WHY DO YOU WRITE POETRY?
I love words and I want to spread that love. When people read and react to my writing, they discover they’ve an appreciation for poetry. I don’t see the world in a particularly unique way. I believe I see the world the way many others do; I just have the audacity to believe the world will be entertained by an eloquent description of its own vision. Emerson said that genius was believing that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men. That’s the kind of genius I want to be.
DID YOUR PARENTS WRITE?
My father (H. Allen Mali) wrote “occasional” poems for special occasions, birthdays and weddings—certain events would elicit from him wonderful rhyming couplets. He never had any of his poems published, but my mother (Jane Lawrence Mali) wrote and published about five children’s books. She won the National Book Award for a book called “Oh Boy! Babies!” about a baby-care class that was taught at my school. The boys got to practice diapering and bathing with real babies! So writing is in my blood. I knew from an early age that words had power.
WHERE DID YOU GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL?
I attended Kansas State University, and had anyone told me I’d end up going to KSU for grad school, and I would said, “No school that involves the name of the state is any good.” I was wrong! I received great training in graduate school and learned to love Kansas. My original motivation was to become a poet, but later discovered that I loved teaching. I wanted to teach students who were younger, to catch them before it was too late.
WHAT WERE YOUR EARLY EXPERIENCES OF THE POETRY SLAM?
I first heard about the poetry slam in October of 1992, during grad school. In the next town over, Lawrence, they held a slam once a month in a strip club called The Flamingo Exotic Dance & Catering Lounge. It was a seedy place, with a mirror on the back wall and a steel pole at the end of the runway. Perfect for a slam. Every fourth Monday, the dancers got the night off and the poets took to the stage, revealing themselves in a completely different sort of way.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR POETS WHO WANT TO GET PUBLISHED?
Every poet I know has made a bunch of chapbooks with a laser printer and a Kinko’s. If you are a poet, then you are one. And it doesn’t matter if you make your books yourself. You can make a good-looking chapbook at Kinko’s for less than $2 per book. Get your friend to draw the cover in black and white ink. Ask your other friend if you can use that photograph she took of you as your author picture. Sell each book for $4 and you’ll be making 100% profit. Any businessman will tell you that’s good. Soon you’ll be LIVING OFF YOUR ART, which is a complicated thing to do, but it feels really good on one level.
WHAT KIND OF EDUCATION DID YOU GET?
Besides college and graduate school, I went to drama school at Oxford University during the summer of 1987. It was a special program called “Oxford in Midsummer” run by Yale Drama School and designed for American actors who want to study with members of the Royal Shakespeare Academy. It was a wonderful experience, but it reconfirmed I was a poet. It wasn’t a complete waste, I use my drama training when I performing poetry.
WHY DO YOU LOVE THE POETRY SLAM?
Poetry should be an integral part of the daily common discourse; there should be a constant argument about the quality of poetry and the power of language and the responsibility of the artist in our society. The poetry slam starts the debate.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF AN ALL BOYS SCHOOL?
Girls gain more from being in a school by themselves than boys do. But since that is a philosophically untenable position, I’ll say this: it’s great to be able to focus on your studies and your sports and your moral development without having to worry about looking cool in front of girls.
WHAT WAS YOUR GREATEST HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCE?
I loved Geometry. All poets do. Back then, I considered myself a math/science type of person, and for a while after that year I thought I wanted to go to MIT!
WHAT WAS THE MASCOT OF YOUR HIGH SCHOOL?
I went to the Collegiate School for Boys, which was founded by the Dutch in 1628 back when New York City was called New Amsterdam. So I suppose it’s only natural that our mascot was called “The Dutchman,” but he was a ridiculous, cartoonish figure. More like something you might see on the label of a loaf of bread. For crying out loud, he had a pegleg! How are you supposed to intimidate the other team when your mascot is missing a limb!
HOW MUCH DO YOU THINK YOU CAN YOU BENCH PRESS?
It’s hard to say how much I could bench press because I only lift one weight these days, my own, which hovers around 200 pounds. I do pull-ups, pushups, and sit-ups; I even have a pair of gravity boots for hanging upside down. Seems healthier and more natural. But back in the day, I think I could press almost 200. Might be able to do 140 now. More important than strength, however, is flexibility, and I have managed to stay very limber because of yoga.