While culture wars still rage in the literary world (see my own Blog for some examples), the great thing about the "po' biz" these days is its expansive diversity. This is evident not only at open mics, but also in the literary community at large. No one group dominates the scene, from the Slam poets to the Academy of American Poets, from open mics to the Writers Institute, from the hermetic scribblers to the obsessively self-published.
Taylor Mali, while often characterized as a "slam poet" is more appropriately described as a stand-up comedy poet, a performer, a sort of scruffy Billy Collins. In fact, Mali called Billy Collins his favorite poet & even recited one of Collin's poems ("The Lanyard"). His poems are easily accessible on first hearing, expertly delivered with a range of volume, tone & gestures for emphasis & more often than not with a hefty dollop of humor. Another performer who comes to mind in this vein is Henry Rollins. This is nothing new to our culture, the careers of Mark Twain, or even Oscar Wilde, in earlier generations were literary figures who earned money traveling the country, "giving lectures" as they called it back then.
But Mali might also be described as an "inspirational poet," particularly for those noble folk serving in the teaching profession. Scattered throughout his reading were poems about being a teacher, making the point that teachers can change the world, one student at a time. Poems like "The Miracle Worker" where he took his act down into the audience (a la Tom Jones, who was also performing in Albany tonight), or "I'm Writing a Poem that Will Change the World...", or the descriptive "Undivided Attention," or the come-back to a question at a dinner party, "What Teachers Make." Moreover, his patter between poems frequently referenced his experience as a teacher. His goal is to inspire 1000 people to become teachers -- he's up to about 300 now.
His other major theme was on how we use language. He started off with mixing the images & terms of relationships & having a dog in "How Falling in Love is Like Having a Dog" (come to think of it, a dog was central to another poem, a 3-legged dog named Bodhisattva). There was an hilarious pantoum uttered by a stoner, another poem on our, like, "aggressively inarticulate generation" you know; the clever last poem on the worst speller, & even the boyhood anecdote of "Holding Your Position" could be characterized as centered on the use of language.
Nearly every poem had some level of humor, from the amused chuckle to the uproarious laughter that interrupted the lines. But there was one profound piece, "The Entire Act of Sorrow," about reaction to a suicide, that was unrelieved seriousness, so much so that he moved right into the next poem without applause, without a pause.
In between he talked about his own writing for the "spoken word," about Collins' advice to write what you would never write about, about his favorite poets (besides Collins, Mary Oliver, Richard Wilbur, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell -- belying the stereotype of the slam poet as a child of the Beats), about rhyme. A couple of his poems were rhymed or used rhymed segments. But I was amazed that he said he would like to bring rhyme back. What about hip-hop? He did comment satirically on academic poets, borrowing Nester's black-rimmed glasses as a prop as he pretended to read from his book a poem not in the book, "4 Cantos for Hephaistos," with its appropriately uncertain ending, which he dedicated to "anyone who felt they were dragged here."
It was an enjoyable, entertaining evening. However, such a performance can be dangerous -- it could be intimidating for some poets out there, either fledgling writers uncertain about stepping on stage ("if that is what a poetry reading is, I don't have enough experience & I'm not good enough to do that"), or the more seasoned habitue of open mics who might feel they have to insert bad jokes into their previously unrelieved paeans to gloom & heartbreak. Is it in the writin' or in the recitin'? I guess it's like the punch-line says, "Some folks can tell a joke & some can't."
(There are a couple more shots from Taylor Mali's performance at my Flickr site.)