A. Van Jordan — the distinguished poet who has received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award and a Pushcart Prize among a rash of other honors and recognitions — sat listening to the poems of Oak Park and River Forest High School students one afternoon last week. 

He had assigned them the task of contemplating a particular fear of theirs, imagining a physical setting in which they would receive advice for handling that fear and crafting a scene of someone famous, living or dead, providing them with that advice. They had about 10 minutes to complete the exercise.

“Never show that city that you are suffering,” said senior Chelsea Dixon, reciting one of the last lines of her poem about the trepidation of going away to Brooklyn for college. 

She couldn’t think of anyone famous, so she chose her brother as the one giving the advice. Her fear, she said, was the high tuition, stacked atop the added costs of living in New York City. 

Jordan said the line was “beautiful,” repeated it, bathing in its defiance, before offering Dixon some pointers. Jordan, who holds an endowed professorship at Rutgers, has taught poetry to students at colleges across the country. But he keeps coming back to OPRF. 

Peter Khan, the OPRF English teacher who heads the school’s Spoken Word Club, said Jordan first came to the school to do a master’s writing workshop several years ago. 

“That went so well that we invited him back,” Kahn said. “He’s been back practically each year since then. The students love it.”

And the master writers who often come to Kahn’s classrooms each year — they include National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalists — love the students. Kahn recalled one writer, who teaches at a major university, once admitting that some OPRF students were as advanced as some of his graduate students. 

 Part of that observation may be owing less to those students’ technical ability and more to their emotional depth. The ability to mine the human experience is something that can’t always be taught, Jordan noted.

“As an artist, we always deal with craft, with form,” he said. “Those are the things we start with, but then you have to figure out what you want to say. You can learn those mechanics, but you have to take it beyond that and learn how to apply those mechanics to the human condition. Until you’re able to do that, you really can’t be a full-fledged artist.” 

Click here to read about the creative process behind Jordan’s award-winning Macnolia, a book of poems centered on the life of MacNolia Cox, the 13-year-old girl who was the first African American to reach the last round of the National Spelling Bee.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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