. . . 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.
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.
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.
I’m in the throes of a residency called YOUR WORD at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, FL. It’s especially for teenage writers, and I am considered one of the “Master Artists,” a title I cannot actually say with a straight face. It’s a self-selected group for the most part; the director says there may sometimes be a few kids who get sent here because their parents think it “would be good for them,” but if that’s true this year then I don’t have them in my class. I have nine students, mostly girls. In fact, there are only two boys out of the 24 students total.
Today, I had the kids studying Creative Non-Fiction instead of my regular poetry kids, whom I see more than anyone else. It was a more laid back class. All girls. We talked about poetry, I played some examples, and I gave them a homework assignment for when I see them next week. But I also made them write a quick in-class exercise based on a poem called “My Elementary School Confessions” by my best friend Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. It’s a wonderful icebreaker because you learn all these terrible things about everyone else, and it makes you feel less terrible about the horrible things you carry with you.
Most memorable line of the morning? “In fourth grade, Carla Jenkins and I stayed inside during recess once because there were too many bugs outside. The door to the boys’ bathroom was open for some reason, and we saw Jonathan Lane with his pants down. His penis was tiny, and we laughed into his terror-stricken eyes. For the rest of the year, we made fun of him, holding up our fingers like this.” The girl who wrote it was ashamed that she had a) been so cruel b) remembered it so vividly, and c) wrote it down and shared it, but the rest of the class told her it was excellent.
A kid in workshop yesterday wrote, “When the monsters come to me at night, I pull the blankets over my head because everyone knows blankets are a monster’s weakness.”
FOR THE MONTH OF APRIL, which is National Poetry month, I am posting a new poem here every day as well as on Twitter & Instagram (@TaylorMali), and Facebook (Taylor Mali the Poet). If there are a few days missing here, they are elsewhere (I promise).
When to Fly Separately (& When Not To)
One big happy family traveling together,
my brother and his wife, because of their three kids,
fly on separate planes when they’re apart.
You have to think of who you’d leave behind.
My brother or his wife, with one of their three kids—
there’s only one exception to this rule—
you have to think of who you’d leave behind.
But if they have all their children with them?
That’s the only exception to the rule:
We fly on separate planes when we’re apart,
but if we have all our children with us, then
We’re one big happy family traveling together.
Magnifies an Object Ten Times
is what it clearly said
on the handle of the Magnifying Glass
my father received on his fifth birthday,
which he took to mean the birthday gift
would only work its magic ten times
and no more, becoming, after that,
just a small round window with no miracle,
a circle of simple glass, a toy giant’s monocle.
And so he went about his days with thrift
mixed into his curiosity, weighing how much
he needed to see any part of the world up close,
observing as best he could with his own eyes first,
thinking, I can probably guess what that bug
would look like big, that dandelion, that blade
of grass, that wriggling moth in the spider’s web.
Better not waste one of my ten precious times.
He doesn’t remember the moment he realized
ten times” in this context meant tenfold
and not ten instances, nor the joy that must
have come with such a limitless epiphany.
But what he said he sometimes missed still
was the way the magic made him see the world—
not through the glass—when he thought that magic
would not last.
Would You? Could You? In an Old Synagogue?
Passing the old shul in our neighborhood,
which seems now to have become a home,
the carved Hebrew in stone over the door
and the stained glass six-pointed star
the only clues remaining of its weathered past,
I turned to you and asked if you could ever
live in such a place.
And you, thinking I was asking if Judaism
itself would allow or approve such a move
onto ground once consecrated, told me
Jews do not believe in a place made holy
by ritual. Or rather, that the Sabbath
can be celebrated anywhere you choose.
In a cardboard box, were the words you used.
So I ask you next if this cardboard box
might also have in it a cute little fox
wearing purple socks. If he could help
light the candles on Shabbat.
And your laughter is a blessing to my ears.
You who know what it is I do, and exactly who
in my heart I am. You, lovely you, my foxy Jew,
the green eggs to my ham.
Write A Poem Every Day
An old journal I found began
with these words I wrote to myself:
Write a poem every day. It makes you feel
like a poet. And that is still true, even though
the rest of the journal was empty.
And now today, again, I start
to do for one month exactly what
I should be doing for the whole year:
Writing a poem every day.
Forget Cristin with her two poems a day,
her NEA, and her three-bedroom house
she gets to stay in for free for six months!
I will set my sights a little lower.
Begin this morning with tea
and the view of The Freedom Tower
outside my window, which has risen
as I have from the ashes of its former self.
And which, from this angle, is glassed
almost all the way to the top.
More mirror, more sky, more sun.
An Apology to Senator Robert Portman of Ohio
Because you changed your position on gay marriage
only after you found out your son was gay,
I am sorry for briefly wishing you had
another son with no health insurance,
and another with PTSD, and a daughter
battered by her husband, and another raped,
in need of an abortion, and a black son,
and an immigrant son, and a poor son,
and a grandchild at Sandy Hook.