Last night, my work as a coordinator for Louder Than A Bomb culminated in the West Side Regional Invitational, a competition me and my commune-mate/brother-in-arms Nate organized because we’re absolutely insane. We got involved in the first place because I asked Young Chicago Authors’ performance director, Robbie Q. Telfer, quite pointedly, “What can I do to get involved?” He responded that he needed a West Side regional slam, since there were regional slams for every other area of Chicago proper. So, in September 2011, Nate and I set forth, with literally nothing — no budget, no volunteers, no backing administrations, no teams, no funding, no venue, and no nothing else other than our whiteboards and creative writing educations– to put on this slam.
Well, we did it. After several months of putting on our business pants and talking to professionals, applying for grants, sending emails, corralling volunteers and opening bank accounts, we did it. Most importantly, we partnered with a school, not only to provide us a venue, but a team to coach. So not only were we dark overlords of the arts organizing corner of the world, we were able to get directly involved with the young people we were trying to serve. It ultimately became the most important part of organizing for us, calling off our day jobs and sacrificing important rent money every week in order to teach these young kids everything we know about poetry and the art of performing it.
A little bit of backstory: Louder Than A Bomb is the world’s largest youth poetry festival, with roughly a hundred different Chicago-area schools participating each year, thousands of high school students, and dozens of poetry-related events. Louder Than A Bomb–LTAB for short–has spread across the country in recent years from Tulsa to Kalamazoo. It’s primarily a slam poetry competition–the word “slam” is known for sending poets and poetry appreciators across the world into a cringing hissy-fit. However, LTAB does an excellent job at building camaraderie, not just among youth teams, but among competing students. There’s an excellent documentary about Louder Than A Bomb that recently aired on OWN and will soon be available for purchase (educator copies have been available for a few years but cost a couple hundred dollars).
A little about me: I’m the same age as the kids in the documentary. I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but the youth poetry slam was a huge part of my life while I was in high school in Michigan. I loved writing poetry, and with my fledging background in theater and performance arts, the art form was perfect for me. I have little doubt that if it hadn’t been for slam poetry when I was in high school, I wouldn’t have a degree in poetry, nor doing something as crazy as organizing a massive regional poetry slam from the ground up.
A confession: I’ve never won a poetry slam. I didn’t win the Louder Than A Bomb College Indy slam that I took part in last year. I didn’t even place. Nor did I win the poetry slam in the Caribou Coffee of Decatur, MI when I was 16 and came in 6th (there were 12 other students, meaning I was decidedly average). And at the MSCI Poetry Slam, I came in 2nd to a poet who recited limericks while dancing around on stage. I’ve spent years rejecting slam poetry, for good reason–rules are arbritrary. You can’t assign a number to your reaction to a poem. Going over a three-minute time limit by just a few seconds can change your near-perfect score to place you dead last. There are many things that appear sloppy when read to oneself on a page that go over like Shakespeare if you have the performance chops. In short, there’s a lot about poetry slam that makes it a gimmick. Trying to be just a perfect-scoring slam poet has little to do with being an impressive performer, much less a good poet. But regardless, the slam has returned to be an important part of my life. Not only do I compete in them whenever I get the chance, but organizing and youth mentoring has practically become inseparable from my poetic process.
My team this year could best be described as an underdog. They had participated in LTAB the year before, but had done so poorly in their first bout that they didn’t even show up to the rest of their competition. The school itself was in a pretty rough neighborhood and only had students in grades 9-11, because it had only opened its doors a few years earlier. And the kids were new to slam poetry. Although a lot of them came in with notebooks already full of poems and a roster of favorite poetry books they’d read, the slam is a different kind of beast. Performance is equally as important, if not moreso, as the poetry. And getting up on stage and being judged on your presentation is horrifying to think about, especially if you’ve never done it before or tried it once and were mortified.
