Poet and Spoken Word Club founder Peter Kahn, A89, empowers students and teachers using the written—and spoken—word
It’s a hard thing for a teacher to hear that his student plans to drop out of high school on his seventeenth birthday.
“He didn’t see the purpose in it. He didn’t enjoy it. He was getting the lowest grades in my class, and failing most of his other classes,” said Peter Kahn, A89, of Dan “Sully” Sullivan. Sullivan was a junior in Kahn’s American literature class at Oak Park River Forest School in Chicago in 1999.
Kahn didn’t try to talk his student out of quitting school. Instead, he used poetry as a motivator to keep Sullivan engaged and then started the Spoken Word Club the following year, an after-school gathering where students write poems and read them out loud. Sullivan went on to become Kahn’s star student, earn a double master’s degree including a creative writing MFA from Indiana University, and write a book of poetry that is forthcoming from Haymarket Press.
Along with renowned poets Hanif Abdurraqib and Franny Choi, Sullivan is also Kahn’s co-editor on Respect The Mic: Celebrating 20 years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School (Penguin, February 2022), an anthology of poems by Spoken Word students and alumni, almost half of whom were still in school when they penned their entries. Some of the collection’s 76 poems have been published in prestigious publications such as Poetry Magazine and the Academy of American Poets’ Teach This Poem series, and its poets include two National Youth Poet Laureates and a National Student Poet.
“It’s both a celebration of our club, and a memorialization of the talent that has come through this school,” Kahn said. “We want it to be a game-changer for teachers around the world who are resistant to teaching poetry because they had poor experiences with it in high school, and a way to inspire other schools, teachers, and students to embrace this model and reap the benefits.”
Besides Respect the Mic, Kahn has co-edited The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn, and released his own poetry collection, Little Kings. He spoke with Tufts Now about teaching, poetry, and his hopes for the Spoken Word Club as he bids farewell to Oak Park.
Tufts Now: How did you get started as a poet?
Peter Kahn: I started writing bad poetry in a creative writing class with Eileen Pollock my senior year at Tufts. Then when I moved to London and joined a nascent writing collective called Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, which became this huge fertile ground for some of the best writers in the United Kingdom, I developed in the craft of writing and became a true poet.
I don’t tend to write in solitude—it’s only if I’m around other people who are writing and I’m given a prompt that something clicks in my head and I can start. If not for my friends at Malika’s Kitchen and being a role model for my students, I wouldn’t write another poem.
I much prefer reading a novel over a book of poetry, but I lack the patience to work on something that requires through-lines and character development—I’m much better at writing short bursts and connecting them.
Tell us about your book, Little Kings.
Little Kings is a collection of personal narrative poems that intersect, with reoccurring places, characters, and plotlines. Chicago and London are locations throughout, along with Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. And I included my grandparents on both sides, who were central to my childhood and role models for who I am today, as well as an across-the-street neighbor who was a real bully.
It was exciting and rewarding to share my poems about family while my parents were able to listen in and hear about their own parents, and to keep the family name going on.
What drives you as a teacher?
My teaching career started with a job readiness workshop and GED program for high school dropouts called Jobs For Youth-Chicago at age 22. I found it invigorating. As a teacher, you have so many opportunities every day to impact people and change the course of their lives. I felt an excitement like wow, I can actually do something that betters society.
I think it’s apparent to young people pretty early on that I care about their success and their voice. If I encounter resistance, I see it as a fun challenge, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the kid who curses on the first day, “I don’t want to do this bleeping poetry,” by the end of the week will end up a champ in the class slam, and will ask about joining Spoken Word Club. I wear them down through my persistence, and I try to push them without embarrassing them.
Even those people who didn’t do well in my class or didn’t seem to like poetry often reach out years after I taught them, and share memories of something I said or a time I pulled them aside and asked if they were doing OK. Those things resonate even more than you can imagine in the moment.
"Writing poetry is free therapy. It helps students deal with things and share their thoughts with the wider world. It’s healthy for them, and it can be for everyone."
Why did you create Spoken Word Club?
When I started to center my teaching on students’ voices instead of dead white writers, and to get them writing and sharing their own poems, I discovered how transformative it could be. I started Spoken Word Club as a result of what I saw in my own classrooms, and as a way to develop and promote student voices—particularly those of our students of color, who traditionally were not being heard as they should.
How does it work?
My alumni assistant and I go into all the freshman and sophomore English classes and do poetry units, and at the end of the week students get up and share one poem they wrote during the unit. Often there’s a great deal of resistance. They’re afraid of public speaking and being vulnerable. But inevitably students open up, and their classmates and teachers discover things about them, and connect with them in new ways. And they’re all able to be more supportive of each other as a result.
I think it becomes contagious in a good way when someone makes themselves vulnerable, or uses incredible language. It inspires others to go ahead and take a chance, because generally the reward is a lot of empathy and understanding in the room. Those are two really important things, particularly for teenagers.
What advice do you give students new to writing poetry and reading it aloud?
I often say to think about the story they want to tell in that moment. Everybody has one, and a poem is a quick, accessible way of sharing it. After you get it down, then you can add in the metaphors and similes to turn it from a pure narrative into a narrative poem, delete that adjective by amping up that verb, switch those two stanzas, etc.
On the reading side, we talk about the idea of sincere enthusiasm. Some people are naturally charismatic, but shy introverts like me have got to amp it up, to bring that “umph” that will engage the audience. You have to bring energy to get energy—that’s what I do when I’m teaching. But I don’t want you to go up there like Denzel Washington or Meryl Streep, because you’ll come off as insincere. You need to be true to yourself.
Writing poetry is free therapy. It helps students deal with things and share their thoughts with the wider world. It’s healthy for them, and it can be for everyone. All you need is pen and paper or a computer.
Can you talk about one particular poem in Respect the Mic that has stuck with you?
There’s an Oak Park alum named Asia Calcagno who was a freshman in my colleague’s class. She didn’t think much of school, she was having issues at home, and she was just going through the motions. Then she won her in-class poetry slam, joined Spoken Word Club, and never looked back. She got a Posse Foundation scholarship to Connecticut College where she studied English, and from there went on to get an MFA in creative writing from Bennington.
Her poem is called “Passport Security Questions: Ask Me the Right Questions to Know I Am Always Afraid.” It’s an intriguing title and it’s gorgeously written. She starts with typical questions, and by the end is asking more bizarre questions, and through her answers we’re learning more about her life. I’ve used it in the classroom and in different workshops, and I love it as a teaching tool because it elicits really interesting writing.
What’s next for you and for Spoken Word Club?
I’m moving to Columbus, Ohio, to pilot the Oak Park model of bringing poetry into the school day with an organization called the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio. There will also be an after-school program, workshops, and events where students will be onstage with a local poet.
It’s bittersweet. I’m not fleeing because I’m burning out—I love my job. But I promised myself at 50 that when I turned 55, I would do something different. This way I get to go out on top, and hopefully hand the program over to an alumnus who will keep it growing and add their own ideas.
Alumni always come back to help younger students when we get ready for a showcase, and at our recent reading at the Poetry Foundation, we had 19-year-olds reading alongside 40-year-olds. It was incredible to see those generations all together on that stage—it really symbolizes the beauty, longevity, and intergenerational nature of our community. I hope in 10 years, an all-new group of writers can be published and celebrated, and can inspire future writers.