by Katherine Robinson
*Editor’s note: This week we gave the reins to our 17 year old intern, Katherine. Today she interviews well known poet and educator advocate, Taylor Mali, in our 5 Questions interview series.
Taylor Mali is one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement and one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” A four-time National Poetry Slam champion, he is the author of two collections of poetry and a book of essays, “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World.” In April of 2012, Mali completed a 12-year project of convincing 1,000 people to become teachers and marked the occasion by donating 12 inches of his hair to the American Cancer Society.
You were a teacher for 9 years. Would you ever go back to formal teaching in schools? If you did whats one thing you would make sure all of your students knew?
Unfortunately, no. I will most likely never teach again. At least, not like I used to, which is what you mean: as a formal middle school or high school English or Social Studies teacher at a public or private school here in the U.S.. I just travel too much now as a poet now to be an effective teacher. What school would hire me if they knew I would be traveling 150 days of the school year for poetry? I’m not willing to give up the rewarding life I have built for myself as an artist to go back into the classroom full time. Luckily, I still spend a lot of time teaching. I’m just doing it all over the world. I could see myself teaching on the college level in a few years, maybe one day a week so I could still go to other gigs. What would I want my students to know? That we are all going to die, of course.
In your poem “totally like whatever, you know?” you address a trend among teenagers that i am 100% guilty of, ending every sentence with an upward inflection and generally lacking any sort of conviction in our speech. Do you think this flakey-ness is, like, indicative of a bigger problem in younger generations or whatever? Where do you think people, like, picked up this trend?
I wrote that poem in the mid 90s about the verbal fecklessness of my OWN generation, but unfortunately it has remained an accurate condemnation of teenagers ever since! Some blame Moon Unit Zappa and the “valley girl” speak of the mid 80s, but do think it’s indicative of a larger problem in our society: the reluctance to stand for anything. It’s rare that anyone ever declares what they LOVE and suffers the slings and arrows of consequence and criticism. If you never go on record as LIKING anything then you can cultivate a discerning personality. Risk going out on a limb and you can be criticized.
From some of your poems like “Silver Lined Heart” and “How Falling in Love is Like Owning a Dog” it appears that you tend to look at the world in a positive light. Would you say thats true? Where do you find your optimism?
That’s true. I am a positive person. Not a “hopeless optimist,” as my mentor Billy Collins likes to say (Billy likes to quote an old Turkish proverb that goes, “When an axe enters the forrest, the trees all say ‘At least the handle is one of us.'”), but I expect that things will usually work out okay. Where do I get that optimism? I dunno. Growing up in a family rich with love and encouragement certainly helped. My parents loved each other and stayed together. I grew up thinking the world and everyone in it would really LIKE ME TO BE HAPPY, and as a result, I have a tendency to ask politely for things that a normal person wouldn’t think to ask for. And some of those things I actually get! Because I’m entitled? Because I’m privileged? Because I’m rich, white, male, and straight? Maybe. But also because I ask. I believe in the law of attraction. I watched my first wife put out negative energy into the world and then soak it back up again until it killed her. I don’t want to go like that. I could be totally wrong. But I’m happy, and that’s what counts.
As a teacher and a poet, your work has inspired youth everywhere. Tell me about the teacher with the biggest impact on your life.
There are three that I talk about at length in my last book, “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World,” and what they all had in common was that they LOVED me (even when I wasn’t likable). The greatest was my 5th & 6th grade English teacher, Dr. Joseph D’Angelo. He had a PhD, a black belt and very high standards. I worked harder than I thought I was capable because I simply didn’t want to disappoint him.
Your poem “What Teachers Make” starts with a conversation with a rude dinner guest. After the poem went viral, how often do you get comments like this? What is your response when you do?
No one insults teachers to my face anymore unless they’re doing it to be funny. But what does happen now is that I get emails from people saying that my poem gave them something to say when people ask them why they teach. And that makes me feel like a real poet because one of my favorite definitions of poetry is “what oft’ was thought but never so well expressed.”