From Poet to Teacher and Back: An Interview with Taylor Mali
by James Ranson
Taylor Mali knew from childhood that words would define his life. With a mother being a bestselling children’s author and his father an occasional poet, he recalls that “I knew from an early age that words had power.” Mali studied English in college and then began a masters’ degree in creative writing, hoping to hone his poetic skills and become a professional writer. Something he found out about himself in graduate school, though, surprised him.
“What I discovered was that I loved teaching,” he says. “I wanted to teach students who were younger, to catch them before it was too late.”
As it turns out, both ambitions – to be a teacher and to be a poet – have been realized. Mali spent nine years teaching, and then went on to make a career of poetry, including poetry about teachers. Video of his poem “What Teachers Make” (included below) have had millions of online views, and the teaching years shaped his poetic expression just as much as his initial poetic experiences nudged him toward being a teacher. It seems he has come full circle. At this point in his career, Mali now has a number of awards for poetry performance and has published multiple volumes of his work, including the recent What Teachers Make. I had the opportunity to have a visit with Mali and talk about the evolution of his career.
JR: You have now crossed over into mainstream poetry from the slam poetry movement, but I’m not completely familiar with slam poetry. Can you tell me what it is?
TM: There is actually no such thing as “slam poetry” – only the poetry slam – which is a fun way of spending an evening listening to poets compete with their poems. In other words, slam is a noun, not an adjective.
JR: How did you first become involved with poetry slams?
TM: I first heard about the poetry slam in maybe October of 1992 during grad school. In the next town over, Lawrence, Kansas, they held a slam once a month in a strip club called The Flamingo Exotic Dance & Catering Lounge. It was a seedy place, with a mirror on the back wall and a steel pole at the end of the runway. Perfect for a slam. Every fourth Monday, the dancers got the night off and the poets took to the stage, revealing themselves in a completely different sort of way. I’d like to think that some biker came in once and said “Where da goils?” And upon finding out that there were poets instead, he stayed. And he has never been the same since. Did this ever actually happen? No one knows.
JR: What would you say is the slam’s place in the genre of poetry as a whole?
TM: The most important aspect of the slam is that it returns the power to decide what is good and what is bad poetry into the hands of the people from whom that power never should have been wrested – common beer and coffee drinkers! Poetry should be an integral part of the daily common discourse; there should be a constant argument about the quality of poetry and the power of language and the responsibility of the artist in our society. The poetry slam starts the debate.
JR: You’ve won the National Poetry Slam four times and appeared on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam. When you were working up to that level of competition, you were also teaching middle and high school. Did you find teaching to be a type of performance as well?
TM: I love to quote Horace in answer to this question: “The task of the poet is to delight or instruct or both.” Teaching is all about explanation. Poetry too. And I am always performing. I can’t help it. And it’s always fun for me.
JR: You’ve also been working for several years on the New Teacher Project, an attempt to inspire 1000 people to become teachers through your own work and efforts.
TM: That’s right. The New Teacher Project began after I’d been performing for about 10 years, and as of now we are just over 900.
JR: In addition to being a performer and teacher, you also are a prolific writer. Talk to me about your writing.
TM: I write because I can — because I know how — and I’m pretty sure I do it well. I love words and I want to spread that love. When people read my writing and discover in themselves a reaction that they didn’t know they could have to a piece of writing, their respect for the whole craft of writing increases a little.
JR: Any final words about how a teacher-turned-slam-poet sees the world?
TM: I don’t see the world in a particularly unique way. People tell me I do, but I don’t think they’re being honest with themselves; I think I see the world just like everyone else I just have the audacity to know that people will be entertained by an eloquent articulation of their own vision. Someone once called poetry “What oft’ was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Einstein said that genius was believing that what was true for you “in your heart of hearts was true for all humankind.” And I want to be a genius in the eyes of Einstein. So I act like one. Then I write about it.
For more on Taylor Mali, including poems and more videos of his performances, visit his website at taylormali.com. We have included two favorites here: “Labeling Keys” and “What Teachers Make.”
To view the table of contents for our current issue and read more on The Case for Poetry in Our Age, click here.
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