And if I increased it to 48, you would hear an 8 Hertz pulse. And so I’ve been kinda exploring, like, natural resonances, like, there's a thing called the Schumann Resonance, it’s about 7.83.

Franny Choi: Oh, wait, so, like, you hear, like, a pulse…

Jamaal May: Right. And the pulse isn’t really there, but your brain fills in that blank.

Franny Choi: I remember, like, tuning the violin. What you're listening for is, like, those, you know, the strings are, like, a fifth apart. So you hear, like, a pulse...

Jamaal May: Exactly.

Franny Choi: … and then you tune it until you don’t hear that pulse anymore.

Jamaal May: Right, because you’re closing that distance, basically.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Right.

Jamaal May: And our ancestors were really big on using those pulses to, like, tune us up. So, like, there’s this thing to tune the body up. So folks that study, like, tribal drumming circles, they found that consistently they would get the crowd, the crew, pulsing at about 4 Hertz. And it does tune your actual body, I mean, when you go to a concert, one of the reasons a concert is so intense is because your chest is turned into a resonator cavity. And so, I’ve kinda been exploring that with sound, but I’m also delving into how frequency response relates to... our bodies but then what happens when you mix language into that. What happens when you’re reading to yourself versus what happens when someone’s reading to you. These kinds of different questions.

Franny Choi: Yeah, how does that idea, frequency, relate to words. Like, do you think about, like, how words vibrate against each other, like, how…

Jamaal May: Yeah, definitely. And thinking about what is going on as far as evolution of my thought, is the languages that we speak all have, like, these different phonetic syllables and parts to them. And they have different effects on the body. Like, a guttural sound has one effect, whereas more sinuous kinda sound has another effect. So that's an aspect of it, but something else that I'm more interested in is, how, in a less literal sense, sound is also a metaphor kinda for how language moves. Like, that pulse I was talking about…

Danez Smith: Wow.

Jamaal May: ...between frequencies, it happens between words. This is how we get subtext. Subtext is where… the reader stands…

Danez Smith: Come on, n***.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: In a synthesizer, you'll have a low-frequency wave that can't be heard, but it will alter what you can hear. So that sound I made, that woooo. If I was to make a modulation in that it would be wooo (UNDULATING). I didn’t change the sound, I just moved my mouth. So, what happens is that low-frequency modulation will change what the sound is doing. Even though you can’t actually hear it. So I study a lot about how that happens in our language and how it happens on the page. It's one of the things I love about poetry. Is that it's a space where you can kind of create these pits and troughs. It's like making a sculpture, where the image is created by what you bring into relief. You create through subtraction. And so I’ve been looking at subtracting synthesis and things like this, and thinking about how we do this with language. By how eliding things from the work is where you actually get to stand as a reader.

Franny Choi: Hmm. That’s interesting. I mean, no, that’s fucking fascinating.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: It’s not just interesting.

Danez Smith: Interesting is too light of a word, Franny.

Franny Choi: Broken into several pieces. Hmm, but, those media of experimental sound work and poetry, like, there's, like, a different relationship to meaning in those, right.

Jamaal May: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Like, when you’re thinking about sonic resonance in one area. It's less tied to, like, what does that, like, mean, you know.

Jamaal May: Right.

Franny Choi: Like, what am I trying to, like, say. How does that change the way you're, like, operating in both of these realms?

Jamaal May: Well, so... for me it fits perfectly inside of poetry because it’s been said that, you know, poems aren't about things; they are things. That's very much an approach that I take. I’m not so much concerned about, like, oh, this poem is about, like, this or about that. That's why, you know, you could read a poem about the same subject matter as another poem and one blows you away and the other feels redundant.

Franny Choi: Right. Stéphane Mallarmé is, like, one of my favorite quotes, where he said: “poems are not made of ideas, poems are made of words.” Which I really, like…

Jamaal May: Yeah, that’s a fantastic quote. So yeah, so because of that, I mean, it has a resonance, it has a harmony. And I think that's what happens with those invisible things that happen in a poem. Those blank spaces, that's where you create harmony because you create a participatory event. Until I bring myself to the page, nothing has happened yet. But when I bring myself and I stand in those spaces, then it becomes the poem. It’s not a poem until I fill in the subtext, if you will.

Franny Choi: When you say, it’s not a poem until I fill in the subtext, you mean, like, I, the reader?

Jamaal May: The reader, yeah.

Franny Choi: OK. For sure.

Jamaal May: And that’s what I mean about participatory event. There is this thing where the reader has… Like for example, metaphor. When I go, I’m a banana. Your brain immediately goes, wait, how are you a banana. Because there is an incongruency.

Franny Choi: Right, right, right.

Jamaal May: Without the incongruency, there wouldn’t be an exchange. If I’d just have said, I’m Jamaal. OK. We’re done. But if I’m gonna say, I’m a banana, your brain goes, you’re not a banana! And then that conflict is where you…

Franny Choi: Or are you?

Jamaal May: ...actually get something.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Right, or are you! It’s cause your brain will have to come up with answers as to why I am a banana, like, yo, maybe he has layers to him. Maybe he is easily peeled apart, like. Maybe he says he is white on the inside, like, whatever the thing could be. Like, maybe he’s curved, like, maybe he’s, like… So your brain will kinda start generating material. And that’s the participatory event. And when we talk about sound, there is a resonance thing. Like I was saying, where our brain is filling in those pulses, that’s a participatory event.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Jamaal May: If you have ever seen brain entrainment, like, this is… Um, if you have seen… think um...if I remember I think the Golden State Warriors are doing this. Have you ever seen them all outside with those headphones on? They’re doing brain entrainment. They’re playing frequencies where, if you play a tone in one ear and then like I said, with that shift in the other ear, your brain makes up the middle space. And it can create, like, hemisphere synchronisation. Similar to what happens with deep meditation.

Franny Choi: Whhhhhhhat? Cool!

Jamaal May: And, so, these are things that they’re figuring out in, like, the sports medicine world. But it’s been kind of around for a long long time. And, like I said, those drumming circles is the first places these kinds of things happen, where you got people in sync on the same resonance.

Danez Smith: Yo, this is what reminds me, I just saw a really good, um, Adrienne Rich quote, where she’s talking about poetry readings, like, it’s not a sort of lackadaisical… we're actually talking about an exchange of electronic currents and, like, you know, energies and stuff like that. And I'm wondering, Jamaal, because you've been in front of audiences, I think, for, like, the majority of your career, right. Even back before you were… well, the podcast is kinda named after you when you were Jamaal VS.

Franny Choi: That’s right! (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: And so, we’re talking about being a rapper, moving from spoken word and these kinds of things. How does that question of audience then change for you over the course of your career? When we're thinking about, you know, now, maybe you're doing sort of more these experimental auditory things, or a lot of folks might even be encountering you for the first time on the page more so, instead of, you know, you being in front of a mic or you being this presence onstage, which is still a fantastic event, if Jamaal is in your city, go see him read.

Franny Choi: Totally.

Danez Smith: What do you know now about speaking to somebody that you didn't know before?

