Poetry in Perilous Times: Peter Kahn & The Gravity of Young Voices

Teenagers in Chicago are in the unfortunate position of both being neglected and in the crosshairs of two of the most notorious issues to have shaped our city in recent years: gun violence and the defunding of public education.

But twenty years ago, school social worker Peter Kahn saw power in poetry and started a spoken word program at Oak Park/River Forest High School. Today, the largest program of its kind, Kahn’s spoken word club played a major role in reshaping the landscape of Chicago youth culture to be one that celebrates written and performed self-expression—a decision that is arguably saving futures, if not lives, of young people in this city.

Peter Kahn became my mentor when I applied and was accepted into his innovative program in Spoken Word Pedagogy at Concordia University. What I expected was to receive a “toolkit” of strategies for teaching in the classroom, and hopefully network my way into being a fulltime teaching artist. I did not expect to receive a poetry education that eclipsed what I gleaned from my four years majoring in poetry at Columbia College, nor did I expect to discover—and benefit from—the healing qualities of spoken word.

Our education focused heavily on social emotional learning: the inner health of individuals as it benefits from the health of a community. As it turns out, spoken word poetry has immense health benefits, can help to resolve PTSD, and can drastically improve grades.

In this interview, I wanted to ask Kahn about how he has shaped the landscape of Chicago poetry. He said it’s an overstatement. I say he’s way too modest. (A guest speaker in a classroom once said, “Peter’s the type of guy who will get you all jobs, and then say ‘Thank you for me getting you a job.’”) Although he won’t admit it in his answers, there is not a single performance poet living and working in Chicago who hasn’t been impacted by his innovation in spoken word and arts education. More significantly, Kahn has positively intervened in the lives of students who may have slipped through the cracks without poetry—some of the people he’s affected may surprise you.

You have an impressive and quite unique career as a poet and arts educator, but you got your start in social work and education. Can you talk about how you first got into poetry, and what inspired you to start a high school spoken word program?

When I was a social worker, 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). Glenda Zahra Baker and Emily Hooper Lansana (and Quraysh) worked with my kids at Neon Street Center for Youth and did absolutely transformative work.

I used to hate poetry and hate teaching it. The short story is that in about 1997, I brought a former student in to help me—Jonathan Vaughan—and he mentioned poetry slam. My students were interested and we staged a poetry slam in my sophomore English classes. The kid with the lowest grade in either class won his class slam and the light bulb went on for me in terms of the educational power of this tool. Two years later—1999—I started our Spoken Word Club.

In terms of my own writing—I joined Malika’s Kitchen in London, England in August of 2001. It was founded by two of the most community-minded people I’ve ever met—Roger Robinson and Malika Booker. They taught me about the craft of writing poetry and that is when I became a “poet,” not just someone who gets kids to write poetry.

You’ve been active in Chicago poetry for almost as long as I’ve been alive. In fact, many people would consider you integral in making Chicago poetry what it is today. So I want to know, what’s changed about Chicago? What’s stayed the same?

I think that’s quite an overstatement, but thanks. Chicago’s poetry scene has become much more nuanced over the years. It seems like there’s more consistently good writing. I think this is attributable to the influence of Kevin Coval and Young Chicago Authors/Louder Than a Bomb, as well as Dan Sullivan, JW Basillo, Avery R. Young, Krista Franklin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Marty McConnell and other 30-something writers who have demanded a certain standard of writing. I think the sense of community has always been present and the energy that Marc Smith brings to the area remains present.

So you started the spoken word program at Oak Park/River Forest High School, which is the largest in the world. Over the years, it’s played a crucial role in the now sprawling youth slam poetry scene in Chicago, as well as producing many young poets. Tell me about some of the recent graduates of your program and where their promising careers are going.

There are too many to possibly cite, so I’ll just focus on several. I’ll start with the aforementioned 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 for years he helped 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 eventually earned his J.D. from Northwestern University’s Law School.

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 then became a full-time high school English teacher in Boston before moving to New York to pursue stand up comedy, as well as teach poetry for Urban Word and Community Word.

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 double BA’s from Smith College and is attending Columbia University in NY for a pre-med, post-bac program.

A few years ago, you moved to London to work with young poets. What inspired you to make that move, and what did you accomplish during your time there?

I took a sabbatical for the 2001-2002 school year to see if Spoken Word poetry could impact students in the lowest-performing schools in London. I wanted a challenge and wanted a change of scenery. I worked with thousands of students, ages 9-16 in over 25 different schools. I ended up taking a LOA for 2002-2003 to create the London Teenage Poetry Slam, modeled, in part, after Louder Than a Bomb. It ran for seven years and led to the highest scoring team coming to Chicago for a week.

