Poet Taylor Mali makes a difference in the teaching world

by Brianna Anderson

Spoken word poet Taylor Mali is one of few people in the country who currently makes his living solely from his own poetry. One of his most recognized poems, “What Teachers Make,” a poem about when he used to be a middle school teacher, has been viewed over 3 million times on YouTube. The speaker drew a large crowd into Cowels Auditorium Tuesday, Oct. 18.

Whitworth student junior Curtis Gatley could hardly contain his excitement when his favorite poet walked onto the stage. He was so enthusiastic in fact, that the visiting poet took notice of him in the crowd. Mali said he saw Gatley in the audience doing some of his hand gestures while he was reciting his poem and felt even more welcomed at Whitworth.

“This was the first time I’ve seen him live,” Gatley said. “Before tonight I was intimidated by his blistering intelligence. I was very pleasantly surprised he was so benevolent.”

Mali originally started his career as a teacher, first at the high school level and later teaching younger grades in middle school. He graduated from Kansas State University with an M.A. in English creative writing and also studied drama at Oxford University. After spending years in the classroom, Mali’s poetry illustrates his love for learning and his views on the nobility of teaching.

In June of 2000 he put his teaching career on hold and created the New Teacher Project. The project has a goal of creating 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion and perseverance,” according to Mali’s website. When he reaches this goal he will cut off his hair, which he has allowed to grow extremely long, and donate it to an organization called Pantene Great Lengths that accepts donations for cancer patient wigs.

In the poem “What Teachers Make,” Mali described his views on the importance of teaching. He talks about an experience he had at a dinner party where one of the guests insulted him by quoting the phrase, “Those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach,” and then went on to ask Mali how much he made as a teacher.

In the poem he says: “You want to know what I make?  I make kids wonder, I make them question. I make them criticize….I make them understand that if you got this (brains) then you follow this (heart) and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you give them this (the finger).”

The first poem Mali ever read in front of an audience was called “I Could Be a Poet” in 1990. It was meant to make fun of the way some poets read their poetry. His delivery received such positive reviews that he was encouraged to keep on writing. The key to presenting a poem, he said, is to “speak loudly, slowly and clearly.” Mali said performance is a huge part of being a poet.  He considers himself a “drama nerd” and said he feels at home on the stage.

“I’m more myself now than when I’m talking one on one with people,” Mali said.

Mali’s storytelling performances are a form of slam poetry, reading poetry in a rhythmic style, usually in the style of hip-hop. This art form comes mainly from inner urban areas.

The poet ended the night by reading a poem called “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior,” about one of his 7th grade students who died of cancer

“Not one single boy in my class had hair; the other 12 had shaved their heads in solidarity,” Mali recited. “Have you ever seen 13 bald-headed seventh grade boys, all pointing at each other, all staring, all laughing? I have.”

After reciting his final poem, Mali greeted fans in the side corridor of Cowels Auditorium and signed books.

“I heard his name around campus,” said freshman Sean Cunningham. “I haven’t heard much slam poetry before, but tonight was fantastic.”

Mali is the author of two books, “What Learning Leaves,” 2002, and “The Last Time As We Are,” 2009.  Visit his website and see the list of teachers he has recruited through poetry.

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