Jamaal May: Yeah, what is interesting is that I would argue that I'm a much better reader now than when I was, like, really, really deep into performance. And a big part of it is just straight-up breath control. The thing I figured out about being in front of people in general, because I have social anxiety and was, like, terrified about audiences, was to kind of remind myself that no one came to hear me, like, actually. They came to hear poems. Which is great, because I got those.

Franny Choi: Aah, yeah.

Jamaal May: It's, like, it's, like, going to a comedy show a lot of times, people show up to a poetry reading. They’re not there because that comedian necessarily is on. They just there because, like, it’s a comedy club, I hope whoever is up tonight is good. So people kind of at poetry readings are very much in that headspace. And that was a big shift too, it when people actually started to show up to hear me specifically, that kind of screwed me up, because I was torn for probably, like, nine years before I started showing up at places where people came to see me, like, I was still kind of, like, the pleasant surprise, like, people were, like, wow, that was good! You should keep this up! You got something here!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Yeah. I kinda miss that.

Jamaal May: You thought I have potential? Potential feels good.

Danez Smith: Yeah. Y’all thought I was Michelle when I was a secret Beyoncé.

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So, big thing I learned was how to give the words their due. If I had to try to perform and sell it, it would suck. I would be bad at it. Like, I don't have performance training, you know. But if I can get closer to the language, like, that’ll do. And what I found was over time…

Danez Smith: And that’s again about that frequency, right, getting closer to that actual true vibration.

Jamaal May: Yeah, yeah. Because that's where the energy is, like, if I’ve been there correctly, I'm just getting out of the way of the language. And that was the thing that took me some time to learn. When I first started out, I was very much, like, me dragging myself across the finish line, you know, like, here's the poems. I was, like, leaning on… because I didn't know what else to do. Cause I was terrified. I basically figured out to just give my all to it. But I think the thing  I know now, is how to, like, just lay back and let the words have their space and then, because it is, like, it makes me less performative, but I feel, like, I'm giving a better reading, to be honest. I feel like the words are floating and hanging there better, and I like the comments I get. People say things, like, you know, that was very musical, like, I feel like I could close my eyes and ride with the words and things like that. And I feel like you don't always get to do that with, like, a thing on a page. Sometimes your inner thoughts get in a way. So it's good to be able to go out to an audience and, like, okay, here's how I would read it. Today. You know, cause it switches too.

Franny Choi: Right.

Jamaal May: And I always want people to go and have their own experience of the work.

Franny Choi: Yeah. I didn't realize this is what it was, until just now. But there are times when I've realized that the best reading I ever gave of the poem, was the first time that I read it in front of an audience. And it’s because I had spent all my time with the words and none of the time, like, trying to predict how they would sound out loud.

Jamaal May: Right, right, right.

Danez Smith: Ooooh, it says the exact opposite. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: It’s not every poem, but there are certain poems where I keep thinking, like, why can't I read this right, like, it did so well before. And it's because I had gotten far away from the words.

Jamaal May: Yeah. I remember that sense of urgency, you know, that you have with a new piece.

Franny Choi: For sure.

Jamaal May: And that’s what I'm always trying to figure out how to capture again. You know, a lot of times when I’m talking to people about reading styles, working with students and things, I just try to use examples of people that aren't necessarily performers. Because the best readers I’ve seen is… you’re watching someone be open enough to really get close to the work. We watched Carl Phillips give a reading and, you know, he’s taking his time and really nestling in there, close to the language. And you feel it, you know. Like, it really resonates because of that. So that’s what I wanted to do, like, how do you get closer to the words.

Franny Choi: Hearing you talk about, like, people responding to the music of your readings, like, how important is it for you to be understood. Or, like, how scary is it to be, like, misunderstood, maybe that's another way of asking it.

Jamaal May: Yeah, I’ve been going back and forth on the idea of misunderstandings. I honestly believe no one's ever made a statement that wasn’t eventually proven untrue or limited in scope.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So anything I say may be different next year.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) True.

Jamaal May: If it takes you misunderstanding me to pull something important for you out of the work, then by all means, misunderstand me.

Danez Smith: Yeah. I think we're not in the genre of understanding either, right…

Franny Choi: Right.

Jamaal May: Yeah, right, right.

Danez Smith: ...we’re talking about poems not being about something, poems being, like, you know, of the word, and stuff like that. I think, poems are meant to be cloudy in that way, right. You know, some poems might have a mission, you know, we can talk about accessibility, we can talk about all that kind of stuff, but I think we’re in the business of misunderstanding, as poets.

Franny Choi: Yeah. But I think every poet kind of gets to set that for themselves, like, for each poem, like, how much of this…

Jamaal May: And I feel like you set a framework, you know. One of the ways that I thought about it was: I am limiting possible readings of my work. I’m just not limiting it to one.

Franny Choi: Right.

Jamaal May: You see what I’m saying?

Franny Choi: Right, right, right.

Jamaal May: And I feel like I’ve seen people get caught up in, like, that’s not what I meant, you know. And I did have a situation where, like, the one time where I felt, like, yo, you missed the mark on that, because it wasn’t so much like they had a different interpretation than what I had; it was that they had to sidestep everything the poem was doing and look at me from an identity standpoint, to come at what they were saying about the poem. And that's what bothered me that one time. Because it was, like, I'm purposefully constructing somewhere for the reader to stand. So, for a person to Google me—and this is a tricky thing we have in our era, for a person to be able to Google me and say, OK, tall black man from Detroit, he must be experiencing this,            and to completely invert my poem to fit that reading of me as a person, that bothered me. Because it was a poem about, like, the ways I felt invisible growing up. But people don’t see me that way now. They see me as tall and successful. So I must have been the captain of the football team. I had to be the quarterback, right. That was something that did hurt, because the person in the poem I was talking about, it was, like, it was a poem for them, it was somebody that felt invisible, and here is the poem about how I felt invisible too, and instead they kind of inverted it to be, like, about how they couldn’t identify with my experience as a scary black man. That was the time that it really got to me. Not because they had seen the poem and had took away their own interpretation. It was because I knew that they had based their interpretation on my identity. Or what they presume my identity to be.

Danez Smith: Yeah, they weren't trying to read the poem, they were trying to read you.

Jamaal May: Exactly, exactly. And that is something that we have to be thinking... I don’t have to but it’s worth considering right now is, like, what does it mean to be a writer in an era where people know what you look like before they’ve even read you. It changes things. It really does.

Franny Choi: Woo! Yeah… For sure. When you talked about the different possible interpretations, I was thinking about how you mentioned being interested in quantum computing. I'm wondering if those are, like, related…

Jamaal May: Everything is related to me.

Danez Smith: … related ideas. (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Like, if you know how my brain works, everything is a related idea, right. I’m fascinated with the idea…

Danez Smith: Question..

Jamaal May: Go for it.

Danez Smith: What the fuck is quantum computing.

Franny Choi: I mean, I’m asking because I don’t know. I have no idea.

