Taylor Mali: An Interview

In this email interview, the poet talks about inventing Metaphor Dice, writing, performing, and teaching.

My review of Metaphor Dice

I approached Taylor Mali earlier this month about doing an email interview because I’ve been a fan of his writing and performing for some time now. I sent some questions. He answered them and told me about Metaphor Dice (which I played with here), at which time I sent more questions. And get this: he answered them as well. As the Metaphor Dice’s second pack, The Erudition Edition, kicks off its Kickstarter campaign, and because March 28 is Taylor Mali’s birthday, check out this email interview.

What I Wrote To Taylor Mali Before the Interview

Mr. Mali,

First of all, I have to disclose that I am a big fan. I was an adjunct instructor at a community college when I first saw “What Teachers Make” on YouTube. I was an instant fan. It’s part of the reason I have spent a decade as a classroom instructor, in one form or another. Other poems/performances I like: “The The Impotence of Proofreading,” “How Falling In Love Is Like Owning A Dog,” “I’ll Fight You For The Library,” “Like You Know,” and the list goes on. The one that brought me to tears was “Depression, Too, Is A Type Of Fire.” I used to make college freshmen watch “The The Impotence of Proofreading” before peer review workshops. Anyway, I recently started a writing-centric blog called WriteAlready.com, where I talk about writing, showcase some of my writing, others’ writing, and talk about teaching writing, among other things. If you are down with this email interview, I would be eternally grateful. Check out the questions, and let me know what’s up. 

To The Questions, We Go!

I’m starting with the second set of questions I sent (see above to see what I mean).

What on earth made you conjure up an amazing idea like Metaphor Dice?

I think I’ve embellished the origin story of Metaphor Dice somewhat in the retelling of it (such is the danger of being a poet), but it really does come from decades of teaching poetry workshops to kids who don’t really want to be there and have no idea what to write about. There also definitely was a specific moment in which I told a self-identified “math/science” student that “a metaphor is an equation between two words,” and she perked up because I was speaking her language. However, even though I have played around with chance and randomness in the creative writing process, often telling students to pick, for example, “one word from column A and one word from column B,” I don’t think I ever actually said that a good way to conquer writer’s block is to “write backwards, by generating a lot of metaphors first, and then seeing if any of them speak to you.” Nevertheless, that was the genesis: to invent a product that could quickly generate a lot of metaphors (almost 14,000!) really fast.

Red, white, and blue? What about blue, white, and red?

I chose red, white, and blue as the colors for the Concepts, Adjectives, and Objects so that one could—well, Americans at least—have a quick reminder of how to order the metaphor once you’ve rolled it: My father [is a] broken mirror. However, if you prefer to sound more poetique, you can change the order around a bit. One of my favorites is white, blue, red: [the] broken mirror [of] my father.

How do you envision people using these little incredible cubes? Surely you don’t want people just to buy them as a novelty, right?

I spent months working on the directions, but Oliver Wellington (my business partner and a former student!) always asks me, “How do you WIN? Don’t you think we’d sell more dice if there was a way to win?!” So to answer your question, I want folks to use the dice as an INVITATION to careful reflection in writing, not as a SUBSTITUTION for it. The dice definitely help with the writing process, but they don’t do the hardest work; that still needs to be done by the writer. Folks post photos of specific rolls on social media all the time using the hashtag #MetaphorDice and say, “Look what I did! My father is a broken mirror! Isn’t that great?” But the great part is the part that comes NEXT. How is your father a broken mirror? Has he, too, been shattered? Is he therefore hard to handle, maybe even jagged and dangerous? Which is to say, can your father draw blood without you even realizing it? Can you see yourself in even the smallest pieces? Metaphor Dice are a crutch, but the purpose of a crutch is to help you heal. Or to make things a little easier. The crutch, by itself, is no substitute for the work it helps you do.

“There’s an app for that.” Have you thought about the Metaphor Dice app? Could be a thing.

