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A high school spoken-word club changed students' lives. Now, you can read their poems

Poets Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi, Dan "Sully" Sullivan, and the spoken word club's founder Peter Kahn curated the poems in the anthology.
Megan Leigh Barnard; Jasmine Durhal; Sullivan and Sullivan Studios; Bonnie Kahn
Poets Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi, Dan "Sully" Sullivan, and the spoken word club's founder Peter Kahn curated the poems in the anthology.

When Peter Kahn became an English teacher at the Chicago-area Oak Park and River Forest High School, he was terrified of teaching poetry.

"Poetry was my least favorite subject as a student, and my least favorite subject to teach as a teacher," he says. "I was terrible at it."

So he asked a former student of his for help, who suggested the idea of a poetry slam — a competition in which poets perform spoken word poetry before a live audience.

"The student with the lowest grade in my class ended up winning it," says Kahn. "And I realized this is something powerful."

That was 1999. Inspired by the club's potential to engage students, Kahn created an after-school spoken word club at the high school. And for over 20 years, the club has created space for students to engage in storytelling.

/ Penguin Workshop
Penguin Workshop

Many have gone on to become award-winning poets, scholars, or even National Youth Poet Laureates. Now a new anthology called Respect the Mic is showcasing a portion of that talent.

Here's an excerpt of a poem by a former student of the club, Anandita Vidyarthi, who is now a college student at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her poem is called "Bi, Bi Brown Girl" –

"There are three things we never talked about in my house:

my adoption, sex, and gay thoughts

We have more secrets than furniture

They lounge on the couch and sit with us for dinner"

The anthology features 76 such honest, powerful poems by the club's students and alumni, with a foreword by Pulitzer-prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess. Over the years, Kahn has invited distinguished poets like National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes and National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith to visit his classroom.

"'Respect the mic' was something we originally said in the club when people were talking in the audience, and it became a motto for the club," says Dan Sullivan, also known as Sully. He's one of four editors of the anthology.

Sully went from planning to drop out of school on his 17th birthday to starring in and helping set up the club in 1999.

"My friends and I would have these freestyle ciphers in the hallway and things [like that], but I was often not engaged in the classroom," he says, adding that the club bridged the gap between the classroom and the students' lived experience. "For me, it was that missing piece."

Here's an excerpt of Sully's poem, "& I Can Find A Home There, Too.", which is one of the poems in the anthology —

"Chicago was never mine. That doesn't mean I can't love it.

It does mean I can leave. It means there is another landscape

& I can find a home there, too."

Poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, who also edited the book, says he was drawn to poems like these that dealt with geography.

Indeed, the first of five sections in the book focuses on poems that celebrate this sense of place – it's called "Notes From Here." Poet Franny Choi, the anthology's fourth editor, came up with the themes for these sections, which also include one called "Coming Of Age" and another called "Monsters At Home."

Abdurraqib and Choi both came up in the world of slam poetry, and Abdurraqib says it's a tool especially suited for younger poets.

"There's a real sustainability and a closeness that helps build an archive and a lineage," he says. "And I think this book can be a testament to that and a great blueprint for schools everywhere."

For Kahn, the anthology and the club were all about helping students like Sully at the time who just didn't like school, as well as students of color – Black students in particular – who, Kahn writes in the book, faced an "opportunity gap" in classrooms. On average, they had a lower GPA than white students.

Consider this excerpt from the poem "Oak Park Mutters Statistics" by student Kyla Pereles, from the class of 2021 –

"In this chunk of non-city

the people are proud

of their diversity

Even as the achievement

gap at my high school

glares at them"

Ultimately, the editors hope the anthology will take this power of poetry and move it beyond the Oak Park classroom, so that teachers like Kahn, who were once afraid of poetry, will be able to get themselves – and their students – excited about it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.