Teaching Poetry In Chicago
When I arrived in Chicago the rain and wind was intense, I was just a two-hour plane journey from sunny Baltimore. This is to be my second visit to Chicago, the windy city. My first time here was in 2010 when I’d won “Best Performance by a London Poet” in the Farrago Slam awards and was invited to perform at the legendary Green Mill, which was hosted by local legends, Marc Smith and J.W. Baz. I’d learned a lot on that trip. Not all my performances got the desired response. I’d met Roger Bonair Agard, Emily Rose, Laura Yes Yes and Rob Q Telfer, who all encouraged me to read wider – I then picked up 'Magic City' by Yusef Komunyakaa and 'The Father' by Sharon Olds, which helped me think through narrative, word economy and turns in poems. Most importantly it was where I’d first meet Peter Kahn who was introduced to me by local poet Dan Sully. Peter Kahn worked as a social worker for 3 years then became a English teacher and now uses poetry to build one of the most powerful creative youth communities I have seen anywhere in the world. The first time I came into Kahn’s classroom I met a packed room of young poets between 14-18 years of age, all writing poetry in after-school hours. I was introduced as “a emerging poet from London” and instantly a line formed of poetry students eager to show me their poems and receive feedback. I’d never seen anything like it. Kahn observed how I interacted with his young poets. 3 years later he’d set up the Spoken Word education MA program at Goldsmith University in London. I’d managed to jump through the hoops to get onto the course, (despite leaving education with two GCSE’s), Kahn had remembered the impression I made on his students and became an ambassador for my poetry and work in education. Two years later I finish my MA with a distinction and become lead educator of the program for a year. I went on to become a Spoken Word educator for four years in three different schools, two in East London (my local Hackney community) and one in a North London Deaf school (where I'm an ex-pupil). I meet Kahn in a café, hiding from rain, we hug – he apologises for the weather and we get straight into business.
The next day I’m back in Peter Kahn’s school in Oak Park. I’m featuring in the student poetry showcase. We do a run through in the classroom and each poet is asked to say something about their journey through Spoken Word poetry club, many eyes tear up, telling the group how much it has helped them come into themselves, how important its been to bond and share parts of their stories they’ve hidden from others at home or in the wider school environment. They spoke about how they’ve made friends they wouldn’t have in any other way. The intimacy and the respect the poets had for each other in that classroom felt true, powerful and important.
Later in the main studio space I share my warm ups and performance rituals with the young poets, theirs however are a lot more compelling. They dance, sing, huddle together and cypher while a DJ spins Hip-Hop tunes. The audience of 350 family members, teachers, community leaders and poets (young and old) fill the venue. The energy is electric; the air is fully flared. The young poets perform poems (in groups and individually) about growing up in Chicago, mixed-race, queer and black identity, some perform odes to teachers, friends and family members – there were sincere tears, focused listening and loud laughs.
What I love about performing on stages like this is it’s not about you; it’s about what you contribute to the journey of the poets you're sharing the stage with. I got to hear poets, writing at 14, better poems than I was writing at 25 and there’s hundreds of people here to witness their talent and bravery. Even if none of them go on to become poets they won’t forget the time they were part of something powerful enough to uplift themselves and others around them.
A few days later Hanif and I were invited in to Oak Park/River Forest High School to teach, perform poems and judge their freshmen slam. 11 poets performed in one of the biggest theatre spaces I’ve ever seen in a school, seriously, it could’ve been half the size of the Royal Festival Hall. I find performing on big stages easier than smaller ones, you can hide in the spotlight in a way you can’t in more intimate settings. There are only a few poems I have that can hold this kind of space. I do like seeing how far I can throw my voice into the edges of rooms but generally I prefer small stages. Mainly because I try not to be in the mindset of a grandiose orator, I’m not quite Yevgeny Yevtushenko or Amiri Baraka.
After the Slam, Hanif and me ran workshops with Peter Kahn’s Spoken Word club, first analysing poems by Hannah Lowe and Patricia Smith, as well as our own poems. In classrooms I really have to focus my listening, and also pace myself as hearing aids take away any selective hearing ability, for me, sound is shoved down my ears and I can’t choose to spit any of it out. In busy classrooms this is a challenge and part of my teaching practice is managing this. I try to create down time in my classes where I can turn off my hearing aids and recharge myself. Given the number of students in each of the workshops and the work ethic of Peter Kahn’s classrooms there’s little opportunity to create downtime. Me and Hanif are given 35 minutes each to curate our writing prompts, hear students read and give feedback. It’s literally poetry boot camp.
I didn't realise how unconvinced the wider public are about poetry and poetry in education until I was running my own poetry showcases in East London. I constantly had to convince journalists, head teachers and even parents of its value. Once, I rang the mother of a particularly talented student to say her son is a gifted poet, "So!?" she huffed, "How's poetry going to help my child get a good job?". Journalists scoffed at my invitation to student poetry showcases, the gist being "We got better things to report than school assemblies".
I'm under no delusions of being “Saved by poetry”, although this is occasionally true. My passion is more centered around how poetry and Spoken Word can help manage stress in environments like schools, PRU's, prisons etc, how it has the potential to build community like the one Peter Kahn has built, how it can increase literacy and confidence (in 2014, I conducted a case study which found that 98% of all students who regularly attended my Spoken Word club went up a level in their English and predicted GCSE grade the following year).
After Hanif and I had finished our workshops, Kahn asked the students if they’d like to leave us with messages to let us know how they felt about the day. Some students who were less vocal and were initially unsure if poetry was for them handed us notes high fived us and left. When I got back to my apartment, tired and hungry, I read through the notes, beamed, then emailed Hanif, “Those notes sustained me” he wrote, “me too,” I said, “me too.”