From now until 1/1/2016, if you send $8 via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org, I will send an autographed copy of Bouquet of Red Flags to anyone in the United States.
Writing poetry for me has three important stages: observation, reflection, and expression (and more reflection). I see something, I think something, and I say something (and then I think more). Too often teachers of creative writing—especially poetry—give assignments concerned only with expression—or how to SOUND like a poet—and ignore the skills of observation and reflection (how to see like a poet and how to think like a poet).
That said, this poetry lessonette called “Cultivating a Secret Broken Honesty” starts with expression, but quickly becomes more about reflection. This is a pretty accurate example of how I teach a live poetry workshop: some definitions, some discussion, a model poem, several examples, some time to write, and a clear idea of what to do when the lessonette is over.
Tell me what you think. Or leave the results of your work in the comments below.
If you do the whole thing and have something to share as a result of it, either tweet me @TaylorMali or, better yet, include the hashtag #BrokenHonesty so others will see it.
I haven’t done that very often in my life, written a check that big. And it’s certainly the biggest donation I’ve ever made to any cause. But this time, I had a lot of help. See, I raffled off the original manuscript of my 2012 book “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” and gave the money to a teenage writing residency called Your Word, which takes place every summer at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, FL. Specifically, my gift will enable five teenage writers of color to attend Your Word for free! The program does their best to diversify the student body, but I wanted to help them. So I organized this raffle of my original manuscript, which I might otherwise have recycled. At first I was going to auction it off to the highest bidder, but someone said “Don’t do THAT! That manuscript should be given to a TEACHER! If you hold an auction, it’ll go to a rich person! Have a RAFFLE. That way anyone MIGHT win, and you’ll likely raise MORE money anyway.” I think they were right; I can’t imagine someone bidding $10,000 all by themselves for the scribbled pages. Actually it was only $8,500 or so, but my wife suggested we kick in the rest. So my thanks go out to Rachel, my love (and former EDITOR of this very manuscript!). Anyway, mailed the check today. It’s my good deed for the day. Now I HAVE to go work out!
An interview with Taylor Mali on teaching, poetry, Billy Collins, and hosting the 2015 Poetry Out Loud finals!
I sat down with Josephine Reed not long ago and had a great talk. Here are the highlights:
In the two weeks leading up to the release of my latest book of poetry, I made almost daily short videos of poems from the book and posted them to YouTube. Some have short comments about the poems themselves or how to get a signed copy of the book, but others don’t. Anyway, here they all are not necessarily in the order they were made/uploaded. Enjoy.
My latest book is now available for ordering (or pre-ordering, depending on when you’re reading this). It’s been five years since I’ve put out a book of poetry, and a lot has happened since then. If you’ve liked my work in the past, you’ll love this book because I’ve settled into my style. By turns delightful, haunting, and humorous, Bouquet of Red Flags blends wit and honesty in form, rhyme, and the artful composition Taylor Mali is known for. These poems commemorate the end of a marriage, celebrate the overlooked daily imperfect miracles of coincidence, and elevate the singular “strings and obligations good luck drags behind it like tin can marriage bells.” Bouquet of Red Flags speaks to the healing power of forgiveness, letting go, and “laughter, which is nothing more than breath from so far deep inside it often brings up with it tears.” Lessons of wonder spiced with the “deepest condiments.”
Available from Write Bloody Publishing or your favorite online bookseller.
Years ago in the faculty break room of the last school where I taught, the head of the math department and I were talking about stocks and bonds and investing in the market. What I learned that day about money management I now think is applicable to poetry.
The head of the math department—let’s call him Dave—was an enthusiastic amateur investor and always interested in hearing “tips” about companies to invest in. It was the late 90s, and the internet had just opened up accounts for people like him to trade on their own. On the other hand, as a rich kid from Park Avenue, I grew up believing that my money (which isn’t really mine; I’m just living off of it for my lifetime before handing it off to the next generation) is best managed by the professionals with whom I have lunch once or twice a year in one of their Executive Dining Rooms.
We started talking about individual stocks, and Dave kept asking me “What kind of dividends does THAT pay?” I kept saying I didn’t know. He got more and more frustrated by my NOT knowing, so I asked him why that was so important to him. Dave’s response was telling: “How are you going to make any money in the market if your stock pays no dividend?!” Finally a question I could answer: “Through appreciation.”
If I buy some shares of stock for $100 and it does well one year, it might produce profits of $10, which it could pay as a dividend (a 10% return would be amazing!). But it could take some, or most, or ALL of that $10 and reinvest it in itself by expanding or modernizing or in some other way IMPROVING itself and becoming a better or BIGGER company. In a statistically perfect world, the stock I purchased for $100 has gained in value and is now worth $110. Or more. If it starts looking like a good investment, other people will buy it, and the price will go up even more. That’s how you make REAL money in the stock market: by buying low and selling high years later (sometimes decades later).
