Music is easy to identify, I once believed. Jazz. Reggae. Alternative. Combinations of melodies and harmonies had consistently equated to one or more common genres, with nothing left on the fringes.
But much like humans, music holds quite a bit more complexity than that. It exists for artists wishing to release their ideas into the world, and it exists for an audience to interpret — ’til both sides discover individual meanings yet unified experiences.
In this sense, one local writer proved poetic performance to be music in its own right through a self-produced compilation of original poetry readings.
On Feb. 10, Beth May released her second poetry album, “the family arsonist,” to provide inspiration and greater understanding for those like her who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Whereas her first album, “Dueling Compass,” followed her personal struggles with the mental illness, “the family arsonist” focused on how her loved ones were affected.
Exemplifying this theme was the poem I found to be the strongest of the album: “giving my resume to my future husbands, don’t give a f***.” The poem, uniquely resembling a job application, is a beautifully soul-baring tale of loneliness and fear within relationships.
“It’s sort of about everything that I’ve done to my family, and what if I had announced to everybody that I met who I really was?” May said. “What if you go into first dates like, ‘Hi, this is how I am?’”
Though the concrete elements of the story — runaway letters, suicide notes — already evoke strong emotion, May built a heart-wrenching production especially through the passion she put into her performance. As the background music fades with the mention of a 23rd birthday suicide letter, the audience is left to directly face the broken echo of her straining voice — begging for continued existence in her loved ones’ hearts with a cautious repetition of “I’m alive.”
May said the mention of a love for lying within the poem explained how literature never contains the complete narrative of one’s life.
“A lot of poems within (the album) are extending my story and the hyperbole of the story,” May said. “I mentioned several times, ‘Oh, I love to lie,’ and they’re not necessarily lies. They’re just not the full truth. Stories are different — they’re story-truths.”
“the break up poem” was another extraordinarily vivid poem. In this piece, May’s honest words — “I’ve called you at the crack of dawn from places I’ve never been / I get the blues so bad I think death is less serious than losing my favorite pen” — leave her readers no excuse for tiptoeing around the subject.
“electric” illuminates May’s treatment for bipolar disorder. It is an eye-opening piece depicting the desire to erase her constant fluctuation of emotion through electroconvulsive therapy. May explained that this therapy, though much safer than in the ’60s, still causes the memory loss that (along with her shyness) led her to record her poetry in addition to performing it.
“When it’s just the recording, it almost seems like I just remembered it,” May said. “It makes me feel equal.”
Other highlights of “the family arsonist” include “white girl facebook profile,” a humorous satire of the lack of self-effacing and aware people on social media, and “pheminism.” The latter poem, one of May’s favorites to perform, spouts out a powerful message: All people are the same at heart.
With themes like feminism and love mixed into the album, May enhances the overarching idea of the need to identify mental illness directly rather than sidestep it.
“We can be okay together if we help each other out,” she said. “That’s sort of what some really want to find in art and I think that’s so capable of being found in art.”
Although May’s bipolar disorder was a large reason for the creation of “the family arsonist,” her affinity for poetic performance has also been motivated by Lawn Gnome Publishing founder Aaron Hopkins-Johnson, rapper Myrlin Hepworth and her brother Brian. But it is the downtown community that keeps May within the literary scene.
“I always talk about how I want to move, but there are so many great people here, and I just cherish them,” May said.
Though May is currently focusing on making a career out of her film degree, her passion for storytelling motivates her to continue her five-year hobby of giving literary performances. Poetry slams and albums like “the family arsonist” illuminate, to her, the essence of the way stories truly occur.
“It’s like you’re capturing a moment, and that’s where we live,” May said. “We live in the moment. We react in moments and we make decisions in moments.”
Beth May’s delightfully candid poems, which provide listeners with nearly the same level of satisfaction as a live slam, can be found on her Bandcamp profile.
Correction: Feb. 16, 2015: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified May’s brother. His name is Brian, not Ryan.
Contact the columnist at Emily.Liu@asu.edu