Meet the Maestro of Page Meets Stage: Taylor Mali

by Kristina Bicher

Another obscure poetry venue, another huge payoff!  Running late (again) last December to Page Meets Stage, held this once at Rivington F+B on the lower east side, there was no visible address nor obvious entrance, just a few smokers on the sidewalk who seemed to be nodding me in toward a dark and very vacant bar.  But, aha: on the far side, light shone from the cracks between maroon velvet curtains covering a door opening. I had arrived.

Taylor Mali

The room was packed and buzzing, every seat taken to hear Ocean Vuong and Aziza Barnes. Taylor Mali, poet-preneur and founder of this reading series, tonight was scrambling for more chairs, squeezing them into aisles and up against the bar.  After a quick quip about fire exits, Mali took a spot in the sound booth while the night’s emcee, John Paul, got the evening rolling.

Aziza Barnes

But this is no ordinary poetry reading.  Billed as where “the Pulitzer Prize meets the Poetry Slam,” what most distinguishes this series is the overt inclusion of stage or performance poets.  When you put the two together, according to Mali, “funny things happen. Sometimes the slam poets don’t want to “overslam” and will read more literary works or the page poets might be encouraged to try new reading techniques.”  Some pairs have read each other’s work.  Once, the stage poet read the other’s poem backwards.

Instead of the usual sequential set-up (first one reads work in its entirety, then the other), the two poets alternate reading their poems, usually choosing pieces that respond in some way to what was just read which can be planned or spontaneous.  What results is an unexpected synergy that builds organically, poem by poem.  Much more than just conversation, the audience witnesses the making of some new thing that is temporally limited and can’t be re-created.  With Ocean and Aziza, the emotional stakes kept piling higher and the language striking deeper.  There were frequent gasps from the audience; the silences were charged.  It was thrilling.

Ocean Vuong

In January 2015, the series returned to its usual spot:  the DL Lounge at Delancey and Ludlow.  [N.B. climb the steps past the restaurant and through the gleaming stratum of seven massive crystal chandeliers to the second floor bar. Turn left.]  While I missed January’s match-up of Nick Flynn and Thomas Fucaloro, I was able to experience February’s “Stone Ranger” night (Bianca Stone and April Ranger, curated by Mahogany Browne).  The most recent reading featured Adrian Matejka and Quincy Troupe.  If sports analogies can be used for literature, I would say this is a dream team of poets.

Bianca Stone, April Ranger and Mahogany Browne (left to right)

Taylor Mali emerged from the poetry slam movement and was one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” Mali is a four-time National Poetry Slam champion and the author of four books, including “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World.”  In addition to poetry, he is passionately dedicated to the field of education and is a teacher himself.

The first poetry face-off to inspire the series was held in 2005 at Bowery Poetry featuring Mali and Billy Collins. Collins later raved about the energy of the audience and the well-known poet-impresario Bob Holman was an early fan, encouraging Mali to make it a regular happening. In the ten years since, there have been at least 70 pairings, of which Mali has organized 50.

For the first three years, it was named Page versus Stage, the premise being that “the promise of blood and competition would get the audience pumped up.”  But apparently, the page poets got a little gun-shy so the competitive angle was ditched in favor of a more collaborative approach.

Mali and his committee, Mahogany Browne, April Ranger and John Paul Davis, plan the events a year in advance and each person curates two events start to finish.  The list of past page poets is exhaustive but has included Carolyn Forche, Stephen Dobbyns, Galway Kinnell and Gerald Stern.  Last June, Marie Howe and Andrea Gibson read to a crowd of 300.

If you’re headed to Minneapolis for AWP this April, you can experience the 4th year of Page Meets Stage at this conference on April 9 at noon with Richard Blanco, Mahogany Browne, Bao Phi and Nicola Madzirov.

There are still more great match-ups remaining in the 2015 Series at the DL Lounge:

4/15: Jill Alexander Essbaum and Sean Patrick Mulroy

5/20: Sapphire and Franny Choi

6/12: Beau Sia and George Watsky

9/16: John Murillo and Danez Smith

10/21: Chris Abani and Mahogany L. Browne

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