Volume 73, Number 1& | Aug. 27 - Sept. 2, 2003


Poetry from Berkeley to the Big Apple

By Davida Singer

Taylor Mali, in a solo performance at the Bowery Poetry Club

“Teacher! Teacher!,” Taylor Mali’s upcoming solo performance work at the Bowery Poetry Club, opens with his first being introduced to verse in the womb. His father, apparently, recited a poem to his mother.

He credits that early event with fueling his passion for poetry - from open mikes at Berkeley and an MA in writing at Kansas State. He also did four national poetry slam championships with teams he coached. The teams were in both Maine and New York. Along the way, the poet/performer also discovered his gift for teaching, and became obsessed with how to reach his students.

“I’d like to be responsible, at least in part, for a generation of grads who consider teaching before business and law school,” says 38-year-old Mali. He describes himself as a “charmingly smug, articulate Wasp.” He last taught at the Browning School in Manhattan, before deciding in 2000, to take his poetry/performance work on the road.

“Teacher! Teacher”, is about his experience in the classroom. It explores his “twin passions”, and has already won its creator the jury prize for Best One Man Show at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.

DS: How did you get into teaching and poetry slams?

TM: I started teaching as a grad student, and I was immediately hooked with how to get information across. In 1992, I did my first poetry slam in a Kansas topless bar. I love slams because their goal is to have a good night for people away from their TV. I take it on as a writing exercise-to perform poetry that appeals to the widest range of people. I think the poet’s job in the 21st century is the same as it was in Horace’s time-to instruct and entertain.

DS: You’re also entertaining with a new CD release just before your solo show opens. What’s that about?

TM: Yes, we’re having the release party at the Bowery (on Sept. 9). It’s called “Conviction”, an entirely live album, with the audience recorded as well. It’s got all of my favorite recent poems, some collaborative pieces, and it uses a loop station to repeat some lines over and over.

DS: What’s the mix of teaching and poetry in “Teacher! Teacher!”?

TM: The most challenging thing is to keep it from looking like it’s me talking for about 50 minutes. It’s really about my insights about the joys of poetry combined with some mathematical concepts. I teach math and have spent a lot of time reading about the number Pi. It’s me up there almost naked, with a set that’s vaguely reminiscent of the front of a classroom. I do get into my love of teaching too. Seeing the light bulb go on over a kid’s head has given me some of my most inspirational moments.

DS: It sounds like there’s some kind of mission for you here?

TM: Definitely. This is a testimonial-with poetry- to the nobility of teaching. I’d like people to be thinking about that when they leave. My mission is to, in turn, inspire the addition of 1000 of new teachers by 2006. How will I do that? Through direct contact. This show is just the beginning. My agent calls me a motivational performance artist. I’d like to think that’s who I am.

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