Teen poet thirsts for knowledge

Malcolm London, 19, takes passion for storytelling to Chicago schools

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Malcolm London

Young poet Malcolm London at the Young Chicago Authors offices on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune / October 12, 2012)

Malcolm London is young, black and talented, and that is a guarantee of nothing these days. But he says, "I do not do what I do for money. I come from a place with no money and don't expect I will ever have a lot of it. But I think that being a teacher and poet can be a viable career."

We shall see. London is only 19, one year removed from Lincoln Park High School and not yet enrolled in college. He plans to go, because "society places great value on that diploma, and I am a great believer that learning can be a beautiful experience."

He is a child of and still lives in the Austin neighborhood, a harsh section of the city.

"Every day I walk home from the bus stop and I see defiled vacant lots, buildings boarded up and decaying," he says. "And I see men and women who are decaying too."

But he is able to see beyond the damage.

"There are a lot of kids like me in places like this, places kind of pushed into the shadows by the people who run this city," he says. "We have stories to tell, stories not told in the news and media. I am getting the chance to tell mine, and others can too."

Poetry has been his salvation.

"When I was younger I tried to be a rapper," he says. "I carried around a notebook to write things down, things I saw, things I felt," he says. "I wrote what I would call my first poem when I was 12. It was called 'The Last of My Tears,' and I honestly can't remember a word of it."

During his sophomore year at Lincoln Park, he heard about the annual youth poetry festival called Louder Than A Bomb.

The creator of that festival, comprised of teams from various area high schools, and the head of Young Chicago Authors is poet/educator Kevin Coval. He says: "I first met Malcolm when he showed up at Louder Than a Bomb three years ago. He was there by himself, not affiliated with any school. He read a poem about Black History Month. It was so well-written and remarkably well-researched for such a young writer."

Coval told London that he liked the poem and that was it. "I was so inspired by those few words," says London.

"From that moment on, I don't remember not seeing him," says Coval. "He was everywhere, and in a short time I saw a young man who was incredibly bright emerge into a brilliant and inspiring leader."

And so, after winning individual honors at LTAB and graduating from Lincoln Park in 2011, London was hired by Coval. He gets paid to work 10 hours at week at Young Chicago Authors in the Noble Square neighborhood. But he spends, he says, "maybe five times that, because I love it and it's important," traveling to local schools to talk to and run poetry workshops with students.

"He is that rare and important breed of poet-activist who can engage in a civic conversation via his art," says Coval. "He is constantly reading and writing, and this year is the youngest of our core teaching artists at YCA. I believe he is in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti, writers who care deeply for their craft and communities."

It is unlikely that any of the people shopping at the Northwest Side Mariano's grocery store, where London also works, knows that the young man handing out food samples has been compared with two of Chicago's great writers. Or that he has become pals with Matt Damon.

London met the actor when both were part of a January event called "The People Speak Live!" (I also was a participant) at Metro. This was one facet of Voices of a People's History of the United States, a project based on the work of historian Howard Zinn that seeks to "encourage civic engagement and to further history education … through public readings of primary-source materials."

Mariah Neuroth is the Chicago director of the project.

"Malcolm was set to read a speech by Fred Hampton, and when we came to our first rehearsal with a nervous cast, Malcolm blew us away," Neuroth says. "It turns out that he had been watching Hampton videos and reading everything he could get his hands on (about) Fred (in) the weeks leading up to rehearsal."

Damon was impressed and has kept in touch with London.

"I like to think of Matt and me as friends, as part of the social justice movement together," London says. "It's great to know that a big movie star cares about this world as much as I do."

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