Not only have I thought about an app for Metaphor Dice, it almost WAS an app before it was ever a physical product! In the end, I was too in love with the tangible aspect to develop the app part of it first. But we are now almost ready to release the beta version of an app that has been developed by a talented group of students in Colorado. Imagine three dice that look like they have six sides but could actually return one of 100 different words each?! That’s one million possible unique metaphors! Follow us on Twitter @MetaphorDice if you want to be among the first to find out when the app is available.

The words on the dice are fantastic. Why those words?

I chose the words for the original set after months and months of trial and error. My business partner Oliver isn’t interested in talking about words (which is fine, because I’m not interested in talking about tax ramifications) so I would talk to all my poet friends and get suggestions. In particular, my good friend Jared Singer was instrumental in getting me to realize that the best words are both flexible and resonant. So two of my favorite words, eldritch and riparian, just could not be included because they are neither flexible nor resonant! They would have made terrible choices! However, mad, gentle, bright, curse, kiss, and trophy? Those work!

Kickstart the heck out of the expansion pack. What do you want the millions of 25 people who read this to know?

The first expansion pack is called The Erudite Expansion (although I’m thinking a better title might be The Erudition Edition) and the crowd funding campaign for it is active NOW. The concept remains the same, but words are going to be a little more challenging. This set is going to be every English teacher’s dream! We are trying to raise enough money to make the cost of each individual set less (closer to $12 instead of $20 for the starter set). By all means, go to the campaign and pre-order a set or two for yourself!

You’ve called teaching “the most important job there is.” Why do you classify it as such?

I can’t believe we live in a day and age in which I have to really make this case. But perhaps it’s not as obvious to the rest of the world as it is to those of us in education. And maybe we are to blame for that. But look, caregivers of all kinds are devalued in our society. The closer you work with those who need help, the less you are respected or paid. Whereas the closer you work to the money, the more of it you can convince the world you deserve to take home at the end of the day. Is teaching the “most important job there is”? Now that I’m a parent, my answer is “Almost!” Because parenting isn’t considered a job, is it? Raising and caring for a healthy, kind, curious, and happy child is likely the most important thing anyone will ever do, but you don’t get paid for that, do you? Teachers are often blamed for the failings of parents, and I can understand why: because you’re the second-most important caregiver in a child’s life (and perhaps the first one to get paid). When you teach, you literally get to look into the eyes of the future every day.

Seen any good movies lately?

Taylor Sheridan’s 2017 “Wind River” was brutal and brilliant. It has one of the best gunfights I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the sheer prowess of storytelling on display is amazing.

What else do you want writing-lovers to know about you, or about poetry, or performing, or fatherhood, or dice, or … anything?

As an advocate for quality education, I suggest that the best way for the average person to support teachers is to go visit a classroom and read a book to the students. I’ve done it a couple of times to my son’s pre-school class, and the teachers love the break, and the kids love the fresh take. Or just sit in on a class and see what it’s really like to be a teacher these days. And if you don’t want to do either of those two things, then the best way for you to support teachers is by keeping your mouth shut and listening to others whose opinions are informed by the data gathered during their own experiences in the classroom. The last thing teachers need right now are more ill-informed opinions bolstered by “feel-facts.”

Here is the first set of questions I sent

I can tell from your poetry and your biography that you love teaching, but you also left the classroom. Why did you decide to leave the classroom?

There are several answers to the question “Why did you leave the classroom when you so obviously loved teaching?” and although they conflict with each other, a part of me believes each answer, depending on how I feel at any given moment. Below are some of those answers, and I’ll leave it to you to infer the real answer (if you think there is one): Because I’m an idiot, and I have regretted leaving the classroom every day since! Because I’m lazy, and being a poet is a lot easier than being a teacher! Because the stars were aligned, and it seemed like the right time to see if I could make a living as an artist, and I just HAD TO TRY IT, and it has worked out well for me. Just because I’ve left the classroom doesn’t mean I’ve stopped teaching; I still get to teach, just in a different way. I left the classroom reluctantly and since then have always considered teaching to be an awesome Plan B. It’s like when you meet the love of your life, but you’re not actually single, and neither are they. No matter what you do, there’s going to be some heartbreak. Poetry is the love of my life. Teaching loves me in an even deeper way, enough to let me go (and maybe even take me back if things don’t work out). I think you see where I’m going here: I am Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink,” Andrew McCarthy is poetry, and teaching is my Duckie. And yes, I’m 54 years old. How on earth could you tell?

