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Word Up! Taylor Mali on Word X Word Festival 2011 and the Lives of the Poets

 Rural Intelligence Arts
What’s the word? Find out this week in Pittsfield at the third annual Word X Word Festival from August 13 – 20. This celebration of words written, spoken and sung—created in 2009 by Jim Benson, proprietor of Mission Bar + Tapas—kicks off with its now-legendary rooftop party, one of the hottest events in the region (tickets are nearly sold out). The week-long festival features more than 60 performances of original song, poetry, theater, fiction, and storytelling—most free—at more than 15 venues throughout the city.

Word X Word 2011 has several new elements, such as a block party this Sunday, August 14, from 3 – 8 pm; the first spoken word contest for high school students, the winner of which will perform during the Festival finale at The Colonial Theatre; and the inclusion of narrative fiction with readings by a selection of nationally recognized novelists and short story writers curated by local author Brendan Mathews, whose own work was included in The Best American Short Stories 2010. And in late-breaking news, Benson has announced that Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has joined the roster to read excerpts from his memoir, A Reason to Believe.
Rural Intelligence ArtsWhat’s not new is the festival’s focus on a stunning assortment of emerging singer/songwriters and spoken-word superstars, the latter curated by four-time National Poetry Slam champion Taylor Mali, who divides his time between New York, the Berkshires, and the rest of the world, where he leads writing workshops, curates readings, and judges poetry slams. Mali is a New York City native whose family has lived there since the 1600s; his great-great-grandfather and namesake, John Taylor Johnston (in portrait above, with Mali) was the founding president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s also is a former school teacher best known for his poem What Teachers Make and his advocacy for teachers. He and his wife, poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali, have had a home in the Berkshires since 2007 and have been involved with Word X Word since its inception.

Rural Intelligence cultural correspondent Bess J.M. Hochstein met with Taylor Mali at his Housatonic home to get the inside story on the Word X Word Festival and to find out more about the life of the poet.
Bess Hochstein: How and when did you get involved with the Word X Word Festival?
Taylor Mali: I’ve been involved from the beginning. Jim Benson came to one of my shows three years ago and asked me to help curate the poetry side of things. Last year Marie-Elizabeth and I both curated the poetry, and Jim says it was the poets who saved the festival. This year, I called in a lot of favors to get the people we got, particularly Rachel McKibbens, [2009 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, below, who performs on Friday, 8/19] and Buddy Wakefield [two-time World Poetry Slam Champion, performing on Saturday, 8/20].

BH: What do you look for in the artists you enlist for Word X Word?
TM: The ability to connect with an audience or change people’s minds about poetry, perhaps even broaden their definition of what poetry is. I have a love/hate relationship with The New Yorker magazine because the poems they choose to publish, ostensibly some of the BEST CONTEMPORARY POETRY IN THE UNITED STATES, are often only appreciated by people who already know they like poetry. Normal people read those poems and think, “I knew I didn’t like poetry, and this poem proves it.” I’ll never ask a poet like that to perform at Word X Word.
Rural Intelligence ArtsBH: Who are the must-see artists on this year’s Word X Word roster?
TM: They are all amazing. Iyeoka Okaowo [in video, below] performs with me at the opening event on Sunday, 8/14; Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz [three-time National Poetry Slam Champion] is the headline poet on Wednesday, 8/17; Omar Holmon [right] is Thursday, 8/18; Rachel McKibbens on Friday, 8/19; and Buddy Wakefield at the closing show on Saturday, 8/20. If I had to choose two it would be Rachel and Buddy.

