In International Focus, we talk to leading poetry practitioners from outside the UK about slam. Peter Kahn is co-founder of the London Teenage Poetry Slam and founding member of Malika’s Kitchen in Chicago. He has nearly twenty years experience working with young people as both a social worker and teacher. Based at Oak Park & River Forest High School in Chicago, he runs the largest school-based spoken word club in the world.
When did you first find out about spoken word, and what was your first impression?
I saw my friend Ron Myles (who changed his name to Quraysh Ali Lansana) perform at the Green Mill with his Spoken Word ensemble, The Funky Wordsmiths. It completely changed my perception of poetry (from inaccessible, dry and boring to lively and enjoyable).
Tell us something about yourself and your work nowadays?
I am the Spoken Word Poetry and Black Literature Educator, and Project Coordinator at a comprehensive high school in the Chicago area. I essentially teach poetry to over 1500 of our students each year through school-day residencies and slam projects. I also founded, and help run, the largest school-based Spoken Word Club in the world. We have a team that is usually competitive in Louder Than a Bomb, the largest teen slam in the world. We are featured in the award-winning documentary of the same name.
Give us about a highlight from your experience of using poetry/spoken word to work with young people?
There are too many to possibly cite, so I’ll just focus on several. I’ll start with Dan Sullivan – a world-renowned Spoken Word artist who was on the verge of dropping out of high school until we hooked him with poetry. I started our club in 1999 largely because of him and now he helps me run it. He also started a very successful Spoken Word night – Urban Sandbox – to reach 15-25 year old poets in the area.
Will Walden was a goofy, unfocused student in my sophomore English class. He joined Spoken Word Club and ended up writing a poetic personal statement that helped him get into the University of Illinois, in spite of less than stellar grades. He earned a B.A. in English, used Spoken Word Poetry to help young people in Chicago and is now finishing law school at one of the most prestigious programs in the country—Northwestern University.
Iman Shumpert – who was a first round draft pick by the New York Knicks in the NBA – has cited several times the impact of our Spoken Word program. He even said he’s a better basketball player because of his experience he gained in our club.
Langston Kerman – an introverted high school student, he quit the basketball team to focus on poetry. It helped him to get into the University of Michigan, where he earned a B.A. in English. He came back to work with me for a year before earning a full-ride to Boston University where he earned his M.F.A. in Poetry under the guidance of former National Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky and Louise Gluck. Langston’s now a full-time high school English teacher in Boston and does stand up comedy, as well as continuing to write poetry.
Nova Venerable – featured in the Louder Than a Bomb documentary, she won our all-Freshmen, all-Sophomore and all-Junior slams (beating out the aforementioned Iman Shumpert their Junior year). She was a three-time member of our slam team and was in all twelve of our Spoken Word Club showcases during her high school career. She was an angry, volatile young lady when she began high school and, as a result of her involvement with our program, ended up with several college scholarship offers by the time she graduated. She is about to earn a double BA from the prestigious Smith College and intends to go to medical school. She continues to write and perform poetry.
Just this week, I saw the transformational magic of poetry. I led a four-day unit for the Sophomore Slam. There were three students who were impacted in profound ways. According to her teacher, Shaneice was earning a failing grade and was regularly a discipline issue. She ended up being the co-champion of her in-class slam and apologized to her teacher for her disrespectful behavior. She was a pleasure to work with all week. Breanna was one of three freshmen (out of 750) who I was unable to convince to perform in the all-Freshmen Slam the previous year. This week, she bought into the process and ended up runner-up in her in-class. Her classmates were so excited to see her turn around and she said she now wants to join our club. Christina is a transfer student from a tough Chicago Public School. On the second day of working with her, she was one of a couple of student who hadn’t written their homework poem. She told me, “I don’t do poetry.” I was able to convince her otherwise and she ended up co-champion in her in-class slam and will be joining our club. Her teacher was amazed at her transformation.
Finally, several of my former students have gone on to start Spoken Word programs and/or slam teams at their universities, which makes me very proud.
What works about poetry slam as a tool to engage young people in poetry/spoken word?
We do a lot of successful programming—the bulk of it, actually—that is non-competitive. As much as I hate to say it, competition tends to breed excitement and excellence. Slam works for that reason.
What would you like to see happening in the future of youth poetry slam/spoken word internationally?
I would like university education programs to provide Spoken Word Education training and certification. I would then like every urban school in London, Chicago and New York (for starters) to have a full-time Spoken Word Educator to run school-day programs like I’ve been afforded the opportunity to do for the last eight+ years in Chicago. It would change the face of education by providing students with a voice and providing their teachers with new insights to help their students achieve their full potentials.