Jamaal May: Alright, so… Let me see if I can oversimplify this and, like, and enrage computer nerds all across the globe.

Franny Choi: Sorry, computer nerds.

Jamaal May: Quantum physics is a branch of physics that… um… we kind of had to invent because of the two-slit experiment. And based on the discovery that—to oversimplify it—when we look at a photon it's matter, and when we look away from it it’s an energy wave. And that idea of the collapsing wave function, like, created the whole branch of quantum physics. So you have a thing called quantum entanglement, where two particles that have interacted, no matter how far you move them apart, they respond to each other in opposing ways.

Danez Smith: Like me and my exes.

Jamaal May: Right, exactly! (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So Einstein called…

Franny Choi: There is a scientific explanation for that.

Jamaal May: So Einstein was freaked out by that, he called it spooky action at a distance. Cause he was just, like… cause it implies that information is traveling faster than the speed of light. Because these things are responding instantly. But they don’t actually necessarily violate the principle, like, of information, I mean, being able to travel faster than the speed of light, because it’s a different conception of reality, reality. Instead of thinking of things in terms of cause and effect, you’re thinking of things in terms of mirror and reflection.

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Jamaal May: Without us being able to completely understand how quantum entanglement things work, we’re able to, like, utilize it. So they've been, like, working on computing systems that work by entangling electrons.

Danez Smith: That’s cool.

Jamaal May: And the reason it's a big deal, is because it will multiply computing power, like, several fold. And that's what we need to happen for, like, a lot of what the possibilities of machine-learning, A.I. and 3D printing, for all this stuff to manifest, we need faster computers.

Franny Choi: This is currently happening?

Jamaal May: This is happening right now. I mean, we’re so far in the future right now. This is a fascinating thing to do. If you wanna read what’s happening in the past, like, read politics. If you want to read what’s happening in the future, read science and technology. It’s really fascinating.

Danez Smith: Damn.

Jamaal May: You can imagine, the human race is like a comet that's, like, passing through the sky. At the front end of the comet, there is all this heat and energy and change happening. And then all the way at the back end of the comet you have particles that don’t even know they are related to each other. And so you kinda have that happen with humanity right now. A scientist said that your future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Danez Smith: Oh, I like that.

Franny Choi: Oh my goodness.

Jamaal May: China teleported a photon to their space station a few months ago…

Danez Smith: They did?

Franny Choi: … what… how?

Jamaal May: Yeah. They teleported a photon into the sky.

Danez Smith: Wait, n***, am I gonna be able to get beamed up? What?

Jamaal May: That’s a thing that could be coming down the pipeline. But the question will be, if you get beamed up, is that you or is that a copy of you.

Danez Smith: I don’t give a damn. (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Mathematics don’t care either.

Danez Smith: Copy-paste me into space.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Jamaal May: Yeah. And the reason I’m itched and, like, fascinated to talk about this stuff is because.. that’s the world we live in. But we don’t function in our culture, in our society as if that’s the world we live in. We’ve learned all this stuff about physics and neuroscience that basically changes what it means to be a human on earth, but we’re still trying to fit our old ways of thinking into that. That's why we all struggle so much. We're just trying to figure out, how do we keep fighting wars? Like, we should try to figure out how to stay at war in a world that doesn’t need war anymore. We’re trying to figure out how to have scarcity and hierarchy and control in a world that doesn't need scarcity anymore.

Danez Smith: That’s very close to what Octavia Butler said in “Dawn.” The Ankooli I think?

Jamaal May: Oh yeah.

Danez Smith: They, like, study humans, right, and there is, like, hierarchy and intelligence and the fact that those two actually can’t mix, right.

Jamaal May: Yeah. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about… this is how this fits into this quantum computing thing. Like, an alternative to hierarchical thought, I've been thinking of, is territorial thought. Like a way of thinking of it as, like, my twin sister, right, super great organizing brain, don’t mind bossing folks around, right. My dude Tariq don’t wanna be nobody’s boss, right. Those are different territories, right, but from a hierarchical stand point, basically, one of those people has to, like, be better than the other and in charge. But from a territorial standpoint, Tariq is in charge of social media, twin is in charge of volunteer coordination. And it’s not about one of them being better than the other, it’s about them having reign over their particular territory.

Franny Choi: Like federation over government.

Jamaal May: Right. Kinda people know what their roles are and how they fit into it. And I really encourage that because I feel like it’s important to our mental health, as we, like, kind of do this work in the world that has to be done. There is a lot of stuff to get done. And, like, not everybody’s sure who should be doing what, and if you just kinda consume media, you’ll eventually feel like you’re supposed to be doing everything. It’s kinda knowing not to. Because then everything’s important. Everything’s necessary. Everything is urgent. But when you’re starting to think territorially, all of a sudden things get moved around a little bit. Like I have friends that are really good at organizing, um… volunteers for, like, actions, right. If I try to move into her street, she has a degree in this kinda stuff, you know what I mean? I’ll try and move into her sphere, I’m just gonna be in the way. I’m gonna be, like, clumsy and bad at it, and while I’m doing that, I’m not writing poems. You see what I’m saying? And she don’t write poems. So it’s important for me to have control over my territory, and make sure that I’m doing what I’m doing, inside of the world. Instead of just let my ego get caught up in the endorphin rush of being, like, in charge of important things.

Franny Choi: Sure.

Danez Smith: Yeah, these are local structures. Like hyper-localizing your skillset, even, like, what’s your function in the village, that kind of thinking. Yeah.

Jamaal May: And that kinda lets you be productive and useful in the culture in a way that’s fulfilling you. Cause as you do more and more work, you get better and better at the thing you care about.

Franny Choi: Yeah. It sounds like that's been, like, a freeing concept for you.

Jamaal May: I think it will be when I implement it completely.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Like, it’s easier to note than to implement. Just like everybody else, you know, I get awash in all there is to get to awashed in. And I lose myself, you know. But when I feel like I'm grounded is when I'm in my territory, when I'm, like, taking these things that I care about, that I know about. Like here is, like, a good catharsis process that I found. Basically as soon as you have a topic that's, like, racking your brain, that you can't get out of your head, start Googling organizations that are already working on it. There's thousands of people working on everything that concerns you. And once you start researching the people working, you end up with options, you know, like, do I help this organization, do they need volunteers, do they need financial support, how can I get involved. And it also lets you check yourself. Because it’s easy to be, like, oh, this is messed up and that’s messed up and nobody’s doing this, and wa-wa-wa-wa. And while you’re doing that, it’s, like, what about the people doing the work.

Franny Choi: Who have been doing it for, like, thirty years.

Jamaal May: Right. And it can be seriously satisfying to complain. It can be very satisfying to just, like, complain about what’s going on. So I try to keep myself checked, like, if something is really in my crown then, like, get down to that soup kitchen, dog. If you don’t have an impulse to get down into that soup kitchen, like, your next impulse is going to be to shut the hell up. And get back to whatever you were trying to do in the first place.

Franny Choi: For sure. A lot of people just need you to, like, take out the trash.

