. . . the exact same hotel where all the families of the passengers on Malaysian Flight 370 are being put up, which means that the lobby is filled with reporters and TV news crews hoping to get interviews with desperate people in tears. Today I started teaching at the American International School of Beijing, and I’m jet lagged beyond belief. Combine that with the dystopian haze that hangs in the air daily in Beijing, and I feel strangely dislocated. I would have tweeted this or posted it to Facebook, but of course both of those sites are blocked here.
And that bang was Page Meets Stage with Rachel McKibbens (pictured), Tara Hardy, Jamaal May, and Nick Flynn! I changed up the format this year and made it more of a free-flowing round robin, which shifted the emphasis from poets to poems. But still, no poet ever did more than one poem in a row so the show hurtled forward.
On Tuesday, February 25, from 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm in the Alan Harvey Theater at Piedmont High School, the Education Speaker Series will host New York City performance poet and former teacher Taylor Mali, author of What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World and a four-time National Poetry Slam champion. He 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.” His one-man show Teacher! Teacher! won the jury prize for best solo performance at the 2001 Comedy Arts Festival. Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, and has performed and lectured all over the world. You may purchase an advance ticket for $10 plus a $2 online processing fee here: http://tinyurl.com/http-taylormali-com
Tickets may be available at the door depending on availability. If you miss this reading, Taylor Mali will be the featured poet the following evening at the Berkeley Poetry Slam.
I’m still overseas, so don’t buy anything from my website and expect to get it in a hurry, because I’m still fulfilling orders myself Anyone want a part-time job?). Just finished teaching a couple days at an international school in Bucharest where the mascot is a Vampire; they gave me a shirt. And this morning, instead of doing what I have usually done, which is talk a little about poetry, freeing your mind, syntax, and being creative in general before moving on to more specific writing prompts, I decided to jump into the writing exercises almost immediately. I asked the students (10th graders from all over the world, sophisticated, but still sheltered, albeit in a more worldly shelter) what the danger is when a teenager aims at writing something beautiful? They answered–correctly, in my experience–that cliché, angst, and melodrama are the common risks when a teen aims for something beautiful. I asked how many MIGHT have mentioned “the golden sun” if I asked them to write a beautiful sentence? Many played along and raised their hands sheepishly. By the end of the period, “golden sun” had become a code word for not working hard enough to create original beauty!
But there was a more important lesson I learned that had to do with WHAT TO TEACH WHEN YOU TEACH A POETRY WORKSHOP. I should have realized this years ago, but the more ADVANCED YOU ARE (the more you already consider yourself a poet) the more interested you will be in different techniques for HOW to write what you feel. Obviously, that’s my first instinct, too. That’s what excites me. “Let’s talk about how SYNTAX can influence CONNOTATION!” But what if it’s not a class that the students signed up for willingly? What if I’m the visiting writer from New York City and I have THE ENTIRE 10th GRADE whether they like it or not? What is the kid in the front row does NOT consider himself a poet at all? In fact, he considers himself little more than . . . a basketball player . . . with a little sister? That kid will benefit much more from a discussion of WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT than how to write about it. Why has it taken so long for me to understand this and EMBRACE it? All those years when I told students, “I’m not really here to tell you WHAT to write about,” I should have told them that I was too lazy to meet them where they were, and I needed them to somehow, magically, to get to where I was. Sorry about that.
. . . so if you order anything from my store, don’t bother paying extra for PRIORITY shipping, because it will be mid February before it gets mailed.
I’m looking forward to the first pairing of the year for Page Meets Stage on the third Wednesday of February. The poets taking part are Tracy K. Smith and Thuli Zuma so this month we really ARE “where the Pulitzer Prize meets the Poetry Slam!”
I’m leaving for Germany today (Monday, January 27, 2014), and I return only a few days before the show so I’m turning over the hosting duties to Associate Curator John Paul Davis. Nevertheless, come join me for this electric pairing!
Let’s say a friend of mine calls me and I know what they want to talk about. Or maybe it’s someone I’ve never met, but I recognize the number because I left them a message and asked for this call back. If I’m feeling frisky, I answer the phone with my calmest, most professional-sounding voiceover voice and say, “Hi. You’ve reached Taylor Mali. I cannot come to the phone right now UNLESS you happen to be [insert uniquely identifying characteristics of the caller's job, physical appearance, or reputation here] in which case I am already on the phone and waiting for you to speak.”
Then comes the laughter. Or a long pause. Then “Hello?” Eventually, they always say the same thing: “You sounded just like a voicemail message.” That’s usually where it ends because we have things to discuss, but I always want to question them further and ask why that’s so surprising? It’s just my voice. I’ll bet you could sound just like your outgoing voicemail message, too.
I think it’s a variation of The Curse of Knowledge, that curious phenomenon that makes it virtually impossible to remember what it was like NOT knowing something after you actually DO know it. People don’t have the—what is it? confidence? presence of mind? chutzpah?—to realize that they can bluff their way through this. They think, “It’s obvious to ME that I’m playing a part. Surely it must be equally as obvious to EVERYONE else that I’m playing a part!” But it’s not. Anyone can do it if they know that anyone can do it.
I stay awake at night sometimes wondering what else in life is like that.
Because what invariably follows is a vindictive comment of such vituperation and recalcitrance that it obviously was never intended to carry with it ANY of the respect your interlocutor claims you are due.