GROTON — Taylor Mali’s poetry is so popular at Lawrence Academy that it is banned at student poetry readings. It is too easy to perform, said English teacher Kahlid Bashir.
So instead, the school invited the New York-based performance poet to be the William Mees Visiting Scholar during the second week in February. For two days he met with groups of students for workshops, hung with faculty and students and gave a talk to the public.
Everyone was thrilled. As students entered the classroom with auditorium seating, Mali called out, “Front row. Front row.” His energy level was high.
“I brought this. Can you look at it?” a student said.
“No time,” he said, perched on a stool peering at the 20 or so teenagers. “You got a pen?” he asked.
“I like to work with as small a group as possible,” the poet said before the class arrived, “I’ve been making do a little.”
The former teacher and former president of Poetry Slam Inc., a nonprofit organization overseeing poetry slams, darted across the front of the room, repeating students’ names in order, modeling how to memorize something.
Befitting a veteran of competitive poetry reading, he was not fazed when a teacher discovered one student had given the wrong name. An immediate switch to the next topic on his agenda kept the energy buzzing.
The challenge for the students would be to write one long sentence about a life experience and divide the lines to create a poem. Using Anne Sexton’s “Young” as an example, the educator led the students through some of the elements of poetry.
A common question is “what do you think the poet is trying to say. Don’t let teachers ask you that,” he said, instead ask “what do you think she said in the first draft?” Using the opening line, “A thousand doors ago,” he traced its probable origin to a way of measuring time.
He had words of advice for poets, “Write this down. Do not brag in a poem.” After a pause he said, “Keep writing. Celebrate your humility. No, no, no. Even better than that, celebrate your humanity.”
He asked students to recall their earliest memory from childhood. “Early memories are good starting points for one-sentence poems,” Mali said. Poems have another requirement too. “They need to eloquent,” he said.
Poetry is a balance between the expected and the unexpected. A poem “needs to be something that happens and needs a surprise. You have to come to some realization,” he said. At the end, everything is okay. “It’s okay because we’re all going to die,” he said.
Mali kept moving, addressing the group from his perch on the stool or approaching students as they talked. Toward the end of the session, the students were assigned “four minutes of enforced creativity,” during which their challenge was to write a one-sentence poem beginning with “A thousand somethings ago,” the somethings to be determined by the poem’s topic.
He did not settle for long on his stool as the students wrote. As soon as the four minutes were up, he began looking over shoulders and quietly speaking to individuals before asking two to read out loud.
Mali, 47, was even more energetic during the first day of his residency, Bashir, 23, said. The poet was in the spotlight throughout the day, with scheduled classes and readings. Outside of that time, he had an adoring audience. At least 10 students sat with him at breakfast earlier in the day.
Even Bashir was basking in a bit of reflected glory. He and Mali are both alumni of Collegiate School in Manhattan, though from different years.