Jamaal May: Right. What do your neighbors need, you know.

Franny Choi: Right.

Jamaal May: That’s the thing I’m trying to upgrade, I still haven’t talked to the neighbors yet. But that’s the big upgrade for me. I don’t like come out the cave too much, but I was like, I need to know who’s on my block, you know.

Danez Smith: That’s also what we were saying about territory, right. Like, how do we make an actual impact. Like, I’m always thinking, like, I can’t change the world, but I can change my grandma’s life. I can’t actually change gun violence as a national epidemic, but I can do something about these three blocks right here.

Jamaal May: And something that's been really encouraging to me on that front is starting to really deeply understand the exponential way humans interact. Because I think, as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, we kinda tend to think really linearly. You know, before, our parents worked in a factory, you know, like, that assembly line we have thought, that's where hierarchy comes from, the notion that everything is in line with each other. But it's not. Things are three dimensional. And when you’re thinking three-dimensionally, you realize every single person you hit, you're hitting dozens more people.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Jamaal May: Because that person is impacting other people around them. And that's when I realized the things we do has, like, so much heft and value is not because I'm hitting those 60, 70 people at the reading, it's because ten of those people are going to go talk to somebody else about something, a new idea they have. And that's powerful, you know. And I realize that that individual, one-on-one power we have, gets negated when we think in an industrial sense, because we think numbers, you know. So it’s like… I got to have a Twitter following of 20 000 to have an impact. But in real life, that 20 000 people may be… a 100 of them are actually, like, listening and changing and moving because of the things you said. Others are kind of sycophants, like, you say all the things I like to hear said. When you actually make one person really shift, your shifting every person that person's going to interact with from now on.

Franny Choi: Yeah. I mean, that seems like, kind of going back to, like, computing and robotics, you know, like, that's, like, a cybernetic model of thinking about how you, like, interact with others rather than, like, this, like, Old World machine… type way of thinking about things.

Jamaal May: Right. And that’s another thing that’s been evolving in my thought too, is, like, spinning the camera around a little bit. Cause that was really fascinating for me in my first book to really explore this idea of the body and the mind and the community as machine, you know, and it's really fascinating to kind of flip that around and re-examining the fact that those systems are mimicking other systems. Like, I'm really fascinated by natural systems right now. We build systems that mimic systems that previously exist, and then we describe those previously existing systems to the lands of the new system. So when clocks were new, you know, we look at the old philosophers and they described everything as clocks, you know, cause clocks was the latest technology. So now we’re describing ourselves a lot through, like, computing and stuff, but when you start breaking apart, like, what happens through, like, coding, for example, it’s very much in line with what we do as writers. The reason our phone can do all this stuff is because 0 and 1 don’t mean 0 and 1, 0 and 1 in a string means blue. You see what I’m saying? And so, that’s what we do with language. You know, I say river, I'm not talking about R-I-V-E-R, like, a grouping of letters, like, a river, oh, that’s an interesting grouping of letters. No, I’m talking…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: I’m using code. I’m evoking something broader. The further we get into, like, machine learning and A.I., the more we know about ourselves, because we are mirroring systems that already exist.

Franny Choi: That’s so fascinating to build a system in order to understand how this works. I’m pointing to my head.

Jamaal May: Yeah. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Yeah, it’s like looking at things slant to see them. Like when you look at a star through a telescope, you kinda got to put it off center to see it. You can’t look at it directly or you won’t see it. That’s one of my, kinda optimistic things about the future. I think the understated thing about, like, a vast A.I. is what it’s gonna teach us about ourselves. Once the A.I. can analyze how dreams work, that's going to be really fascinating for, like, just a regular terrestrial human. We'll be able to ask. That’s gonna be interesting.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Jamaal May: And I think it's going to shift power balance too. Because it's going to move power into the hands of people who have creative questions. Whereas right now, you know, the power is in… you know, we know where the power is at, because when it becomes question-based… the more fascinating your question is, the more interesting the results will be. And you’re seeing that right now in the early days of programming. Like, so much of this stuff that is coming out of machine learning programming is straight-up people have really crazy ideas. And.. so I think it’s gonna be really interesting to see what happens with the creative mind once it has that kind of control over the questions and the answers.

Franny Choi: U-huh.


Danez Smith: What do you think dreams are?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Dreams seems to be a lot of different things, like, when I was younger I used to study lucid dreaming. When I was in my 20s I was, like, trying to learn how to lucid dream. I got, like, too good at it, it started kind of freaking me out.

Danez Smith: Oh no.

Franny Choi: What do you mean, too good at it. (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: OK, so, a book I was reading once was talking about, where you got to a certain level of dreaming, you might get a dream guide like, someone would show up to kind of help you show you how to go to the next level. And I was very skeptical, you know, I was just experimenting. I'm very experiential, like, did it work, you know, and I was, like, that part of it I was, like, meh, I don’t know about that. But I had had lucid dreams when I was a kid and so I was fascinated with that. And then, when I started being able to lucid dream more thoughtfully, like, consciously create them, and encountered a being…

Franny Choi: What… who…

Danez Smith: So what was the being?

Jamaal May: I don't know, it was a woman in a sunhat.

Danez Smith: Oooooh!!!!

Franny Choi: Ooh, cool!

Jamaal May: I might know who it is, I don’t want to put them on blast, they might have came to my dream a long time ago, they might do that. So that kind of freaked me out, cause I used to have these spaces where they were completely barren, and one day I showed up in this dream space and there was someone there already. And it kind of freaked me out. And I kind of backed off of it back then.

Franny Choi: Woooooow…

Jamaal May: But when I think about dreams, like, first of all, you got basically just, like, the brain doing some repair work. And one of the ways I kind of try to move through my mind to, like, for safety and fun…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: ... is to always be thinking about, like, which version of reality is relevant to right now. No reality map I can draw is accurate. Because the map is not the territory, as has been said. You know, if you could draw a hundred percent accurate map, it will cease being a map. Like, if I was to draw a map of every…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: …thing in this room to scale, like, we wouldn’t have a map; we’d have this room. Right. So a map is only useful in that way. Dreams to me… they shift and move around based on, kind of, what data I have on hand. Sometimes I'm really interested in the dreamscape as, like, a shared world. There are some physicists out there talking about the possibility that your dreams could, strung together, could be one separate actual reality.

Danez Smith: Whoa, whoa, whoa, run that back, say that again.

Jamaal May: f you were to take all the dreams you had through your life and you’d kind of string ‘em together in a linear fashion, what you would have is another world.

Danez Smith: Oh, fuck that.

Jamaal May: Like, another reality.

Danez Smith: Oh, fuck that. I don’t like that, no no. (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So one possibility is that we're kind of, like, our mind is visiting different vibrational levels of reality while we're dreaming. Because we dream to different…

Danez Smith: Yeah, I can vibe with that.

Jamaal May: We dream to a different frequency when we’re dreaming.

Franny Choi: Different frequency of what?

Jamaal May: Our brainwaves.

Franny Choi: Oh.

Jamaal May: Maybe we go onto..

