After establishing himself as a community builder and educator for a considerable amount of time, Peter Kahn makes his debut with the poetry collection “Little Kings.” Kahn has carved out his place as a beloved educator in the Chicago area by mentoring and teaching young poets. He was in the documentary series “America to Me” (2018) with a slam team from Oak Park River Forest High School, which he has coached at Louder Than a Bomb since the teen poetry fest was launched.
Or maybe you’ve seen “TThe Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks,” that evolved from Terrance Hayes’ Brooks-inspired “The Golden Shovel” poem, from his National Book Award-winning collection, “Lighthead.” The often-serious and soft-spoken Kahn pulled that anthology together with co-editors Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith, and the anthology was praised in The New York Times by poet Claudia Rankine. Before all that, Peter Kahn worked with homeless youth at the now-defunct Neon Street. Other poets, like Pulitzer Prize-winner Tyehimba Jess and Louder Than a Bomb co-founder Anna West, followed in his footsteps, and he went on to craft what would become a full-fledged spoken-word program at Oak Park River Forest, and co-founded Malika’s Kitchen, a workshop and cultural exchange with British writers including Malika Booker, Roger Robinson and Jacob Sam-La Rose.
“Little Kings” offers a narrator who speaks thoughtfully in tender and brutal moments. Some poems introduce the hard work of being present for young people who he cared about at Neon Street and others reconsider a childhood teacher named Mrs. Gise. The poet as a guiding teacher is not the only voice. There is a definite stamp of Chicago and the larger Midwest throughout this book, whether we see the poet awkwardly dancing to the house classic Cajmere’s “Coffee Pot” (better known as “It’s Time for the Percolator”) above Ronny’s Steakhouse or looking to his own childhood roots in Ohio. He even examines the small cruelties that children enact on other people, including people like the long-ago neighbor Mrs. Lancia. The truth exposed in these poems is that children, like many adults, don’t even realize what they’ve committed until much later.
Of course, there are Golden Shovel poems in this book, too, since he’s deeply familiar with the form, but Kahn employs shorter lines of economy and deliberate breath. Underneath runs an elegiac thread of family members lost to old age, terminal illness and the Holocaust. Kahn also examines lost loves that cut close to an emotional core and underscores an urgency to live.
“Little Kings” is a contemplative debut that one hopes marks the beginning of more work to come from Peter Kahn. As a close observer and disseminator of the writing craft, Kahn is one of those writers who deserves more time to shine and share what he has witnessed, in taut metaphors and a narrative style that unflinchingly focuses without pretense or throne.
Peter Kahn will read with poets Jacob Sam-La Rose, Malika Booker, Nick Makoha and Roger Robinson online on June 24 at 1:30pm.
By Peter Kahn
Nine Arches Press, 76 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.