Slam poet Mali teaches through rhymes, humor

Taylor Mali, teacher and award-winning slam poet, drew a crowd for his performance last Friday night. The audience included a number of Mount Greylock Regional High School students and people from the community – many of them fans from his previous visit to Williamstown a few years ago.

The show started with three performances by members of Speakfree, the College’s spoken word group. Mali then took the stage, dressed casually with his long hair in a ponytail, introducing the audience to the strong voice and stage presence he would wield for the rest of the night. Mali was the image of the teacher everyone wishes they’d had: funny, brilliant and sharply insightful.

Mali performed a number of classic poems from his 2002 book, What Learning Leaves, as well as newer ones. The performance culminated with the work he is best known for, “What teachers make,” a bitingly sincere response to a criticism of teachers. The piece is the driving force behind a goal of Mali’s to inspire 1000 people to become teachers. By the end of the night the count of those inspired had gone up again as people chatting with him afterwards expressed their desire to teach and impact lives.

Mali’s poetry is full of his goofy brand of humor, including a wonderfully ironic depiction of a pretentious poet for which he borrowed “nerdy glasses” from an audience member. In the poem titled “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” he did a great impression of a teen girl marking each ironic “like” with a twitch of the head as he described her thoughts and struggles.

Mali’s words were full of wit and humor, but the strength of his work lay in his presentation. He was in his element on the stage, fleshing out each poem with perfect delivery. He interspersed his work with anecdotes and casually talked with the audience. Some of the biggest laughs came from moments of improvisation during his readings.

His passion for teaching comes through in his poetry, with a number of poems centered on experiences with students and expressing his desire to make a difference in the world through their lives. He also commented on the irony of being a poet/English-literature major who ended up teaching math and history to middle-schoolers.

At first a little disconcerting, Mali’s frank broaching of sexual topics was hilarious, often in ways very accurate to the thought processes of teenagers. Poem topics included daydreaming about who he would have sex with in his college history class if held at gunpoint, a fantasy which a number of the audience admitted to sharing when he asked for a show of hands.

Mali was good at striking chords with common memories, bringing up a surprising range and depth of feelings and a certain nostalgia for middle school. While most of the reading was very upbeat, near the end of the performance he effortlessly transitioned into more serious material. He brought goofy insights to places we’ve all been: life, love and the middle school classroom.

The event was closed with promise of future visits to Williamstown, hopefully every two or three years.