Danez Smith: What is it, REM sleep?

Jamaal May: Like, beta-waves or whatever. That’s how that hemisphere sync stuff works, it basically, like, if there's a brain wave where this is 9 Hertz, it basically tries to create a 9 Hertz pulse. But what are dreams, like, I think we’re still parsing it out, they can be anything from background chatter from the subconscious to another world. Cause the more we study about, like…

Franny Choi: Quite a range. (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: I mean, but it all could be the same thing, cause the more we study about the mind, the more it kind of seems arbitrary, the notion of what we call “reality.”

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Jamaal May: The most recent thing is, they finally think they figured out why our brains are faster than our eyes, even though our eyes are literally faster than our brains, but not realizing our brain does predictive work to fill in the blanks. There's a study they did where, if you flash people sensory data and have them click on one side for jarring then one side for pleasant while hooked to sensors, they found that your body starts registering what you're going to see before you see it. So if you want to see something jarring, your body start building up the stress hormones and chemical response to seeing it. Not just before you click the button, but before they even get the image up on screen. So, like, when I think about the idea of dreaming, I just, like… it's hard to count for me to kind of see it as that different world than this one, but it is just a different frequency range, different state of consciousness.

Franny Choi: Hmm. Jezus.

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING) Sorry.

Franny Choi: So Jamaal was also my teacher in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. I remember you said something, like, a few times about the ability of humans to pick up on patterns.

Jamaal May: Oh!

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Jamaal May: Yeah. This kind of ties back to some of what we were saying earlier about, like, quantum entanglement and, like, what language can do and all that.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Jamaal May: The body's ability to pick up patterns is so absurd that it changed the way I think about art. I think part of what’s happening to me and my new work I’m trying to do, I’m thinking in context of what the pattern, like, does. Just an example of a thing for y’all out there listening, to, like, if you wanna kind of see a freakish version of this. Google, like, Ted Talk “vibration vest.” This guy made a vest that had these vibratory servo motors on it, and it could turn data into a vibration pattern. And they chose sound. This guy who was born completely deaf, was able to wear this vest for a few hours a day for, like, a week or so.

Franny Choi: So it’s a different vibration pattern based on, like, the sound.

Danez Smith: So it translates…

Jamaal May: So they plug a microphone into it and so when you talk into the mic while it’s plugged into the vest, it creates a vibration to match the sound pattern. The body is so good at picking up patterns, that after wearing this vest for a little while, this guy who was born… when I say born deaf, he didn’t even have the auditory hook-ups, the connection between brain and ear. And he was able to interpret what was being said to him and write it on the board.

Danez Smith: Oh, through the vibrations, wow. So that’s even about language acquisition.

Jamaal May: Yeah, and he’s not even hearing in his head, it’s not like he hears house and he writes house, he just feels the vest and instantly knows it’s the word house. Google did this study where they have this pulse on Google glass, where they were able to teach people Morse code in four hours. It would say the letter and it tapped the Morse code on their brow. And they weren’t even paying attention. They had been playing video games for four hours while they did this. And they tested 95% proficiency on a Morse code sentence, 98% proficiency on the Morse code alphabet. In four hours. Because the body is so good at picking up patterns, that it will just learn it without your cognitive brain even being involved.

Danez Smith: Wow.

Jamaal May: So keep that in mind when we think about what happens with our language. What happens when we go on the Internet every day and read the exact same groupings of phrasings, like, over and over and over again, but with different topics. Like, it, that's where the programming comes in. And that's why I think of poetry as, like, a deprogramming script. Because poetry is a place where it takes language that you are already familiar with, and it turns so that your brain has to recreate neurogenesis, it has to keep up. It has to make new pathways to keep up with what's happening. And if a vest can make a person who hasn't heard anything in her life translate language in a couple of weeks, imagine the power of, like, the constant barrage of data and information is having on us. And that's where poetry comes into play. And that's why people are seeing right now, as a salve. Because it really does unlock something, it really can, like, deprogram you.

Franny Choi: Deprogram you from… from what?

Jamaal May: Just whatever, like, whatever…

Danez Smith: Is it deprogramming or reprogramming? Like, you know, cause we’re talking about these new pathways..

Jamaal May: Yeah, that’s a good way of thinking about it. But basically, you gotta run your own scripts or someone will write one for you. You know.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Jamaal May: You can experiment if you want, like, everyone wants to experiment with this—take a day where you just read a specific conspiracy theory. Don’t go to Smoking Gun, don’t go to… don’t Snopes it. Just pick a weird topic and read only people that believe in that topic. In a few hours, you’ll see how a reality could exist where that’s true. And you rethink about people that are doing that on a daily basis, this is why we all live in different worlds. Because your world is shaped from your memories. And you can program yourself with a different set of memories than anyone around you. That's why you look at people, like how do you think this; how do you think the world is, like, flat. Like, how could you. Because if you want to believe the world is flat, there's enough information out there to program yourself to see it that way.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: Oooh.. that makes me frightened.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: It’s scary stuff. But the joyful part of it is…

Danez Smith: It’s just about coding it right. It’s easy. All we are are computers. We can be reprogrammed.

Jamaal May: The relief though is that it’s just as easy to write good scripts. Like, it’s just as easy to get into the habit of giving a damn about people, just as easy to get into the habit of volunteering, just as easy to get into the habit of writing good work. And that’s the thing we miss. We get caught up, you know, the bad habits, you know, but remember, our brain is just a pattern machine. That’s what I find the comfort in. And like… once you realize that it's poppin’ off, it’s terrifying because you can see people on auto-program. You see it really clearly once you're, like… you see it. Once you are, like, all these people are turned off. But I find hope in the fact that, like, I woke up. You know, I was able to write my own scripts and, like, I'm nobody, you know, just some, like, skinny dude from Dexter Ave. If I could get here, I could write my own program.

Danez Smith: Confirm skinny, y’all, confirm skinny.

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: What scripts are you writing right now, what are you trying to code us?

Franny Choi: Or yourself?

Jamaal May: Uhm…

Danez Smith: What type of programming can your readers look forward to?

Jamaal May: I think, like, the next work is very much related to, like, there's a lot of weirdos out there. And I got stuff to say to them. Shout-out to the weirdos.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) “I got stuff to say to them.”

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: There's a way to wake up safely, umm….

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Jamaal, you get the fuck out of here.

Jamaal May: No one gave me that lesson. I went the wrong way around. So I think a lot of the new work is very much about, like, how do you let your mind expand and, like, go deeper into the core of yourself without going off the rails. Like, how do you survive in this culture, in a society.

Franny Choi: (SIGHING) Yeah.