You are a great performer. Do you write poetry to perform? What is it about the combination of poetry and performance that attracts you?

It is the combination of poetry and performance that made me fall in love with the art form of the poetry slam. If you allow five randomly selected tipsy strangers in a bar to be the night’s temporary arbiters of what is a good poem and what is a bad poem, you better go into that competition with a thick skin and a couple poems that can meet people WHERE THEY ARE, and not make them feel bad about it. (Does that sound like teaching? It does to me, but I’ve never thought of it that way before). Do I write poems with the foreknowledge that they will be performed? Absolutely, and I call those poems “spoken word.” In fact, that’s virtually the entirety of my definition of spoken word: a poem written with the specific intent that it will be HEARD/SEEN before it is ever read. Lastly, performance for me is part of the editing process; the audience’s reaction, or lack thereof, guide me in my crafting of the next draft.

I haven’t read The Whetting Stone yet, but “Depression, Too, Is A Type Of Fire” is one of my favorite poems/performances on YouTube. Why did you decide to write about your wife’s suicide?

Because writing for me is also part of my healing process. I had to or else the guilt and sorrow and shame would have festered and metastasized.

Here’s the joke: How do you make a million dollars as a poet? You start with two million. In other words, it’s tough to make a living as a poet. But you seem successful. Can you give other writers out there a heads-up on what it’s like to be a professional writer/performer? Or maybe you call yourself something else? How do you make a living? Would you recommend it to others?

I have a pretty Darwinian sense of talent so I’m not always the best person to come to for a pep talk. Success comes to the driven and the talented and the persistent and the lucky and the bold and the brave and (strangely) those who are not worried about success! Give some folks a couple glasses of wine, and one of them is likely to profess “I could write a BOOK. I really COULD!” I try not to say anything when people say that because in my head I’m actually thinking, “Writers write. A lot of people COULD write a book, but luckily most of them won’t because if they SHOULD write a book they would already have done so.” That said, it’s a little disingenuous of me to be so sardonic because the truth is that I inherited an awesome safety net. I was never going to starve as a poet because of the forethought of my parents, grandparents, and beyond. What’s that old saying: “Our grandparents were businessmen and bankers so our parents could be doctors and lawyers so that we could be actors, poets, and painters.” Pretty much.

As a former teacher myself, I know there are some really shitty parts about the job, especially teaching in low-income areas. You are a teacher advocate and even went on a “Quest for One Thousand Teachers.” How do you convince people to become teachers, especially in today’s environment with teacher strikes making headlines and all?

Because despite it all, there is joy to be had in the classroom, and being a teacher is the most important job there is. We are in an interesting time. Things are changing. Teachers are telling the truth about how hard their jobs are. Attitudes are changing, and teachers are getting paid more (slowly, glacially). It’s getting better.

Long hair or short hair?

It’s been short since the night I reached my goal of convincing 1,000 folks to become teachers in April of 2012. That night I shipped my hair off to a place that makes wigs for kids undergoing chemo. I do not miss the long hair this time, but in the mid 90s, I cut my hair after grad school, and THAT ponytail I missed for years.

How can people find your stuff? What else do you want people to know about you?

Besides my website (taylormali.com), folks can waste several hours falling down the rabbit hole of watching my videos on YouTube! What I’m excited about now is a project called Metaphor Dice, a sort of game, writing tool, and prompt generator that I’ve been developing and is finally a real live thing out in the world available on Amazon and everything!

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