'Respect the Mic' celebrates 20 years of a high school's spoken word poetry Poets Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi, Dan "Sully" Sullivan, and club founder Peter Kahn have curated a new anthology celebrating the legacy of a Chicago-area high school's spoken word club.

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

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For 20 years, a high school spoken word club in Chicago has created space for students to engage in storytelling. Many have gone on to become award-winning poets, scholars and even national youth poet laureates. Now a new anthology is showcasing some of that talent. NPR's Jeevika Verma has more.

JEEVIKA VERMA, BYLINE: When Peter Kahn became an English teacher at Chicago's Oak Park and River Forest High School, he was terrified of teaching poetry.

PETER KAHN: Poetry was my least-favorite subject as a student and my least-favorite subject to teach as a teacher. I was terrible at it.

VERMA: So he asked a former student of his for help.

KAHN: And he talked about the idea of a poetry slam.

VERMA: It's a competition in which poets perform spoken-word poetry before a live audience.

KAHN: And the student with the lowest grade in my class ended up winning it. And I realized this is something powerful.

VERMA: It was 1999, and Kahn created an after-school spoken-word club at Oak Park.

KAHN: Very good. Snap if you agree with that assessment.


KAHN: Most definitely, yeah. What would you like to add?

VERMA: That's Kahn teaching a class earlier this month. A new anthology features some of the club's students and alumni.

ANANDITA VIDYARTHI: (Reading) There are three things we never talk 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. Mama taught me taboos are for brown women who have trouble conceiving and are faking being ashamed of that.

VERMA: That's Anandita Vidyarthi with a poem called "Bi, Bi Brown Girl." It's part of the anthology "Respect The Mic."

DAN SULLIVAN: 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.

VERMA: Dan Sullivan - people call him Sully - is one of the four editors of the anthology. He went from planning to drop out of school on his 17th birthday to starring in the club the year it was created.

SULLIVAN: My friends and I would have these freestyle ciphers in the hallways and things. But I was often not engaged in the classroom. And I think that what the club really did was bridge the gap between the classroom and the students' lived experience. And for me, it was that missing piece.

VERMA: Hanif Abdurraqib also edited the book. He came up in the world of slam poetry, and he says it's a tool especially suited for younger poets. He recalls some of the poems in the anthology's first section called Notes From Here.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: What was great about a lot of these poems for me were the ones that dealt with geography.

VERMA: Kara Jackson wrote about her experience traveling to Europe as a Black American in a poem called "Portrait Of Venice With A Side Of Pasta."

KARA JACKSON: (Reading) On the water, a tour guide talks about the boats but not who built them. I sneak out of the tour line to share a seat on the rocks with a Dominican boy who is quiet but knows who built them, too. Back on board, he and I have the audacity to share legroom. At home in America, my auntie is afraid of water. She cooks pasta in her own fear, runs a bath with her own history.

VERMA: Abdurraqib says the anthology can take this power of poetry and move it beyond the Oak Park classroom.

ABDURRAQIB: My hope is that it's a book that can serve as both an inspirational tool and a model for schools and poetry programs everywhere.

VERMA: And ultimately, the club's creator Peter Kahn thinks the book will help teachers like him, who were once afraid of poetry, to get not just themselves but their students excited about it.

Jeevika Verma, NPR News.


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