Taylor Mali, |
(Words Worth, 2003)
On the page, Taylor Mali's poetry is deceptively simple. In this age, when the callow literary verbosity of many performance poets reigns with a 3-5 page ineloquent sense of superiority -- while schizophrenically attempting to cram itself into the short attention span of the average poetry audience -- Mali's work sits there on half of a folded 8- by 11-inch piece of paper, almost quaint. Stanzas like puppy-dog eyes, line breaks more than reasonable: agreeable. Easy on the eyes, his stuff ... filled with words everyone uses everyday. You almost wonder what the big deal is, why this guy is one of the most lauded performance poets in the country today. You wonder what it is about the characters and ballroom-squared rhythms that populate his work that enables him to live fully off of the means of his poetic labor, and in New York City, no less? What in the typical plain-speak of his oeuvre proves his merit as a poetry slam icon?
On the page? Not much. The work sits there, stoic and neat; whole-number addition homework waiting to graduate to multiplication. Give the man a microphone, however, and you're in for some very tricky and magical geometry.
It is on the microphone that Mali's deft and sly skill with language takes flight, his sofa-comfy ease with the language of engagement drawing you in with every comedy of errors from the tales of stymied students of his teaching years ("Like Lilly Like Wilson," "Seventh-Grade Viking Warrior"), as well as his admonishments of paint-by-number poets ("I Could Be a Poet," "How To Write a Political Poem"). Mali's work picks up all of its complexity in performance, and make no mistake: Mali is one of the best performance poets on the road, bar none. There are few performing poets who approach the stage with as much confidence and consistency as Taylor Mali, and not simply because he's performed the poems so many times that he can likely recite them sans tongue. There is a fecundity of warmth and ideas in his carriage, his voice, and the stories of his poems. While many of his performing contemporaries have sought to compact more and more words in an attempt to bludgeon audiences with their wealth of vocabulary, Mali's work consistently wins because it is allowed to breathe. The brevity of the compositions on paper allows him to bend the performance and tone of his poems at will, and allows the audience to savor the journey, as opposed to the typical rat race many of his peers subject already wary audiences to. Mali understands that the lasting impression comes more fully from the tale, from the sinking-in of the idea and point, and less so from the pyrotechnics and oft-copied ranting of poets whose work could, as a rule, stand to use a stiff edit. Much of his most winning work -- "I Could Be a Poet," "Playing Scrabble With Eddie" and most notably "The The Impotence of Proofreading" -- hits the target squarely in this respect. The work contained on Conviction seeks to strip away all of the political and academic baggage that the listener brings to the tales and missions of the work, leaving one's sense of wonder receptive and hanging on every pause and direction. You know that some truth, some grand life point is there, and Mali wants you to walk away with that, not the top hat and rabbits.
Finally, one of the things that stand out in this collection is the number of duets, trios, team pieces and covered versions of his work by other poets offered. With these rarely performed (and even more rarely recorded) instances of artistic camaraderie with compatriots Beau Sia, Celena Glenn, George McKibbens, Shappy, Noel Jones, John S. Hall, Roger Bonair-Agard and Reggie Cabico, the CD acts as more than an introduction to the new listener, but as a photo album of Mali's journey to the top of the performance poetry pile. You end up with what could have as easily been billed as not only the "Best of Taylor Mali" but also the "Essential Taylor Mali." For the codification of that journey alone, we should all be grateful.