‘Spoken Word has ruined me,” said Morgan Varnado, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He can’t even tell his parents that he’s going to the store without descriptives filling his head with “slightly nighttime” passing by the one tree that “crooks this way.”
The Oak Park and River Forest High School senior and 49 of his fellow Spoken Word Club members put on their Winter showcase last Thursday in the packed Little Theater.
Now the work intensifies as the team of eight prepare to compete at Louder than a Bomb (LTAB), starting Feb. 23. Team OPRF finished second at this Chicago-based poetry slam in 2018, with more than 120 teams competing.
Four OPRF team members will compete at LTAB for the first time. Four have competed previously, including Morgan, a senior, who has attended since freshman year. Each team member prepares individual poems and they combine on two group pieces. “As Seen on TV” and “A List of Things to Call God” (working title) were previewed at the showcase.
Poems performed at the showcase by other club members included pieces on depression, grades, social media, hoping friends make it home, parental abandonment, the Grammar Police, social anxiety, parental drinking and meals brought during one mother’s chemo.
“I feel like there’s this generalization that teenagers don’t have a lot to say, or if we do, we’re not educated on the subject,” said Corina Robinson, OPRF senior, who is on the LTAB team. “But there’s definitely a whole mess of stuff that goes on in every teenager’s brain. I think poetry is a way to untangle that mess … and it’s important and valid.”
She said a Spoken Word poem brought her closer to her mom. Corina is biracial and found it difficult to express how it affects her at school and elsewhere.
“With poetry, that suddenly becomes very easy,” she said. “Having my mom sit in the audience while I perform that piece, it builds this bond, and that conversation happens without conventional face-to-face.”
The LTAB team is still honing their individual works for the Feb. 23 prelims. While Corina considers a piece on taxing feminine hygiene products or a poem on medical history not defining a family, Morgan has four he’s working on, but is leaning toward one about his grandmother, who attends his performances. The group gives input to help each poet decide.
The team pieces are collaborative from the start — each group of four works together. “As Seen on TV” talks of White Entertainment Television and the mainstream message that people of color on mostly white TV shows are “a facade.” Onstage, the young poets become automatons that run out of power as they deliver their lines then are restarted by their reciting teammates.
“We wrote through a bunch of things that would be a shared experience among the four of us,” said Nicholas Berry, OPRF senior. “And we also considered, we are all people of color, which usually doesn’t happen on slam team … so we were considering how to take advantage of that.”
Spoken Word has affected these students — all three have been in the club since freshman year — in different ways.
“I’m a lot more vocal — I feel like I can help people,” said Nicholas. “In Spoken Word it’s required of you to come up with ideas for the good of the group because, you never know, something you’re thinking may build up everyone else, or give them an idea.”
“You are put in an intimate scenario with other people’s experiences,” Morgan said. “It feels like people are confiding in you, saying poems with all this personal stuff. … That inclusivity soaked into me and changed me as a person and how I view other people and other people’s experiences and the human experience in general.”
Coaching and supporting the team is OPRF teacher Peter Kahn, who started Spoken Word at the school 20 years ago, and Christian Robinson, assistant Spoken Word teacher, who is an OPRF Spoken Word alumnus and Corina’s brother. The club meets August through May and has as many as 100 students participating through the school year.