Slam poet Taylor Mali draws crowd of aspiring teachers

Four-time National Slam Poetry champion Taylor Mali performed some of his works at Old Main's Carson Ballroom Wednesday evening. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Mali)

Soon-to-be teachers are apparently huge fans of slam poetry.

Or rather, they enjoy the poetry of Taylor Mali, a former educator who writes and speaks about the importance of teachers.

On Wednesday night, the Carson Ballroom in Old Main was full of students anticipating a poetry reading by award-winning slam poet Mali. The Teachers College Student Council, Sanford Inspire and Teach for America sponsored the event.

Slam poetry is a competition in which members of the audience judge poets on recitations of their own work. There is usually an enforced time limit of three minutes, and props, costumes and music are forbidden.

Mali is a four-time National Poetry Slam champion and author of two poetry collections: “What Learning Leaves” and “The Last Time As We Are.”

His most notable work is a book of essays titled, “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World.”

A teacher in New York City for nine years, he was one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam,” and the former president of Poetry Slam, Inc., a nonprofit organization that oversees all poetry slams in North America.

Dressed similarly to a majority of the students in the audience, Mali was wearing a black T-shirt with the words “We Teach the World” on the front and joked that it was the first time in his 12 years of performing that an organization asked him to wear its shirt at a reading.

Mali was also sporting a shorter haircut than his signature past-shoulder-length style. In 2000, he challenged himself to inspire 1,000 people to become teachers. When he reached his goal in April of this year, he marked the achievement by donating 12 inches of his hair to the American Cancer Society.

Once Mali took the stage, he immediately launched into an animated recitation of “How Falling in Love is like Owning a Dog.”

Mali told the audience that he usually reads poems in progress from a moleskin leather notebook, but that wouldn’t be happening this evening because he had misplaced it in his apartment. Instead, he read a poem he wrote on his flight to Arizona that day, which he penned on the airline-provided bag intended for use in the case of motion sickness.

Before performing his most famous poem, “What Teachers Make,” Mali read the introduction from his book of essays of the same name.

Mali wrote the poem after an encounter with a lawyer at a dinner party. Angered by the insulting way the lawyer spoke about teachers, and the way he questioned how much money Mali made, Mali wrote “What Teachers Make” the next day.

The audience chuckled throughout the performance, and anticipated the last lines, “Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true: Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?” before bursting in applause.

Mali then read crowd favorites, “Labeling Keys” and “Totally like whatever, you know?” Just minutes before the event was scheduled to end, Mali announced he intended to read longer than he was contracted for. He recited “News of My Divorce Makes Me Think Of Your Death,” a poem written for his first wife.

The mood was lifted when he recited “The Naked Gardener,” a humorous love poem written for his second wife. He closed with the popular, “The the Impotence of Proofreading,” which drew the largest amount of laughter of the evening, and the audience left in better spirits than when they arrived.


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