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Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School

Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School is anthology of poetry from students and alumni of Chicago Oak Park River Forest High School Spoken Word Club, founded in 1999 by poet and teacher Peter Kahn. The anthology is filled with serious poems, with wisdom and emotions touching on home life, school life, the world beyond, and everything in-between. The anthology is edited by Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi, Peter Kahn, and Dan “Sully” Sullivan, with each editor presenting an introduction to a thematic section, such as "Coming of Age" and "Monsters at Home." The introduction to the section "Survival Tactics" by Hanif Abdurraqib is reprinted here with a selection of three poems from the 75 that appear in the anthology.

Survival Tactics
Introduction by Hanif Abdurraqib

The question of survival is a tense one. Answers to how people survive, or how people cope with the burden of making through, depend on geography. Our proximity to pain, or anxiety. Our proximity to our beloveds, or the things we love. Some might say that the goal is never simply to survive, but to thrive. I do believe this, of course. But I think what often gets lost is that the road to thriving is paved with several small survivals, each of them worthy of their own celebration.

When I was young, I wasn’t nearly as much of an outsider as I made myself out to be. Youth is tricky in this way—there are those who are at the margins of the world, those margins sometimes first understood within the wild forest of youth. I found my way through it all like many of the people around me: I played the sports I was good at, and some I wasn’t. I acted in plays, to at least get a chance to step outside of my body and into someone else’s. I played music loud in cars, or in headphones, or in bedrooms. And, of course, I wrote. I wrote poorly, with no aim or direction, but I wrote, and I knew that the writing was charting a path to somewhere I needed to be.

For many people who have spent time feeling like an outsider, or feeling like they are constantly figuring out ways to stay afloat, the page can be a refuge. To set your intentions for survival on the page, and then chase after those intentions in the world outside of the page. Or to just keep the moments on a page that remind you of joy, or a happier time. Though, survival isn’t always as urgent as I’m making it seem. Sometimes, survival is about getting through a school day you didn’t want to get up for. Showing up for friends who you made a promise to. Loving a parent or a family member, even when loving them felt difficult.

That’s what this section is all about. Like survival, this section is tender and thoughtful. And yes, it is celebratory, even when it feels heavy. There are odes to difficult nights and beautiful mornings. Poems about makeup and money, poems about cooking food with recipes passed down from the hands of loved ones, poems about the journeys to and from beloved places.

When people speak of survival, my hope is that it isn’t just about what scars a person can show, or what pain can be traversed to arrive at something that isn’t pain. When people speak of survival, my hope is that what is spoken of are all the small and gentle ways we find to keep ourselves alive. The ancestors who guide us to newer, cleaner places. The resilience we have when things seem impossible.

Get Pretty
by Le Keja “keja Janae” Dawson

OPRFHS class of 2010

Men look at me like a poster board
try to hold me just high enough to be seen
pin my hips to their sides
I must be something to look at but not to be careful with
and men don’t care that you’re made from paper
They leave small rips in every corner
will write all over you, autograph where it hurts the most

My brother says I just want everything I should be afraid of
That I sign myself up for what I know hurts
He says I need to learn to give myself time
to heal even when the scab is itching
I’m still not sure if I’m built like that
There is no in between with me, no balance,
just the ceiling and the earth and neither have a limit

I learned all my mother’s lessons backward
My lips were cherry-stained with accidentally
falling for the wrong one
And when a nigga from the South Side lets love stain
his lips, you listen
You don’t question it
It’s usually never mentioned, unless you become a casualty,
then everyone wants your portrait on a shirt
I didn’t want to die for him to see me
so on accident
I held onto a boy who made me so unfamiliar
I didn’t know myself

I’ve forgotten myself outside the hands of a man
who beats me down without ever making a fist
I been suffocating sharing my air with a man-child
who’s still tryna break a woman who broke him before me
I’m still practicing patience for him fighting my mirrors

So I get pretty
Mascara, contour, blush, install weave
Is my pretty enough to put on his poster?
If this is what it feels like to be beautiful
I don’t want it
Take the dust from my face
and free me

by Kelly Reuter Raymundo

OPRFHS class of 2010

Five months and you fit in me like gray skies.
Eight months and my pockets flee the scene.
Nine months—my hospital gown drags against
the ground like roadkill before the eyes roll back.
They hook me up to the machines. My pulse
withstands the torment. I sit still, consent this time,
as the stiletto-size needle seizes into my body.

My toes barely tingle. I am numb. Numb to my emerging
breaths like womanhood. Numb to the half-open curtains
where I am sure my enemies now wish they could peep
with the anonymity of parked cars. Numb to the bouquet
of lilies on the end table and the lowering of the linen-
line bassinet near my soiled bedside.
Numb like before I knew God.

Finally, you are released from me, roaring. They wrap
you like a mummy. I look at my legs, still spread and bent,
I am a monster now. A beast. An alien. Skin pulsates
and pulls and stretches across my abdomen. Crop circles
emerge around my eyes after sleepless nights. My breasts
have become Godzilla’s. The ground cannot survive
my shift in weight. White lava erupts. Blood won’t stop

shedding beneath me. They move us into quarantine.
The lab medicates to slow my riots. I marvel at the many
wounds I took to bring you here . . .
Even the stampede of friends menacing and armed
chanting for me to stay pretty.

The nurse passes you back to me again. I unveil you
from their bondage; hold your fingers in mine.
You are so calm in lieu of the havoc hours before.
It is like you know how hard I fought
so that your cuticles would not become ghosts.

Why Write?
Abby Govea

OPRFHS class of 2021

I write because laughter is not the best medicine.
I used to spew jokes sporadically because I thought it was.
The more I puppeteered my smile
the further I was convinced
my anxiety would peel away like old skin.
Humor was a succulent treat my irrational nerves craved.

There were too many thoughts I wanted to disperse
that couldn’t be glazed in giggles.
They crammed in my brain like paper in Dad’s file cabinet
never to be seen or read aloud.
So I turned to the unexplored source
I knew comforts my brother.

Euphoria jerked through the grooves of my palms
watching my brother aggressively
write away his emotions and craft perfection.
I wanted to feel the same way.

Fingers clenched the pencil
as my hand synched with the rhythm
of my thoughts thudding against my skull.
Anxiety leaped into the creases of the paper
as confidence skimmed the doubt of writing’s benefits
and inscribed the cemented sentence:
It’s no joke that poetry is the new best medicine.

Excerpted from
Respect The Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry From A Chicagoland High School. Copyright © 2022 by authors. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Workshop. All rights reserved.

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