To say that education in the Chicagoland area (particularly in Chicago Public Schools) has been tumultuous would be a massive understatement. Neighborhood schools have been closed, budgets have been slashed, and teachers have been suffering in these circumstances. Despite the tough times, you’ve successfully started a pedagogy program to certify spoken word educators. Why is it important to teach poetry specifically, in the midst of all the opposition?

Students need to know their stories, their voices matter to adults and to each other. It is most imperative in times like these. Research on Expressive Writing points to the emotional and physical benefits of writing personal narratives. Teaching the craft of poetry writing and performance develops a variety of “transferable skills,” from written literacy, oral literacy, analytical skills and social-emotional literacy. It also builds self-confidence and academic engagement, thus building hope and academic investment.

In addition to being a prolific and influential educator, you’re an accomplished artist in your own right. It’s one of the qualities I admire most about you—that you didn’t just decide you were going to teach poetry, but that you’d become a poet yourself. What has that journey been like? Who’s helped you along the way?

I would say “accomplished” is a vast overstatement, but thanks for the compliment. As I wrote in an earlier question, Malika’s Kitchen/Roger Robinson and Malika Booker has had the biggest influence on the development of my own craft as a writer (and a teacher of writing). I’ve been fortunate to be able to bring in visiting poets to Oak Park/River Forest High School for an annual Master Writing Workshop. These poets include Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amaud Jamal Johnson, Roger Robinson, Tyehimba Jess, A Van Jordan, Terrance Hayes, Kwame Dawes and Adrian Matejka. Along with the students, I learned a lot from each guest. I’ve also been able to study with Quincy Troupe, Afaa Michael Weaver, Terrance Hayes and Mark Doty in different 4-12 day writing residencies. Their instruction and insights have been invaluable to my growth as a writer/editor. The journey itself has been both intimidating and exciting. It has allowed me to feel confident about the writing feedback I provide my high school and graduate students, but it has also exposed how much there is that I don’t know about poetry in comparison to the true masters, like the aforementioned.

I’m very excited about The Golden Shovel Anthology, a project that’s a long time in the making. For our viewers at home, can you explain the concept of the anthology, and what to expect when it comes out?

The full working title is “The Golden Shovel Anthology: Honoring the Continuing Legacy and Influence of Gwendolyn Brooks.” The aim is to reach/inspire/educate students and fledgling writers. Like Afaa Michael Weaver’s BOP form, “The Golden Shovel” is a form that encourages one to borrow in order to create. It will place student writing with that of established writers, an honor which will motivate students to continue forward with their craft. It will celebrate Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks’ continued influence, new work by established poets and a generation of new and emerging writers and serve as an educational tool, as well as have literary value as we tackle a new form to expand the canon.

It includes new work from over 300 poets ranging from high school students, to college students, to emerging poets, to established ones, including National Poet Laureates, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Ruth Lily Prize, Frost Medal Award, Wallace Stevens Award, Kingsley Tufts Prize, Lenore Marshall Prize, National Poetry Slam, Women of the World Poetry Slam, National Book Critics Circle, Griffin International Prize, T.S. Eliot Prize, Forward Prize and National Poetry Prize (UK), including Philip Levine, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Andrew Motion, Marilyn Nelson, Billy Collins, Philip Schultz, Jean Valentine, Mark Doty, Richard Powers, John Burnside, Sinead Morrissey and Linda Pastan.

Thank you so much for answering my questions! To close off, let us know how we can get involved with what you’re doing.

Thank you for your interest! The best way to reach me is via email: mrpkahn@hotmail.com. For further information about the Concordia Spoken Word Education seminar, you may click here for some slightly dated information.

pete kPETER KAHN is a founding member of the London poetry collective, Malika’s Kitchen. His poems have been published internationally in various journals including the Bellingham Review, The Roanoke Review, Lumina, Make and The Fourth River. He is a commended poet in the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition (UK) and was a finalist in the Fugue Poetry Contest, among other competitions. He is the co-editor of the Golden Shovel Anthology honoring Gwendolyn Brooks. A high school teacher since 1994, Peter was a Featured Speaker at the National Council for the Teachers of English annual convention. Read his original poem, “Something About…”


Stephanie Lane Sutton // Poet-in-Residence




STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit.  She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013.  This article is part of her June residency for Chicago Literati. Read more about her project here