Jamaal May: Like, how do you, like, create a harmonious self in a system that's disharmonious with the self. And I'm not sure how that looks on a page but I got a ton of notes, you know, I got a bunch of lines. And I think it is slow coming because it is just harder work. Like, I think it was…. David Lynch was talking about how, when you’re trying to catch a fish, you know, is like… There's, like, a lot of fish at the surface that are right there. You got a net, you can get them really easy. But if you want a really big fish, a really rare fish, you got to go deeper down. And it's, like, it, like, takes longer. And that's kind of where I'm at with it. The second became pretty quickly because it was building off ideas from the first book. Kinda pushing on them a little bit. But the next thing is, like… I start off thinking about the body as a machine. And now where I’m standing is, like, “life is not a machine” is a quote that I wrote in my notebook. It's, like, not a machine. But it is a system. And that's a more complicated, more interesting thing. So I'm writing, like, routes out the matrix. And I kinda always have been, like, if you read my first book backwards, like, it’s like a different book. Like, there's stuff in there that's not…

Danez Smith: Like Kendrick Lamar, did you just read it backwards…

Jamaal May: Yeah.

Danez Smith: OK!

Franny Choi: Do you do that? Do you read books backwards sometimes? 

Jamaal May: If they seem like they're written that way. Like, because the way I edit lines is, I’m trying to, like, build duality almost all over the line. So it ends up working, like, as a hinge. And so the book kind of tells a slightly different story if you were to read it backwards.

Danez Smith: You mean poem for poem?

Jamaal May: Poem for poem. You can start with the last line of the book and go backwards.

Danez Smith: Wait, whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, wait, line for line backwards!

Jamaal May: Yeah, it’s not a hundred percent consistent. You might change some articles here and there. But, like, it’s weird.

Danez Smith: Wait, word for word!? Wait, what!? OK. Like…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) This n*** just said a lot. OK.

Jamaal May: Not a hundred percent, like line by line.

Danez Smith: Was that intentional? Or was that..

Jamaal May: It was semi-intentional. Because in the process of editing, I went back and edited it backwards. Cause I was trying to say so much of duality that if I was really nailing it, then every line should have some kind of gravity, no matter which direction you read it in.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Jamaal May: And it’s one of the ways to keep myself honest. Like, if a line works no matter which direction you read it, it’s a quality line. Cause I was talking to a lot of people who were saying I was going to hate my first book after I came out. So one of my stages editing was just me being, like, I'm not going to hate this book, you know. And one of the things I felt like from talking to a few different folks that have a few books, is I think I kind of recognized was this thing that happens, where once you have it in a different context, you can see all these kind of small little things you want to tweak and move around. So I just wanted to make sure I went back and got all those. So that's where reading the poems backwards became a really big help for that. Because that’s how I could tell a line was just there to get to the next line.

Danez Smith: Damn. Wish I would have known that for my first book, cause I do hate my first book a little bit.

Franny Choi: I hate my first book a little bit too.

Danez Smith: Yeah. For different reasons. I think the poems are technically sound, but I think I don’t agree with young Danez politics in a lot of ways in the poems.

Franny Choi: I think young Franny was just.. exposing too much.

Danez Smith: I was just real sad and…

Franny Choi: Like, keep some stuff to yourself, girl!

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: You can’t say everything!

Jamaal May: But that’s what’s exciting about those early books is that you’ll never be that person that writes those.

Danez Smith: No, no.

Franny Choi: And thank god. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING)


Danez Smith: So every episode, we ask our guest, of course, to share a poem. Would be a shame if they did not. So Jamaal, you got a poem that you are willing to give to the peoples right now?

Jamaal May: I got one that’s kinda been on my mind a little bit. Just because, um, I just saw a title of an article that I thought was kind of darkly funny, but it was just basically saying that Oprah would drone strike you. But..

Danez Smith: Wow.

Franny Choi: Wait, what!?

Danez Smith: Yeah, she would.

Jamaal May: She would. Cause the point they were highlighting was, like…

Danez Smith: She’s, like, no savior president.

Jamaal May: I don’t know if people notice this, but you gotta notice that no matter who’s in the White House, we’re still pretty much a warmongering nation.

Danez Smith: Sure!

Franny Choi: Sure, sure.

Jamaal May: So a lot of people have the notion that we could just get the right famous person, like, in charge, everything would be fixed. Cult of personality kind of thing. But there’s all these other things at work. So I have a poem, called FBI Questioning During The 2009 Presidential Inauguration. Because the FBI showed up at my house door at Obama’s inauguration to basically.. to basically let me know, you know, new boss, same as the old boss. Don’t get too comfortable, radical.


FBI Questioning During the 2009 Presidential Inauguration


Have you always been named Jamaal?

Yes, my name means beauty.

Yes, my name is Gemal in Egypt

and Cemal in Turkey. In Kosovo

Xhemal, and Dzemal in Bosnia.

What it means, in the language

you fear, is beauty has always lived

with the sound of awe at its center.

How long have you lived in Detroit?

Ivy leaves have taken back

a house on the block

where the memory of me is still climbing

the slope of a leveled garage.

A yellow excavator has taken one in its mouth.

The temptation to become ash

has claimed several others.

Are there any explosives in the house?

The new president's hand

presses to a bible like a branding iron,

and I want to say something

about the eruption of love poems

written by fifth graders on my shelf.

Which list carries my name?

I don't ask. How many Jamaals

are being questioned right now? I wonder,

but don't ask. The agents have not come

to burn the pages or cut out my tongue.

They are here to arrest the delusion

of a moment when anybody had one.

Have you spent much time overseas?

I tried to paint an ocean

across my bedroom wall,

but my blood reddened 
as soon as it hit air.

I wanted to build a house

from my name, but every letter

in every word was as thin as my arms.

It would be nice to quarantine the county,

tape off city blocks, make a fence

of my teeth, and protect every laugh

inside the borders of me, but when I reach...

the hurried unravel of sinew,

that peculiar popping sound in my ankle.

Teach me how to get my hands

into the air without the gods

knowing about it, because I hear static

sometimes, wonder if my voice is being taped-

listen, listen; someone is writing us down.


Franny Choi: Wooof.

Danez Smith: Woooh… God damn, I love ‘em poets ask themselves questions and answer them.

Franny Choi: Right! Me too!

Danez Smith: That’s, like, my favorite form. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Yeah, so those are, like, the real questions the FBI asked me, but those were, like, my not real answers, cause I didn’t want to get black-bagged and thrown into Guantanamo.

Danez Smith: Oh, shit, you really got asked some questions by the FBI.

Jamaal May: Oh, like, legit. There was three of them, but I knew they were the B squad kind of quickly though, so there was two little…one of them was too excited I had Guitar Hero. He saw a Guitar Hero controller in the corner, got a little excited, one of the agents had to check him. And there was something about the fresh-face youngness of them. And I was, like, this is the B squad, man, they don’t even send the real agents to get me.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So they told me to turn the TV off and I was, like, OK, yeah, I got you. But it’s the first black president, man, I can't turn this off, like, can I just turn it down. And they let me turn the TV down, and then gently turned the volume up as they asked questions. Every time they asked me a question, I’d be, like, nope, and turn the volume up some more, every been to Z, no, just keep turning it up, y’all want some nachos…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: I had a little fun with it because I knew it was the B squad, you know, if it was the A squad, I’d be, like, OK, y’all ain’t gonna black-bag me. It’s not going down like that.

