Photo by Kelly White
Kevin Burke, a native of Chicago’s South Side, performs a poetry slam for English students on Monday at Stagg High School in Palos Hills.
By Kelly White
Renowned poetry slam artist Kevin Burke stole the attention of Stagg High School’s students on Monday with his clever wit and quick thinking.
Burke, a native of Chicago’s South Side, performed a live poetry slam for English students of all grade levels throughout the day at the high school, 8015 W. 111th St., Palos Hills.
Slam poetry, or competitive poetry, is the competitive art of performance poetry. It puts a dual emphasis on writing and performance, encouraging poets to focus on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
“If anything, I hope the students realize that poetry is alive and well, and that it is more than just work written ages ago,” Burke said. “That while there is value in the classics, there is work being made right now that is so vibrant and relevant.”
Stagg high school students found value in the non-traditional poetry approach, including Mary Gogola, 14.
“It’s a lot of fun learning about different styles of poetry,” said Gogola, of Palos Hills.
“It was really moving in a way that wasn’t just emotional, but really powerful and needed,” said Ashley Nanoz 17, of Palos Hills.
Aside from studying poetry in English courses, Stagg High School also has a poetry club and students are able to compete in their own poetry competitions.
“This is a wonderful learning experience for our students,” said Sandra Mech, division chair of English and Music at Stagg High School. “We like to encourage students to think outside of the box.”
“The slam poetry performance is an awesome opportunity for students to experience the power of the spoken word,” said Chris Wendelin, English teacher at Stagg High School. “As English teachers, we try to make classics relevant and essays applicable to the real world, but in one afternoon, Kevin Burke makes self-expression through reading and writing extremely cool. Kids' jaws drop and it's always something they keep talking about for the rest of the year. I love witnessing kids fall in love with poetry on the spot.”
Burke, a San Antonio, Texas firefighter, does not allow himself to be classified by just one category. A former punk rock artist, his honesty on stage and his voice rooted in hip-hop rhythm and punk-rock passion have led him to excel in the poetry world.
He began writing as a young child, anything from short stories, creative non-fiction to songs. However, it wasn’t until he entered college that he became interested in poetry.
“Up until that point, all the poetry I had been exposed to was either decades or centuries old, or felt like it was inaccessible,” Burke said. “It came off as so pretentious. It wasn't until college when I started getting more into underground hip-hop and learned that a lot of the emcees I liked had been slam poets before making music. It was poetry that was approachable while still being well crafted, and most important to me, it felt honest. Ever since then, I've been writing and performing poetry pretty much nonstop. The art and the community surrounding it have helped me through some of the toughest times in my life.”
After graduating from the University of Iowa, Burke moved to Austin, Texas in 2009. It was there he really dug his roots as a slam poet, and he has accomplished many things to prove just that. He competed in the National Poetry Slam as a member of the Austin Poetry Slam Team, and toured nationally with poets Zachary Caballero and “Good Ghost” Bill Moran. He has also worked with Grammy winning vocal ensemble Conspirare, Derrick Brown, Anis Mojgani, and Christian O’Keefe Aptowicz.
His accomplishments do not stop there. He is also the president and founder of poetry press Timber Mouse Publishing. He has four published chapbooks, has had self-written poetry published in major publications, and has an album of poetry and music available called, “This is Ramshackle Freedom.”
"While on the surface it may not seem as though slam poetry directly connects to the more classic texts we study in my classes, I love bringing my students because it gives them the chance to see language and poetry used in a way that is immediately accessible, relevant, and fun," said Sheli Thoss, English teacher at Stagg High School.
“This was my first time hearing a live poetry reading,” said Leah Camacho, 14, of Palos Hills. “It gave me an entire new look on poetry.”
“It both related to a high school audience, but didn’t in a good way,” said Samantha Fitzpatrick, 16, of Palos Park. “Most speakers that come in feel like they need to act or talk like a teenager, but he was able to relate to us by talking about a tough time through his poems.”