A former teacher and slam poet, Taylor Mali is best known for his poem “What Teachers Make” which advocates for the immense impact teachers have on students’ lives. Mali’s dedication to promoting good teaching and good teachers defines much of his work. We look forward to welcoming him to the Festival, especially on Thursday—informally called Teacher Day—when pre-registered teachers of any grade level and any subject matter can attend for nominal registration fee. (More information can be found here.)
Through stories of his former students, and tales of his own teaching practices, Mali calls to mind the memory of being the student of a teacher who was deeply committed, a bit quirky, loving and firm. We’ve all had those teachers. If we’re lucky, we had several of them over the course of our education. (Mine include Mrs. Pollard, Mrs. Murray, Mrs. Samelson, and Mrs. Lott, whom I can never thank enough.) In rhythmic, chant-like verse, Mali shares what made him a successful teacher—putting in extra hours for students who needed it; creating innovative projects for his students, such as the Marshmallow Catapult Project; and pushing students to “work harder than they ever thought they could.” Mali’s experience as a slam poet is apparent in his spirited and staccato verse that seems to ask to be read out loud.
Mali shares the stories of children and all their complexities-their cruelty and their kindness; their innocence and their arrogance. For example, Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh-Grade Viking Warrior begins with a lesson about Vikings, but leads us to the story of a young boy with cancer, and his classmates who shaved their heads in solidarity with Tony. The poem fluidly moves from the history lesson, to the take home project, to the boys’ illness. The poem embodies Mali’s great heart for children, and the underlying message that teachers educate the whole child, not just the part that needs to know facts about history, and that teachers open themselves up to be inspired by and learn from their own students.
This openness and heart resonate in Mali’s work. In The Last Time as We Are, the last section entitled “Homework” delves into romantic relationships, primarily through micro-stories of interactions and conversations, as in “Four Ways We Love Each Other”:
1. Falling in Different Directions
Because I think of falling in love as falling backward
and hoping my beloved will catch me, and you,
more like jumping off a cliff into the sea, your lover
at your side,
——-I always end up with a concussion
or drowning when hoping for your hands, and you
break bones when I try to break your fall,
you expecting only water.
3. You will never be alone
is the last thing
you want to hear
but the only thing
I want you to say.
Mali lures us with humor and follows with tenderness—an irresistible combination. His lively performance style is sure to engage any poetry audience at the Festival. Explore more of Taylor Mali’s work here.
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For more information on the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org