School's out for the day, but a large, boisterous bunch of kids are packed into a third-floor classroom at Oak Park and River Forest High School. If teenage energy could move concrete, the walls would be pulsing. It feels like chaos to adult eyes, but there's real work happening here.
The workâ€"and the artâ€"of making poetry.
Spoken word poetry, to be more precise: a kind of rhythmic, personal poetry, designed to be performed (as opposed to read) by the poet. It might be influenced by beat poets, rap or hip-hop, but it's an art form all its own.
"You speak but use natural rhythms, voice techniques," explains junior David Gilmer. No background music is allowedâ€"just the words, the poet (or poets, for a group piece), and the microphone.
Langston Kerman, senior, believes spoken word is "more expressive of self" than other poetry. "The best [poems] are personal. You have to show what's on your mind. If you don't feel it, no one else does."
"It's very radicalâ€"empowering the powerless," adds Gilmer. "It gives people who don't have a voice a way to show themselves. Take a spoon, cut your heart out of yourself and show yourself. That's completely radical."
"It's about presenting yourself in a way you normally wouldn't. More sincere, more accessible," says junior Ali Barthwell. "I want to be able to say things to people, about peopleâ€"abstract concepts I can't express directly to them."
These student poets belong to OPRF's Spoken Word Club, founded in 1999 by teacher Peter Kahn with just three members. It's grown steadily, around 90 kids now. About 50 of them are preparing for the May 5 Spring Showcase, the last of three shows the club will perform this year. That's why they've gathered on an April afternoon and why they'll be back many more afternoons until the show, working and rehearsing.
Even if the atmosphere appears loose, Kahn mixes serious discipline with friendly support. To be in the show, kids sign a contract promising, among other things, to "be open to working with a diverse set of people you don't know, be receptive to constructive criticism about your writing and performance," write and memorize on their own time, and maintain a C average or serve weekly "study table." And that's not taking into account the hours they spend searching for the right metaphor or the perfect, original line.
The competitive side of spoken word poetry is the poetry slam, where groups and individual poets perform head to head in front of an audience that's encouraged to hoot, holler and cheer. Five judges are picked at random from the spectators to score the poets; high and low scores are dropped.
Poetry slams started in Chicago in the 1980s. A teen poetry slam, Louder Than a Bomb, has been staged for five years by Young Chicago Authors, a nonprofit group that promotes literature and literacy.
Barthwell, Kerman and Gilmer, along with Josh Clark, Michelle Mbekeani and Gabby Worley, were chosen to compete on OPRF's Spoken Word Club team at Louder Than a Bomb in March. They joined more than 300 students in 40 teams from the city and suburbs who battled in preliminary rounds that led to the final slam at Lakeview's Metro nightclub. OPRF's team, one of eight to make it to the finals, took second place (missing first by less than a point). Kerman and Gilmer were two of the three highest scorers; as individual winners, they were named to the six-person Chicago team that competed at the national Brave New Voices poetry contest last weekend in San Francisco.
Just back from California on Monday, Kerman says the experience "was real good. It was amazing to hear the different stylesâ€"so much stuff we haven't touched on but could try out." Although the Chicago team didn't make the finals, they did perform on the final night, since one of their pieces was selected as one of the best at the slam.
A little history
It's Kahn who gets credit for bringing spoken word to OPRF. "Uncomfortable" with the way he'd been teaching poetry, he started experimenting with poetry slams in his English classes in the 1997-98 academic year. He'd been introduced to a precursor of performance poetry years earlier when, as a social worker, he'd seen it touch otherwise unreachable kids.
One of Kahn's first disciples was Oak Parker Dan Sullivan, a sophomore in Kahn's 1997 class. Participating in a slam hooked Sullivan right away.
"I decided poetry was what I want to do. I was a writer. I couldn't help it," he recalls. "It was a big turnaround for me, in my grades and my confidence."
Sullivan was one of the original Spoken Word Club founders and continues to come back to help coach the kids. "I came into myself as a person here; I'm giving back what I was given," he says. But, he emphasizes, it's more than that.
"Youth aren't given the opportunity to have a voice. It's really powerful to give them a platform, and it's rewarding and inspiring to be involved."
On what he calls "the 10-year undergraduate plan" at Columbia College, Sullivan has had considerable success as a poet: at age 20 he was the youngest winner ever of the Gwendolyn Brooks open mic competition, has appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, competes regularly in adult poetry slams, and runs the open mic poetry events at Chicago's Funky Buddha Lounge and other venues.
Kahn took the spoken word idea to London for two years from 2001 to 2003, teaching and performing poetry there. While he was gone, Sullivan and a small group of students held the Spoken Word Club together. But since Kahn's return to OPRF, he and Sullivan have combined forcesâ€"with "huge support from the [District 200 school] board and the administration," Kahn notesâ€"and the club has really taken off.
"Now it's an empire," says Sullivan, with a grin.
"In the beginning it was pretty rudimentary," Kahn chimes in. "But now these kids are polished and professional." In fact, a group of seven recently spent a day at the University of Illinois at Chicago explaining spoken word poetry to education students and professors.
What Kahn's most proud of, though, is the way club members support each other, even when they're preparing to compete.
"It's the sense of community," he says. "They put their hearts into it, and help each other. That means more than anything."
The May 5 Spoken Word Spring Showcase is open to the public. Doors to the Oak Park and River Forest Auditorium, 201 N. Scoville Ave., open at 6 p.m., and the show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $5.
By Langston Kerman
my mother taught me who I am,
Trapped under low notes of mid-week blues,
Whose song ended with a lay-off,
Mom still managed to Etcher Sketch smile
between freshly dried cheeks
so that tears and less toys
wouldn't ruin Christmas.
I was four,
Returned home from school,
Carrying a smile so wide
each end was strapped to a shoulder,
Skipping to the sounds of size-too-big boots
flopping on our one room apartment floor,
Singing, today's newest song,
I'm a Peach, I'm a Peach, I'm a Peach . . .
Hey Mom, I'm a Peach.
Waiting for a warm grin,
Or at least,
That nod parents give,
when they really don't give a damn,
Instead, her earth-colored hand
grabbed my arm,
Squeezing blood to fingertips,
She said, Boy you are not a Peach
I explained between sobs that,
Shawn said he's chocolate, and Daniel called Vanilla,
And they said I'm too light to be Caramel,
So they told me I could be a Peach.
She stared deep into cumulous eyes,
Told me she never wanted to hear that again.
I didn't understand why it made her so mad,
Thought she just didn't like peaches,
Maybe if I said banana or kiwi,
She'd hug me,
Be proud of me.
I couldn't understand the struggles
of having loved
a white man,
Society's black- sheep- shepherd,
Shearing blind passion from my father's cotton ball hide,
I wasn't there when family called him, Cracker,
Reduced love they shared,
To a snack food,
I wasn't there for public stares,
When my father's fingers wrapped around hers,
Turned stomachs like the squishy gold
goop painted across lunch tables.
My mother showed me who I am
A mix of soulful lips and squinty-eyed smiles,
Defined by more than hybrid skin,
Syrupy mush crammed into can of society's perception,
An afternoon snack,
My mother covered my ears to children's too-loud snickers
of how his parents don't match,
Like soulful lips and squinty eyes.
My mother built pride under
the sounds of mid-week blues,
So that her color pains,
Wouldn't become my own.