Danez Smith: Word.

Franny Choi: My goodness. Did you legitimately offer them nachos?

Jamaal May: I did. I did. I had nachos. It was the first black president! I had my nachos, like, I was at the crib, chillin’. It was a really surreal experience. They came up totally cliche just like on TV, they had the pea coats, the black sedans, you know, they flipped the badges open like they’d been waiting to do it their whole career.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Like, yeah, you corny motherfuckers.


Danez Smith: Every episode we want to ask our guests about something that's KO’d them. A knock-out moment. Any piece of art, literature, music, what have you, maybe there’s a really good hot dog that really knocked them off their feet.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: So Jamaal, can you tell us one thing in the last couple of months, just in your life, that has knocked you out?

Jamaal May: I thought I was ready for this question but aaah…

Franny Choi: Think for a second, think for a second.

Jamaal May: Actually, honestly, I’m about to rewatch the cartoon show Avatar The Last Airbender…

Franny Choi: For sure.

Danez Smith: My n****.

Jamaal May: … from scratch.

Danez Smith: Yessss….

Jamaal May: Because I rewatched the episode where Aang opens his chakras… And it’s deep! Yoooo, like, it helped me a lot. It helped me, like, through some, like, emotional stuff. I was, like, there was something about, like, the fact that this children's show have framed this, like, kind of deep, mystical concept in a really straightforward way, where you…. If you know nothing about it or care nothing about it, it still was useful, healthy information. And I just, like…. I was, like, that’s some mad fave thing, I wanna say something that recently really hit me. From a poetry standpoint, I recently read Joy Harjo’s poem that she had in Poetry last fall. “How To Write A Poem In A Time Of War.”

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Jamaal May: You can find it online. That poem hit me because of, like, this thing I’ve been thinking about lately of, like, the idea of writing through time. Another one of our jobs, of many, as a poet is, like, we’re archives of individual human experience. So those writers that can place the self inside of this continuum are, like, really resonant to me right now. I think that’s, like, a big challenge of my work going forward. Now that I’m done with the ego shit, you know, like, OK, I’ve healed baby Jamaal—because a lot of our early poetry comes out of trying to heal our baby self.

Franny Choi: For sure.

Danez Smith: For sure.

Jamaal May: And now baby Jamaal has got some traction, I’m like, OK, where does he fit into that bigger conversation. And so in that poem, she’s, like, kinda goes through the different features of war, you know, and she’s kinda like, this negation—I love using negation, you know. She’s kinda like, no, not here. It’s where the poem moves, it feels very timeless to me. And there is something that I’m really interested in, and I think it’s something that’s healing for us, but I’m really interested in the difference between what’s healing and what is, like, just an opiate. I’m realizing that, like, I'm in a position where I can say things really prettily that’ll make the kinds of people that should be in the trenches doing heavy lifting, it can make them put their feet up and go, like, oh yeah, the world is not so bad. I’m really questioning that. You're creating a space for a healing in the true sense. In the, like, broad, cosmic sense, rather than just in a like “I don't want to feel bad about things right now.”

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Jamaal May: There’s something about being able to face all of it at once, that mystic tradition; being able to deal with the complexity of life as it is, like, the opposing matter. If I had to compare it, like, I feel like I’ve been dealing with it, like, with atoms, and I'm watching these writers who are dealing with it with cosmic narrative…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: … and I'm, like, how do you do that!

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: You know, and Joy Harjo is one of those poets, you know.

Danez Smith: Amen.

Franny Choi: On the subject of healing, is that related to how you think about mental health as well, or…

Jamaal May: Yeah, definitely. For one, just because, like, a big part of what I've been dealing with is, like, obliterating, like, the false divisions that kind of develop in the mind. And one of the big ones is this idea that the mind and body are two separate things. And they’re just not. It's a misconception that, like, I think it's one thing that can lead us off the rails. Our multiplicit selves are, like… we’re vast and variable, but we're trying to fit it inside of a kind of a construct. So my healing, like, that I've gone through, has been, like, very literal in a physical way but also very emotional. Let's go deep into weird stuff; my first book mentions… my poems mention being blind in my left eye and I can see out of it again.

Danez Smith: Wow!

Jamaal May: And it's improving. Like, I'm pretty close to it being perfect. And in the process of the healing, it’s been a lot of body exploration and I've noticed that when I started removing, like, chronic pains and, like, really tense spaces that had been troubling me for a long time, I would get memories back that I had lost. So I started realizing there was a link between memory and the body that was very synchronous. There was a place, a muscle on the brow that, like, it's been a consistent one I've been struggling with. Part of it started with me realizing how, when I try to focus my left eye, I can feel muscles pulling. And I was told that, if I ever want to see out of my left eye again, I would probably need a cornea transplant. They were telling me it was misshapen, I was, like, I feel like I can tell how it's being pulled in an incorrect way. Because our body is trying to heal itself all the time, but there are things in the way. And so I could feel my eye pushing and pulling against my muscles. So I started working… so this project that just started with me trying to fix my eye starting being, like, me releasing all these chronic pains in my neck from accidents and things that happened. And there was a moment where, when I released the muscle on the right side that was causing all this tension in my left eye, these tears started flying and I, like, suddenly realized that that muscle was the same muscle you would clench to keep from crying. And I just started getting flooded with this memory of when I decided I was never gonna cry again when I was twelve and my friend Samantha died. And I didn't cry for a long time. I had friends die through my teen years and I didn’t cry at any of these funerals. And I didn’t cry again until I was at a Patricia Smith reading at Cave Canem in 2006 or something. That's when it really clicked to me how linked things were. A funnier version of that was when a muscle in my jaw, like, unlocked, and I was, like, when I was pulling, like, stretching I was, like, why is this so tense? I said it out loud. And then immediately I got hit with the answer and I just said out loud, when I was a little kid I got hit in the face with a bat! You know, and it didn’t heal correctly. And, like, it’s just been my whole life, being like, with crooked muscles in my face. And then as I was unlocking them, like, healing is very much been, like, my body and mind as one unit. And the more synchronous I can see them, the faster the healing takes place.

Danez Smith: Wow.

Franny Choi: Hmmmmmm! God, I just can’t get over all of the implications of the muscle that you used to keep from crying getting in the way of your literal vision. 

Jamaal May: Yeah. Because if you stop using a body part, your body will stop sending you pain signals. But it was a moment where I was looking in a mirror, a couple of years ago, and I was, like, yo, my collarbones should not be at a slanted angle. That's just not normal. And I just kind of started pulling and pushing the muscles around, and I kind of started this path of healing that was very… it's been very intuitive. But then I start finding all of these resources that helped me. Like, I found an eye doctor from the 30s who got ran out of town by the optometry industry because he had helped over, like, 3000 people heal their eyes naturally by working the muscles behind the eye.

Franny Choi: Ha!

