OPRF High School Spoken Word instructor Peter Kahn with his book "Little Kings."

When your “debut” collection comes out when you’re about to turn 53, people wonder, “what took you so long?” Fine wine, right? The first incarnation of Little Kings was assembled 12 or 13 years ago and the oldest poem in the book is close to 20 years old. The long road to publication can be summed up pretty simply: I’m a teacher first and a poet second. I love teaching and I write poetry to be a better teacher, not because I necessarily enjoy it or find it a calling. 

When I was on sabbatical from my position as an Oak Park and River Forest High School English teacher and Spoken Word educator and went to London, England, in 2001, I was invited to join Malika’s Poetry Kitchen — a writing collective that became instrumental in my teaching and writing practices and essentially became my second family. 

After a couple of years, we started challenging each other to publish our work. Co-founder, Roger Robinson was first in 2003. Since then, he’s published several other collections from which I’ve widely taught. Last year, he won arguably the most prestigious book award in the United Kingdom — The T.S. Eliot Prize — for his book, Portable Paradise. One by one, my other closest friends from Malika’s Kitchen — Jacob Sam-La Rose, co-founder Malika Booker and Nick Makoha — each published their first collections (in 2011, 2013 and 2017 respectively) and the good-natured pressure started mounting for me to join the club. 

In the interim, though, I spent several years creating The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, which I edited with Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith. It more naturally aligned with my priorities: it includes over 20 OPRFHS Spoken Word Club alumni, as well as former graduate students and friends from Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. The anthology I’m currently editing with Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi and original Spoken Word Club member Dan “Sully” Sullivan, Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School, which includes work of current and former Spoken Word Club members, is extremely exciting to me. 

Publishing my own work has simply never been a priority. Over time, though, and with the annual summer visits to London where I’d have to face the “What’s the hold up?” question from Roger, Jacob, Malika and Nick, it felt like a necessity. If I was going to continually ask students to write and encourage students and alumni to publish their own work, I felt I had to put my money where my microphone was and be a good role model. Nick recommended me to the wonderful Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press (UK) and here we are.

Little Kings focuses on, among other things, my family history, including my grandparents fleeing Hitler and my uncle being diminished by Alzheimer’s; my childhood in New York and Columbus, Ohio (home of the Buckeyes), including being bullied by the arch-nemesis of the book, my across-the-street neighbor Mrs. Lancia; and, being a social worker in Chicago and a teacher in London and Oak Park. Since I don’t typically enjoy reading books of poetry, I tried to create a book with interconnected poems and recurring characters that feels more like a book of poetic short stories that speak to one another. 

Now that Little Kings is out there in the world and after the response it’s received from the virtual book launch, I’m quite happy it’s been published. I’m hoping it inspires other teachers to publish their work, more students to take the leap of faith with writing and sharing, and alumni to return to their poetic roots. 

On that note, I recently received an email from an original OPRF Spoken Word Club and slam team member, Jessica Lewis (who was my student her sophomore year when I was a traditional English teacher). After she watched the video of the virtual book launch, she emailed me:  

“As I’ve always said, I am honored to have (through the poetic gods) been introduced to you, to poetry, spoken word and even more to be able to witness the fruits of YOUR labor (and many of my peers/those [Spoken Word Club] alum after me) … Please bask in the light of how many you have guided to a powerful, life-altering ‘hobby,’ which we all know is so much more than that … Also, thanks for being an example of letting something you’re passionate about flourish and take legs!”

It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

Peter Kahn has taught at OPRF since 1994. His poetry book, “Little Kings,” is available through the publisher: ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/little-kings.html.

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