Discovering the Relevance of Words
Taylor Mali is one of the best known poets of the last decade. He’s been a part of seven national slam poet teams, four of which have won the competition. He spent nine years as a middle school teacher, and worked to create 1000 teachers through poetry, finally hitting the mark in April of 2012. He has written two books, put out four CDs, and appeared on several other anthologies. He gives lectures, teaches workshops, and will always make sure that you know how to spell “definitely” and “beautiful.” I’ve had the opportunity to take a workshop from Mr. Mali, and the knowledge I gained from those few hours has been absolutely priceless. It was my pleasure to interview Taylor Mali for The Poetry Question.
1. What are your earliest memories as a reader? Were there books that you remember being read as a child? Was there a favorite reading moment? Maybe a light bulb moment where you realized that you were reading a text that would define your life?
I remember taking a bus ride in New York City with my mother shortly before the first day of first grade and talking with her about the importance of reading and math. I wasn’t one of those kids who knew how to read before first grade; that’s definitely where I learned. But the thing is, I thought I would know how to read when I got home after the first day. I thought they would lock the doors and let us all in on the big secret. “Okay, kids! Here is how you read!” I must have been disappointed to find out it was a slower process than that. Other memories of actually learning how to read include correctly spelling the word THEY in a spelling bee. Later, I remember finishing a certain book with a blue cover and “graduating” to the next book (with a green cover. There was a lot of reading aloud in my family (I’ve written about the subject in a poem called “Reading Allowed”); both my mother and father did it, and they had different things they were good at. My mother was great with voices, and my father could make anything sound suspenseful.
2. Do you remember your first poems? How old were you when you started writing? When did you begin to develop the style upon which you’d build your career?
My mother had an electric typewriter, and I remember pecking out poems at the age of six or seven. A few years later, I wrote a poem called “It,” which was about living your life to the fullest and not waiting for “it” to happen to you. But the earliest poem that I can put my hands on is from when I was 12. It was called “Dawn Life” and it’s about duck hunting at sunrise with my grandparents. That’s not WASPY at all, is it?
3. Who were the poets, or authors, or people, who most influenced you when you were starting out? What was it about their work that made them an influence?
Besides Dr. Seuss and Robert Frost, my biggest poetic influence was my father, Allen Mali, who enjoyed writing “occasional” poems, poems for special events. My mother’s 38th birthday, his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, his father’s 80th birthday, my mother’s 50th, my sister’s wedding—certain events would elicit from him poems of a dozen or so wonderful rhyming couplets. It was pure doggerel but it was good doggerel, almost Dr. Seussian. He never had any of his poems published in a book, but my mother, Jane Lawrence Mali, wrote and had published many children’s books (maybe five). She won the National Book Award one year for a book called “Oh Boy! Babies!” about a baby-care class that was taught at my school (The Collegiate School for Boys). The boys got to practice diapering and bathing with real babies! (Most of the mothers who “donated” their babies for the period had older sons at the school.) So writing was in my blood. I knew from an early age that words had power.
But to mention a few poets other people will be familiar with: Billy Collins, for sure. In fact, I consider myself the direct descendant of Billy in his poetic lineage, and that was long before a woman told me that I was “just like Billy Collins, except EVEN WORSE.” We read together at the very first pairing of Page Meets Stage in New York City, and it was a blast. I even took a class with him once, and was secretly thrilled when he took me aside and said, “What are YOU doing in this class? I have nothing to teach you!” I love Mary Oliver for the sheer authority with which she writes about matters of the soul. And Tony Hoagland is a hero of mine for the risks he is willing to take and the trouble he gets in as a result. He once told me that if he waited until the poems were perfect before showing them to the world, it would be too late for them to actually DO anything.
4. How has the culture of poetry changed over your time in the industry? Have you found that you’ve needed to adapt your style, or has it felt fairly consistent?
What has changed is what’s required to win a poetry slam. You can’t win with quiet, reflective, beautiful poetry anymore. But perhaps that was bound to happen. As for “the industry” as a whole, it feels pretty consistent. There is still no shortage of folks who can get by writing poems that the average person cannot understand. There is a fear of being too easily understood. Or rather, as a result of this fear, there is a common misconception that you MUST be good if no one can tell what in the hell you mean. Many exceptions, of course. But I’m amazed at how often I read the poems in The New Yorker and think, “WTF?”
5. Pigeon John told me that, to paraphrase, he feels as if 2chainz is the new Bob Dylan. How would you respond to that? Is hip-hop the new poetry?
I don’t know who that is, so it’s probably true. Actually, no; it’s only partially true. Hip-hop is where all the best rhymers are. So if rhyme is important to you (and it should be), then you probably consider hip hop the new poetry. I certainly lament the paucity of rhyme in contemporary poetry, but it is by no means the most important quality of language that I think a poem should have. What is? Well, hard to say. But my favorite definition of poetry currently is Gerard Manley Hopkins who said poetry was ” speech framed . . . to be heard for its own sake and interest, even over and above its interest of meaning.” That doesn’t really describe the hip-hop that I know. I think 2chainz (okay, I just looked him up on YouTube) is more interested in being funny, provocative, and selling records with memorable melodies and beats. And there’s the real difference: poetry on the page doesn’t have a melody or a beat. And those are important! Without the beat or the melody, the lyrics don’t stand up as poetry worthy of our attention. The beat and the melody keep the words from being merely insipid and offensive. “All I want for my birthday is a big-booty ho?” Um, no thanks. I want those night-vision binoculars your brother said he could bring home from Afghanistan.
6. Seeing as two of the founders of The Poetry Question are educators, we’re always curious in how other teachers worked poetry into their classroom. Since your students were middle-schoolers, how did you utilize poetry? How did they react? What was your favorite poem to use in the classroom?
I actually never got to teach poetry when I taught middle school. Sure my MA is in creative writing, and I was an English major in college, but I mostly taught math and history! I made my students memorize poems in history class that were germane to the topics we were studying. In math, I just made them appreciate the pure poetry of a balanced equation.
7. It seems as if the Slam Poetry world has grown a considerable amount over the last few years, and the poets, and audience alike, are getting younger; however, it still seems that it’s very much a word-of-mouth scene. How do expand that? What’s the next step?
I think it’s time to bring a show like Def Poetry Jam back, but this time mix it with The Sing Off/American Idol/Last Comic Standing so it’s interactive and America gets to vote people off the show! Call it American Poet. Can you imagine the conversation that would start about poetry across the country?!
9. If you could have a drink, or a dinner, with any poet, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Probably Rumi, the 13th century Turkish poet. His stuff was so deep and timeless. I’d just like to listen to him (and understand, of course).
10. And finally, since lyrics and poetry are so closely related, who is your favorite lyricist?
I like Fiona Apple, Alanis Morisette, and Ryan Adams. And Jason Mraz has some great turns of phrase and memorable melodies. But the greatest is still Paul Simon for me. I mean, “My life’s so common it disappears. And sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears.” Motherfucker what!
There. How’s that?
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