Jamaal May: Or I found these psychologists who are, like, helping with post-traumatic stress disorder by having people follow a pin light while recalling their trauma. And that just synched up with what I had experienced of, like, having all these memories flooding when I was working on my eyes. And so I didn't need to know exactly what was going on. But I was, like, there's some kind of link between a trauma and where we're looking. It's almost as if we're looking at the trauma. So it’s like, I realized I had to, like, loosen up my eyes and my heart to, like, actually be able to see again. And the seeing has been multiple, you know. Like, I see with my body again more clearly, but I also feel like I see people. Because you end up looking away a lot. Like, in your life, when you face trauma, like, when you’re looking away from those traumatic events, you’re looking away from people. You’re not seeing each other. And I started being able to really see people. And like, I mean, it changed everything.

Danez Smith: Pfffff…..

Franny Choi: I mean that sounds like the kind of change that only happens when you're really listening to the wisdom of your body, of your material body.

Jamaal May: Yeah. And unfortunately a lot of times it takes something traumatic to happen. Like, this is the kind of thing that happens to people, you know, when, like, that cancer diagnosis comes down, or that big car accident, or like…. And unfortunately I went through some, like, craziness that, like, kind of led me into, like, this exploration, but I wouldn't trade it though cause… I can't imagine not seeing clearly again. Like, not physically, like, at this point I could be blind and that would be okay. My clarity on what I see in the world is so much so now, that it just changes my conceptualization of what's important in general. So, it started with me really… I want to see again, I want to see again. And by the time I got to where I am now, my eyesight is almost, like, incidental to, like, the kind of seeing that's available to us.

Danez Smith: A spiritual clarity that comes about.

Jamaal May: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Amen.


Franny Choi: We play a game called This vs. That…

Danez Smith: Our favorite game!

Franny Choi: … where we put two things in opposite corners of the ring, and you have to tell us which would win in a fight. So….for this episode of This vs. That is, in this corner, waves….

Jamaal May: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: … and in this corner, words.

Jamaal May: Wow wow wow.

Franny Choi: Who would win in a fight?

Jamaal May: Tough one, it’s a tough one.


Franny Choi: I don't even really know what I'm asking here. (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: Let’s pick a kind of wave.

Danez Smith: OK. Fair.

Jamaal May: Light wave, sound wave…

Danez Smith: Sound wave. I think sound wave.

Franny Choi: Sound wave! Sound waves versus …

Danez Smith: Sound waves…

Jamaal May: .. versus the text.

Danez Smith: Yes! Also, please, don't take this into page versus stage.

Jamaal May: Alright. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jamaal May: So, in a straight fisticuffs, like, in a knock-down drag-out brawl….

Danez Smith: Yeah, what kind of code would win.

Jamaal May: Ummm, I think I kind of got to give it words, a little bit, just because of the density. They have more heft to them. The waveform is gonna be a little more ethereal, kind of, like, floating around.

Danez Smith: But don’t you think that’s a little, like, Ali, like he knows kind how to…

Jamaal May: Sure, you can float like a butterfly, but you still got to sting though, right? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Yeah. That’s true.

Jamaal May: That’s a good point though. So I give the waves an advantage in flexibility and reach…

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Jamaal May: … but once it comes to, like, physical, like, language on the page… Here’s a perfect, like, example. What does Rumi sound like?

Danez Smith: I don’t know but…

Jamaal May: I can tell what he read like though. In multiple languages. I don’t know what Rumi sounds like, but I can read a Rumi poem still.

Danez Smith: Well, shout-out words. You know.

Franny Choi: Shout-out words!

Jamaal May: Shout-out to words, thank you for language for doing these things.

Danez Smith: And shout-out to Jamaal, thank you so much for coming in the studio.

Jamaal May: Thanks for having me, y’all, I really appreciate this.

Danez Smith: Yeah, it was good to see you, man.

Jamaal May:  Always, always.

Franny Choi: It was the best, you are the best.


Danez Smith: That was Emperor of my Heart, Jamaal May, everybody.

Franny Choi: Urg, love Jamaal.

Danez Smith: Love Jamaal, like, he was going to another dimension with mentioning things like mental health…

Franny Choi: You just gotta go into your other dimension!

Danez Smith: What does your other dimension look like?

Franny Choi: I think my other dimension happens always between the hours of 12am to 2am… There’s soft lighting… and a furry animal… and I have all the time to read all of the books.

Danez Smith: OK.

Franny Choi: And watch all of the Korean reality television.

Danez Smith: OK.

Franny Choi: That’s my other dimension. It’s just me, books, amateur stars, and furry creatures.

Danez Smith: Amen. I like that. (LAUGHING) That sounds very comfortable. Yeah.

Franny Choi: What about you, what’s your alternate dimension that you hang out in?

Danez Smith: My alternate dimension… literally, the current world is just, like, me on the floor in my house. Like, I call it my lower house even though, like…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Cause even though it’s just like, a one-level apartment, it’s just, like, nah, I just live down here on the floor.

Franny Choi: You know, I’m just gonna hang out on the first floor..

Danez Smith: Yeah, on the ground floor. I’m just not gonna stand all the way up.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) But I think if I actually could have another dimension, I think it would be a Target that I also, like, lived in. It’d be, like, I would have my own apartment, but when, like, when I open my apartment door, it was just a Target that I go buy more things to bring into my tiny apartment. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That would be attached to my apartment, and that would be my whole life.

Franny Choi: That’s so great! What was that book, that was, like, the kids that, like, went and lived in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? Seems like a fine place to dwell.

Danez Smith: Seems like a fine place, yes. As long as it’s not Wal-Mart.

Franny Choi: Right.

Danez Smith: Cause obviously that’s better than Target… somehow? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Whatever, whatever. Well, anyways, let's get down out of here.

Franny Choi: Off to our other dimensions.

Danez Smith: Yeah! (LAUGHING) Must go to Target.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I would like to thank gel pens for allowing me to express my queerness when I was a child before I knew what my queerness was.

Franny Choi: Oh, yeah, that was a wave.

Danez Smith: Yeah, that was definitely a wave. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: And I would like to thank all pens that are 0.5 or under, the fineness, you know what I’m talking about?

Danez Smith: U-huh, u-huh.

Franny Choi: I don’t fuck with a 0.7.

Danez Smith: I got you.

Franny Choi: Hell no.

Danez Smith: Hell no.

Franny Choi: Never. Never give me a 0.7.

Danez Smith: Never give me a 0.7. We would also like to thank the Poetry Foundation, especially our partner in crime, Ydalmi Noriega, we would like to thank Postloudness, of course, and our producer Daniel Kisslinger!

Franny Choi: Kisslinger! Make sure to follow us on all the social media fronts, @VSThePodcast, and check out Soundcloud, iTunes, the Poetry Foundation website, or the NPR One app for all of the other episodes, this season, season 2 of VS. Thank you all so much for listening!

Danez Smith: Have a good one!

Franny Choi: Have a good one too!

Danez Smith: Bye!

Franny Choi: Bye. 





Jamaal May blasts off into hyperspace on this episode of VS. Danez and Franny run with the poet, MC, professor, and thinker as they talk waves, matter, neurology, future, and even a few poems.

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