Well, first off chapter 3 of The Elaseim Project (as I’ve come to call it my little head) is up on Goodreads! And even more amazing, it is not the main focus of my post tonight! If you’d like some background for this chapter, please see The Souls’ Chant: Our Mark on Adalan Eu.
On my main note, I’ve seen a lot of interview posts, not only as a great way to interact with other writers, but as a writing exercise in itself. I have been keeping up with a very constant interviewer, Ashley Barron, and she has inspired me to post an older interview of my own. Now, this is where I must, once again, put in a little disclaimer. This interview was an assignment for my Creative Nonfiction class in college, in which we had to use a web interview and then develop our own setting for the interview. I managed to get some email time with Taylor Mali, a fantastic slam poet and teacher. Ever since high school, he has been my favorite poet and a personal inspiration to my poetry and writing in general, so it was a great joy to be able to talk with him. I took his answers, combined with bio information from his website, and developed a different setting for the interview. This project was meant, in the end, to be more a piece of fiction aside from the questions and answers. SO yes, I did interview Taylor through a few emails, but NO it was not in any way like this narrative actually describes, sadly.
But it was very fun to get a little of Taylor’s time, and just as fun to think of my ideal interview with him had he had more time. So for your entertainment…
An Interview on Poems and Teaching:
A Discussion with Taylor Mali
I couldn’t help but feel a lump in my throat as I waited for my Skype call from nationally acclaimed slam poet, Taylor Mali. From my experience, he is a legend, a master of his art. Anyone from the past decade who competed in speech and debate in high school can tell you this man commands words like Mozart commanded the keys of a piano, and there I sat, waiting for him to call. My questions, written sloppily on a torn piece of loose leaf, did not comfort me. How do you question your childhood idol? The bing almost made me fall out of my chair as the call finally came in. It’s time to talk to Mr. Mali.
“Hello, Mr. Mali.”
His hair in a bit of a frazzle, his scarf still dangling from his neck, he gives me a smile.
“Hi, Virginia. Call me Taylor. I don’t think anyone’s going to grade you on formality. Although I might give you a quiz later.”
I see generic paintings set on the walls behind him, a generic bedspread covering a generic hotel twin-sized.
“I’ll be ready for it, Taylor. Thanks so much for calling. I know you’re busy.”
“It’s no problem. I have a lot more free time than you’d think.”
“So you’re in New York City still, right?”
“Yep, a couple more slams and I’ll be off to LA for a couple days.”
“Cool. Well, I guess I’ll get started on the questions then.”
It is only now that I realize two things: just how much he is like his poems, calm, casual, with just enough humor to keep going, and just how calm it had made me—until I looked down at the questions. They seemed so silly now, at the moment of truth that I must have hesitated for over twenty seconds, or some more awkward expanse of time.
“Can’t decide what you want to know first?” he asked.
“Something like that.”
“Well why don’t we just start from the top then. How about my parents and schooling?”
I hoped the webcam didn’t pick up my certainly-flushed cheeks.
“That sounds great.”
“Well, my father, Allen, was an occasional poet; he wrote “occasional” poems, poems for special occasions. 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 wonderful rhyming couplets.”
The smile which he had given me spread wider than ever across his face.
“He never had any of his poems published in a book, but my mother, Jane, wrote and had published many children’s books, I think about five or so. She won the National Book Award one year for a book called ‘Oh Boy! Babies!’”
“Interesting title,” I said, a chilled smirk touching the corner of my lips.
“Based on true events, too. It was about a baby-care class that was taught at my school, the Collegiate School for Boys.”
I allowed my sheet of questions to slip onto the floor. I was getting the feeling I wouldn’t need many prompts for this interview. After all, he was a slam poet. “It looks like it runs in the family to talk about life-experience. Is that why you started writing? To get those experiences out to the rest of the world?”
“That’s an interesting connection, but actually no. This probably sounds memorized, but I suppose it pretty much is. 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. 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.”
I had to chuckle a little. To explain, I told him that ending was quite eloquent in itself. He replies with, “That’s what slam does to you.”
After a couple extra seconds of chuckles, “That’s another thing, although I’m sure you’re sick of this question. What got you into slam?”
“Grad school craziness. I went to Kansas State University, and in the next town over, Lawrence, where our rivals of University of Kansas sat, 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.”
You know that story called for another laugh session. By now the lumps in my throat and gut had albeit disappeared. Taylor wasn’t a high-and-mighty superstar. He was just a talented guy with his own crazy back-stories like everyone else. We began talking more about his college flings and my high school career in speech. He had never known his poetry was so big to the Pennsylvania speech scene. I let him know the most popular of them was a tie between What Teachers Make and Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior, although my favorite has always been Voice of America Voiceover.
With that I remember one of my longer questions I had for him. In an attempt to casually snag my fallen question sheet, I once again almost fell off my chair, giving Taylor another good chuckle.
“Actually, the Viking piece reminds me. One of the lines from that one is, ‘These projects are what I’m known for as a teacher.’ What do you strive for through your teaching strategies with students? Do you want them to remember you, to remember the material, the project itself, or is there a deeper idea of how a student is impacted as a person through teachers who actually care and make everything interesting which drives you?”
His pause was longer than for the previous questions, and my butterflies began to return. Maybe this wasn’t the right question to ask him. But his smile returns once again as he looked up to me.
“All of those things are secondary to this: students—especially middle school students—learn best what they build with their hands. I assign these projects because they are effective lessons! Consider the Greek Shield Project where every student had to build a shield that would protect them from a sword I bought at Medieval Times in New Jersey… Never mind that it’s from a different period in history. My original plan was to try to skewer each child with the sword while they blocked me with the shield; if I injured them then the shield must not have been very good, and they would get a bad grade!”
“You are determined to get me to fall out of this chair, aren’t you?” I tried to say through my laughter.
“No not really, but it makes the story better. In the end, the school’s custodian built me a “shield holder” out of 2x4s that looked like a capital Y with clamps on it, and each student got to attack his OWN shield. There were points available for artistic design and other elements, but the plurality of the points were reserved for Defensive Integrity. What material do you think fared best, do you think? The metal trash can lid? No. The plastic sledding disc? Not a chance. It was the shields made out of wood that consistently withstood the sword attacks best. Well, guess what most ancient shields were made out of. Wood. But you have to have built a shield yourself and seen how successful or unsuccessful it was in order for that lesson to really sink home.”
“I have never been more envious of grade-school students before. It’s a shame the whole world can’t share your ideas. If anything we’d all just be a hell of a lot happier in school.”
“The best part would be you’d be happier about learning, not just being there.”
We discussed a little longer on personal writing, where he liked to write (“Mostly in front of my computer. I wish I had a more interesting routine.”), and other little writer-to-writer things. But I realized, as I sat before my now-blank computer screen, there was something bigger to be learned from my discussion with Taylor than poetry and life. It is almost impossible for any person today to say they live only one life. Different responsibilities for different aspects of life develop changes in us that we attempt to hide from the rest of the world. We feel our greatest tragedy is to allow our work life follow us home or visa versa. But there are some who cherish the combination, who put work and home and personal time all together for something even greater. Taylor Mali is one of those people. He lets nothing escape his poetry; everything he sees is poetry. Even what he doesn’t put into his slam-verse wells inside his mind, waiting to become a poem. This is the Taylor Mali I have come to know in the past few hours; a kind, open, and ready teacher who happens to see the world through words and rhythm. And just because you don’t sit in his classroom doesn’t mean he can’t teach you anything. He gives you the prompt. Now it’s time for you to go out and use it, “build with your hands”, and learn from his effective lessons.