BH: Is there a distinction between poets and spoken word artists?
TM: Depends on who you talk to. For me the term poet is a broader term; a spoken-word artist is a type of poet, one who writes poems that will be HEARD before they are read. In fact, a poem by a spoken-word artist may NEVER be read. And that knowledge changes the writing process a little. If you know that your audience will not have the luxury of rereading the poem several times if they don’t understand something, then you tend to write clearer and speak slower. And you choose words that will not obnubilate your message or be received as a vituperative assault on the probity of the reader. (See what I just did?)
BH: How often do you appear in poetry slams?
Rural Intelligence ArtsTM: I don’t actively compete anymore. I’ve won the National Poetry Slam four times so I feel like I’ve pretty much done that. To succeed in a slam, you need to write high-energy poems filled with self-righteous indignation that clock in at about 2:45, and I’m interested in writing different kinds of poems. Longer, shorter, quieter, funnier, more inward looking. That said, if the night is slow or the slam at the Bowery Poetry Club (where I help curate the resident slam series, which is called Urbana) has fewer than eight poets in it, I may well throw my name in the hat to remind the young folks how we used to do it in the old days.
BH: How and when did you become a poet?
TM: I wrote poems as a kid to be like my dad. He used to write rhyming toasts for special occasions: think Dr. Seuss meets Robert Frost. Everyone loved hearing them so I learned early on that poetry was a festive way to entertain people. My mom [Jane L. Mali] was an award-winning children’s book author so I was surrounded with the written word always. That said, the process of becoming a poet is long and unmarked so the more honest answer to your question is “I don’t know. Am I there yet?”
BH: Your family has a long and illustrious history in the city of New York. Any other poets or teachers in the family?
TM: Besides my father, I don’t know of any other poets. And come to think of it, I’m the only teacher in the family that I know of, too. So how “illustrious” can my family be?
BH: You seem to embrace your identity as a WASP in the sometimes gritty realm of slam poetry. How do you make that work for you?
TM: Not very well sometimes. But it’s true, I do embrace my identity as a WASP. Shouldn’t everyone embrace their identity? And it’s true, there aren’t many other WASPs in the spoken-word/poetry slam community. But that makes me a novelty, I think. And my poetry isn’t ABOUT being privileged and coming from old money. It’s informed by that, sure. How could it not be?
BH: Are you still teaching? If so, where?
TM: I haven’t had a full-time teaching job since 2000. That said, yes, I am still teaching. I just do it all over the world now, one day at a time. Sometimes I’m the visiting writer for a week. Rarely is it longer than that, however. I do about 80 gigs a year, which doesn’t quite mean I’m on the road 160 days of the year, but sometimes it feels like that.
BH: In the year 2000, you set a goal to inspire 1000 people to become teachers. How is that going?
TM: Slowly but surely. I’m almost up to 800! If you think my work has helped you decide to become a teacher, please go here to add your name to the list.
BH: So, what’s a poet make?
TM: I make people think, and laugh. I make people furious. I make people change their minds about poetry! But seriously, the travesty is that I earn considerably more as a poet than I ever did as a teacher. In fact, I probably make more than ANY high school teacher makes today, even [those] with a PhD and 40 years of experience in the richest suburb in the country.
Word X Word Festival 2011
August 13 - 20
Downtown Pittsfield, MA
Festival Highlights
Block Party Sunday, August 14 @ 3-8 p.m., Palace Park, North Street. Free
Kick-Off Show Sunday, August 14 @ 8 p.m., CompuWorks Loft, 1 Fenn Street. $30
World premiere staged reading of Mrs. Lincoln’s Séance, a new play by Mark St. Germain, Monday, August 15 @ 7 p.m., Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street. Free
Reading & exhibition by artist, critic, and former slam poet Carol Diehl, Thursday, August 18 @ 7 p.m., Berkshire Museum, 39 South Street. Free
Beauty in Decay DISH + DINE dinner and discussion about contemporary photography, Friday, August 19 @ 6:30 p.m., Ferrin Gallery, 433 North Street. $100
Poetry Slam Finals, Saturday, August 20 @ 6 p.m., Shawn’s Barber Shop, 442 North Street. Free
Festival Finale, Saturday, August 20 @ The Colonial Theatre, 111 South Street. $15 - $30

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Posted by Bess Hochstein on 08/08/11 at 11:56 AM • Permalink