Hello, Mali!!!

Posted: April 21, 2012 in Comedy, Culture, Entertainment, Literature, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre

The dual phenomena of “spoken-word” and “slam poetry” have infiltrated modern culture like a requisite epidemic. Harkening back splendidly to the days of beatnik nightlife, when throngs would gather in darkened coffeehouses to hear poetry delivered by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and applaud with finger-snapping, the art form has received a miraculous re-awakening ever since Thaddeus Rutkowski began reviving it at such venues as Jackie 60 in the early 1990s, whenceupon it was taken up by all manner of poets both amateur and professional who began plying their cornucopia of wares throughout New York and the globe. One of the most stellar of the slam poets to emerge in the last ten years is most certainly a gentleman by the unusual name of Taylor Mali. A New York City WASP by birth and a schoolteacher by profession, the last calendar year has seen him emerge as viral on YouTube and other Internet broadcast media because of his poem What Teachers Make,” which has garnered nearly four million hits on one website alone. The one-man show Teacher! Teacher! would soon follow thereafter, and win a major comedy prize. A follow-up, entitled “The The Impotence of Proofreading,” has been equally successful. Since that time, he has published several books, created the New Teacher Project (later renamed Quest for 1,000 Teachers), recorded a number of CDs and also loaned his voice to narrating various projects, and for a time became the president of Poetry Slam, Inc. Though fame and tireless work have taken him throughout the world as both educator and performer, he mercifully found the time to grant an interview to The Andrew Martin Report. And we couldn’t feel more honored or privileged to have been so thusly indulged.

ANDREW MARTIN: Can you describe your upbringing as a New York City WASP? You seem to have a long lineage that goes back several centuries. Conversely, what was your own school experience like as a student? Where did you attend from K-12, and where did you go to college? Even more conversely, was there any one teacher in particular who inspired you to become a teacher and later an advocate for education?

TAYLOR MALI: My WASP upbringing was pretty standard stuff, really. We named our houses, named our cars, and ONLY named our dogs after local bodies of water. Everyone had a trust fund and was told never to talk about it with anyone. I attended The Collegiate School, established by the Dutch in 1628, just about 30 years before my earliest ancestor was born on the island. Another branch of the family that would one day combine to produce me had already been living in the country for almost one hundred years, having landed in Salem sometime in the 1500s. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine. Then Oxford University for a summer of drama school. Then eventually Kansas State University for an MA in English Lit/Creative Writing. It was there that I discovered my passion for teaching. So there was no single teacher that did it. Rather, the love was born of exigency.

AM: How long had you been teaching before you decided to immerse yourself in the spoken-word art form? Did the two automatically go hand in hand?

TM: The spoken word came first by about three years. I performed a poem at Oxford as part of a talent show among the actors, and it went over REALLY well. That was summer 1987, and I credit that with being my first spoken word piece. Three years later, at a poetry reading in San Francisco, I performed another piece (that would go on to become the poem “I Could Be a Poet”), and it solidified my understanding that performing a poem well was just as important as writing it well. That fall I left for Kansas, unaware that the first National Poetry Slam was coming to the SF Bay Area. Had I stayed in the Bay Area, I probably would have discovered the poetry slam a few years earlier than I did, but the craft I learned at KSU might have taken we much longer to develop. But to answer your question more directly, teaching and poetry go hand in hand because they are both about instruction and delight.

AM: Was it ever difficult, or even surreal, to have to balance being a teacher on one hand with being a spoken-word artist on the other?

TM: No, never. I treated one as a kind of performance, and the other as a kind of lesson.

AM Was “What Teachers Make” actually inspired by a real event? If not, what inspired it? Likewise “Proofreading.”

TM: There really was an incident with a lawyer at a New Year’s Eve Party (in 1997) that was the triggering subject of “What Teachers Make.” I’m sure he didn’t phrase his question that way (“Be honest, what do you make?”); that was me using poetic license. But more importantly, even if the lawyer HAD asked the question that way, I am not witty or brave enough to have been able to answer his question in any form similar to what became the poem “What Teachers Make.” The poem is totally what I WISH I had said. “Proofreading” came from repeated attempts by my computer to correct the spelling of my name; I tell people that my spell checker suggested Taylor Mali might have been a botched attempt on my part to spell “Toilet Malice,” but I think I made that up.

AM: Was it ever surprising when “Teachers” began to go so viral so quickly?

TM: Yes. Every bit of attention that my work has received has been surprising to me.

AM: What is the New Teacher Project exactly, and what has it accomplished?

TM: I’ve had to change the name of the project because there already is a great non-profit called “The New Teacher Project,” founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. Their executive director called me to say their lawyers recommended sending me a cease & desist letter, but she said no way because they are all fans of mine! Anyway, my Quest for 1,000 Teachers was a goal I gave myself in 2000, which started quite informally: I would help convince a thousand people to become teachers through the way I talk about the profession. Gradually, I got more serious about how I kept track of the teachers on my list, and then I promised to cut off twelve inches of my hair when I reached my goal. Everything came together for the publication of  my book “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World,” and early in April I approved that thousandth teacher and cut my hair live onstage.

AM: Did you particularly enjoy the process of writing your books? Was there anything you disliked about the process? I ask the same question about the CDs you’ve recorded.

TM: Only the writing of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” felt like writing a book because it’s the only one where I really had to hit the chair every day and turn out pages whether I wanted to or not. My two other books and all of my CDs are collections of poetry, and so were produced/compiled more episodically.

AM: Tell us about Poetry Slam Inc. and your experience of being their president.

TM: I was the first president after Marc Smith, the founder of the poetry slam and PSI’s “president for life.” You could argue that I was the perfect person to succeed Marc, but my tenure was marked by what is considered the WORST National Poetry Slam ever! That was a bad year for me, 2004; my wife died, and I’d just rather forget it all.

AM: We all know that Teacher! Teacher! won a solo prize at the Comedy Arts Festival in ’01. Are there any plans to bring it back?

TM: There should be, shouldn’t there? No. But it’s high time I wrote another solo show.

AM: You’ve also won at least one award for narrating The Great Fire. How does providing voice work for those projects you’ve not personally created differ from work on those you have?

TM: It’s so much easier to just swoop in and be The Voice. But it’s harder in that you have to internalize the syntactical rhythms of the author and make them your own. I like reading aloud (especially to a beautiful woman, curled up on my chest, smiling).

AM: Where do you see yourself five years from now, and what frontiers would you still like to conquer?

TM: I’ll still be doing what I’m doing, traversing the globe teaching poetry. But I’ll be better at it, and I might be based somewhere else. I’d like to teach online poetry classes using some sort of video Skype PAID conference call type service that probably already exists.

Wherever life may take him next, Taylor Mali is sure to go down in performance history as a force of nature made of lightning. Anyone unfamiliar must acquaint themselves with his work. After all, those who can, do. Those who can’t, well…

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