That’s the main difference between Dave and me: He looked at the stock market like it was a bank account with a fluctuating interest rate; I looked at like a rising tide. After 10 years in the market, his $100 stock might have paid him $10 every year but still be worth only $100. Mine might have paid out nothing in dividends, but it would be worth $259!
It’s like a life spent reading and writing and wrestling with poetry. The benefits are more long-term, more subtle, almost hidden. The language of business has infiltrated education in recent years, but the questions all seem to be short term questions like Dave’s. “Reading and writing poetry? What kind of dividend does that pay?” Not as much as others, but that’s the wrong question to ask. Appreciation and reinvestment and compounding interest: That’s how you become rich (in my family).
Terrible news of the struggles of a friend’s infant son to survive prompted this poem recently, which ends up being (as T. S. Eliot would say ALL poems do) about the act of writing itself. Keep tiny Graham in your prayers!
Darkless Prayer for the Longful
Some people have more guts
than they will ever need.
I wish that were the reason
some babies are born
with their intestines
on the outsides of their bodies
in a small sac, as they were
with your son, born
already willing and able to give.
I wish this in the same way
I wish sometimes
certain words existed that do not,
words like darkless, to be utterly
and completely without
darkness. I wish I had more darkless news,
you wrote of tiny Graham, who has died
so many times
and been brought back that he has become
a miracle modern medicine
can perform again and again
but never heal. Once, years ago, feeling longful,
needy, and sad, I searched online
for longful, just to see
if it was a real word I had permission to use.
But all I could find were people, hundreds,
all searching and asking
the same questions—Is longful a word
I can use? To be filled with longing?—
which was just
the permission I was looking for.
. . . and no one knew who I was, an unremarkable fact that I nevertheless found refreshing and humbling at the same time. I arrived too late to sign up myself, as I have witnessed other people do countless times at the poetry slam series I help run, and in a moment of integrity and maturity, I acted the way I always hope they will act in such situations, which is to sit down and enjoy the show. We were in Brooklyn, after all, the beloved home of Walt Whitman, who once famously wrote that great poetry requires “great audiences.” The world needs more people willing to listen.
The Jalopy Theater is a curious little gem of a space at the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel a short bike ride from my house. It’s not quite Red Hook, I think, and too low and west to be part of Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens, a typical Brooklyn neighborhood in that it is easier to say where it is not. It’s the ground floor performance space of an adult “roots” music school, and indeed many of the performers had just finished their evening classes. That’s right, it was an “open” mic where every single person called to the stage was a musician. I asked the organizer on the way out “Do you ever have poets?” and he said that it was a truly open mike, “so you can do whatever you want.” I resisted the urge to tell him that was not an answer to the question I asked, and just inferred that he meant “No, not in a long time.”
These were not word people, which was fun. One bearded dude sat down at the mic and said, “I’ve got a couple songs to play for you, and I hope you like it.” I smiled and looked around, hoping to make eye contact with the owner of another pair of smug and captious ears like mine—a half-dozen of which I could have found at my own venue—and found . . . nothing. No other grammar nerd looking around for corroboration and confirmation of his or her own superiority. These were singers, songwriters, and musicians: they have other skills and other concerns. And so they played. And they were good! Shaky, sure, and tentative at first, but everyone blooming a little under the nurturing rays of public scrutiny.
It was Tuesday night, June 10. And I was only there because the regular Tuesday poetry slam that I help curate in Manhattan—Urbana—happens to be on one of its two monthlong summer breaks. If I am ever to be found at The Jalopy Theater on a Tuesday night, it must be June or August. That’s the one downside of running your own series: that night of the week is simply unavailable to you; since I almost ALWAYS have something to do on Tuesdays, I can rarely do ANYTHING (else). It was great to be out of the house on a Tuesday and NOT to be doing anything other than listening to others play music.
I performed poems at a singer-songwriter open mic once before, and it was wonderful because they so rarely saw anyone like me in their circles. It was there that I met Jennifer Marks, maybe 15 years ago (a quick search turned up this gem from her website: “Hey there everyone. I hope that 2005 brings you everything you hope and wish for. I don’t make New Years resolutions but if I were to make one it would be to update my site more often.”) Jennifer said to me (and I’m paraphrasing now), “Musicians never get to see anyone like you! We tend to hide behind our instruments. No one here tonight could imagine standing in front of an audience armed with nothing but our words. You reminded us that words alone have incredible power if you know how to use them.”
So I’ll be going to the Jalopy Theater next Tuesday night, June 17th. But this time, I’ll get there by 8:45 pm in time to sign up. I’ll do my two “songs” like everyone else, and spend the rest of the time listening.
I’m happy to report that a book I wrote the introduction for is finally out and available. It’s called Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach, and it was edited by Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, who have edited similar anthologies (and they’re all beautiful). They asked teachers to choose one poem that sustains them or reminds them why they chose to teach in the first place, and those poems are reprinted along with the teachers’s testimonials (which are often quite poetic as well). I remember exulting in poems I had never read or even heard of! The book is available everywhere now and makes a great end-of-the-year gift to a favorite teacher.