But Nate and I felt a connection with our students immediately. They responded to the readings and videos we brought in with insight beyond their years and wrote raw and insightful poems with imaginative wordplay. Winning didn’t seem to matter to us, already seasoned slam poets ourselves, when we knew that we would be able to make our kids badass poets. However, lingering in the back of our heads was the fear that when they got to the competition, they’d be ripped to shreds and never think of writing a poem again.
So the night of the regional competition finally came. The three other schools that came to the competition were clearly more practiced than our group of mostly freshmen and sophomores. I definitely don’t mean this in a negative way–the coaches obviously cared as much about their kids as we did, and the atmosphere in general at the competition seemed to be one of supportiveness. The students were cheering the loudest, even for competition who had outscored them. Nate and I sat on stage, keeping track of score and time with the best seats in the house.
Our team was not scoring well enough to proceed into the finals. Then, something crazy happened. All three of the other teams got massive time penalties, losing ~10 points a piece (and since scores in slam poetry usually linger between 7-10, it’s typical that one decimal point will be the decider between coming in 1st or 2nd). Ironically, back in the classroom days before, Nate and I were lecturing our students on how to stretch their poems to be longer since they were so short. Our team was the only one not to receive any time penalties–all of our poems were between 1 and 2 minutes long.
Our team won. After the initial victory cheers and high-fives, we felt kind of guilty, worried everyone would think we had rigged it. But in fact, we were just following the official rules that we’d provided to everyone well in advance. If we didn’t take into account the very rule regarding time penalties that we’d agreed on beforehand, then we would be actually throwing the game.
It’s an interesting moment in the paradigm of slam. There’s a saying in the competition originated by Bob Holman that goes, “The best poet always loses.” If you’re a good sport, usually it doesn’t hurt so bad to lose a slam. Another poet I know once told me, “A slam is good when it’s not about the competition, but the best show possible.” The slam should push you to be the best you can be both lyrically and in terms of delivery. Unlike a typical poetry reading, you’ll never find an audience member nodding off. The goal is to engage the audience. Well, the show definitely accomplished that, complete with a twist ending.
But was us winning really a good thing? We wanted our kids to learn from this experience, to push their poetic chops and grow some more. Would they get cocky? Would they get stomped on in the all-city competition and have their hearts broken? I guess these are all fears that Nate and I will have to do our best to confront. Then again, to me, the kids were already winners anyway. I know it’s cheesy, but it’s true, and I know first-hand that the only real way to do well in a slam is to make someone proud.
The slam never fails to fascinate me. But the youth slam is infinitely more interesting than the adult-circuit slam, where most people take the competition deadly seriously and strategize so much the art form becomes lost. Youth slam flourishes when its adults stay humble and community-oriented. It flourishes when the youth participating really start to care about poetry–something that, fifteen years ago, was reserved only for nerds and social outcasts. And regardless of whether or not the students stay on the path toward becoming a professional poet (most of them don’t), its benefits with community and confidence building are insurmountably important. Imagine if you were 14 and were able to get on a stage and share your strained relationship with your parents only to be met with wild applause, not to mention understanding and support from your fellow classmates. That type of safety and support is so important, especially at such a complicated age.
Giving teenagers a healthy outlet is so rewarding and beneficial, I can’t imagine more tangible benefits that poetry can give to the world. A poem isn’t going to overthrow the government any time soon, or end racism/sexism/oppression in general (although many attempt to do so). A poem can only affect those who experience it and believe in it. It can only go so far. But to a fledging community, it makes all the difference.
Now that myself and others who graduated high school under the first wave of youth poetry community building are old enough to start building that community ourselves, I’m excited to see what direction the form of slam continues in. Theoretically, it should move away from the competition a lot more and begin to manifest in more traditional poetry circuits–the traditional reading, the traditional poetry publication, etc. In Chicago, I think we’re pretty much there. Sure, there’s a competition aspect to slam poetry that many can and do approach with rigor–youths and adults alike. But the vast majority of us who are a part of slam are losers. We’ve never won a poetry slam, or only win because of flukes like time limit violations. But chances are, we’re not doing slam poetry to win in the first place. We’re doing it as a challenge to ourselves.