This is the official blog of Northern Arizona slam poet Christopher Fox Graham. Begun in 2002, and transferred to blogspot in 2006, FoxTheBlog has recorded more than 670,000 hits since 2009. This blog cover's Graham's poetry, the Arizona poetry slam community and offers tips for slam poets from sources around the Internet. Read CFG's full biography here. Looking for just that one poem? You know the one ... click here to find it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Slam Tutorial: What do you believe? Declare it with a narrative

One of the 12 Olympians of Slam, Taylor Mali is known for many poems, not least of which is "What Teachers Make?"

"What Teachers Make?" is a great example of two slam poetry topics.

First, it is essentially a Declaration Poem -- about being a teacher -- wrapped in a loose narrative. Declaration poems espouse a value for a belief others may not have. A good slam poem can push your belief and make others see that value where they didn't before.

Second, ever wanted to say just the right thing to a jerk at a dinner party but it wasn't until you got home to say it? Known as an "espirit de l'escalier" or "spirit of the staircase," that witty one-liner, comeback, or diatribe comes only too late. However, your audience doesn't know that. With an "Espirit de l'escalier" slam poem, you can make it seem that not only did your response come instantly, you said it to the jerk's face in front of everyone. Now, you just need to repeat it the audience.

Essentially a revenge poem, the comeback can but full of humor, rage, and "putting the jerk (in this case, a lawyer) in his place."

Aside from the text of the poem itself, what makes this piece work so well is irritating traits Mali adds to his "foe:" he's a lawyer, he disregards the importance of teachers and, most obviously, he has an irritating laugh, which just adds to the reasons to hate the foe. Note that Mali uses this in both performed versions.

"What Teachers Make?" or "Objection Overruled," or "If things don't work out, you can always go to law school"
By Taylor Mali

He says the problem with teachers is, "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?"
He reminds the other dinner guests that it's true what they say about
Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the other dinner guests
that it's also true what they say about lawyers.

Because we're eating, after all, and this is polite company.

"I mean, you're a teacher, Taylor," he says.
"Be honest. What do you make?"

And I wish he hadn't done that
(asked me to be honest)
because, you see, I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won't I let you get a drink of water?
Because you're not thirsty, you're bored, that's why.

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
I hope I haven't called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today.
Billy said, "Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don't you?"
And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write, write, write.
And then I make them read.
I make them spell "definitely beautiful," "definitely beautiful," "definitely beautiful"
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math.
And hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you got this (brains)
then you follow this (heart)
and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make,
you give them this (the finger).

Let me break it down for you,
so you know what I say is true:
I make a goddamn difference! What about you?

As a slam poetry performer, Taylor Mali has been on seven National Poetry Slam teams; six appeared on the finals stage and four won the competition (1996 with Team Providence; 1997, 2000 and 2002 with Team NYC-Urbana).
Mali is the author of "What Learning Leaves," has recorded four CDs, and is included in various anthologies. He is perhaps best known for the poem "What Teachers Make."
He appeared in Taylor Mali & Friends Live at the Bowery Poetry Club and the documentaries "SlamNation" (1997) and "Slam Planet" (2006).
He was also in the HBO production, "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry," which won a Peabody Award in 2003. Mali is the former president of Poetry Slam Incorporated, and he has performed with former U.S. Poet Laurette Billy Collins and Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg. Although he retired from the National Poetry Slam competition in 2005, he still helps curate NYC-Urbana Poetry Series, held weekly at the Bowery Poetry Club.

No comments: