Seven months ago, on a small stage in Atlanta, first-year Shaan Heng-Devan confessed that he was not a love poet. But on Wednesday, February 8, at the Southside Hub of Production (SHoP), he read a soulful tribute to the many types of girls in his life.
It was open mic night for Catcher in the Rhyme, the spoken word poetry RSO Heng-Devan founded and presides over.
Originally from Austin, Texas, Heng-Devan took a gap year after graduating from high school to save money for college and delve into the world of slam poetry. “During my gap year, I decided I needed something to do other than work, so I literally Googled ‘Austin poetry slam’ and went to their meetings every week for the rest of the year. I also formed a competitive slam team,” Heng-Devan said.
Upon arriving in Chicago, the birthplace of slam, Heng-Devan decided he wanted to continue slam poetry but soon found his options were limited.
“There are three main poetry locales in Chicago: The Green Mill, Mental Graffiti, and Words that Kill. Green Mill and Mental Graffiti are both 21+, and Words that Kill is not a good slam, so I decided to start my own poetry slam group on campus. Before Catcher in the Rhyme, the University of Chicago was the only campus in the city without a poetry slam group,” Heng-Devan said.
Through word of mouth, Heng-Devan got Catcher in the Rhyme (the name is a tribute to J.D. Salinger), the University’s first and only slam poetry RSO, off the ground. He even went to other writing-related RSOs like Sliced Bread to advertise Catcher in the Rhyme. Soon enough, he had a following – an eclectic mix of writers, reciters, and poets.
The five main members of the team consist of Heng-Devan, first-years Nina Coomes, Brandon Nichols, Renat Zalov, and second-year Dana Castillo. With the exception of Castillo and Coomes, who both joined poetry slam teams during high school, none of the other two members became seriously involved in slam poetry post-high school graduation. As a result, they all have different inspirations, subject matters, and styles. Nichols, for instance, feels that he is more plainspoken, whereas Castillo claims that she is more dramatic.
“I would definitely say that my performance style is more theatrical. I put a lot of passion and anger into my poems. I find poetry slam cathartic,” said Castillo.
These five members will be competing in the famous Chicago poetry slam Louder than a Bomb, affectionately known as LTAB to slam poets. The competition will take place on the weekends from February 18 through March 10.
Heng-Devan said that this is the first year that the LTAB Chicago poetry slam is open to college students and that the team will be reciting poems both as a group and individually. The group poems they will recite include topics as diverse as Chicago, womanhood, and apples.
“I’ve never competed in something like this before—I’m nervous and excited. I hope to impress the judges and the audience, maybe even become a finalist,” Nichols said.
In the future, Heng-Devan would like to host monthly writers’ nights where new writers can come to collaborate and co-host events with other writing-based RSOs like Sliced Bread. He hopes that Catcher in the Rhyme can compete at nationals in April.
But for now, anyone who is interested in slam poetry is welcome to join Catcher in the Rhyme or even just attend an open mic night. Those who are brave enough to recite their work in front of the crowd will be subject to the friendly greeting “New poet!” upon introducing himself or herself, and excited whoops and yells from the back of the room if the work is new. Zalov said the atmosphere at open-mic nights is “comfortable, engaging, and relaxed.”
“After going to an open mic night, I got hooked on slam poetry. The performance part adds a special connection, a flavor,” Zalov said.