How Poems Can Build A Better City: A Look Back At #LTAB2014

The 14th season of Louder Than A Bomb, Chicago’s youth poetry festival and the largest poetry slam in the world, just wrapped up last night. The festival began over a month ago in the auditorium of Linblom High School on the South Side and culminated in the top 4 high school poetry teams competing last night in the gorgeous Cadillac Palace — however, for all those involved, the time invested in the festival spans much longer, and its impact is much more significant than whether or not we find ourselves taking a title home.

I’ve made no short order of the fact that I think poetry has an immense significance and is often life-changing. What is happening in youth poetry slam is radical and revolutionary. In Chicago, our teenagers were more often known for the violence of their surroundings than their abilities are artists, but LTAB is changing that. If you asked me, as a professional poetry slam competitor and coach, to describe slam poetry at its best, I would have talked about the poems I’ve seen from students in this year’s festival.

Last night, I saw the team Kuumba Lynx do the single best group piece I have ever seen in my life: a poem about hip-hop that allowed words to become rhythmic soundtrack four students danced to, their bodies tethered to microphones by words. I saw a stage where women of color made up the majority of performers. They devastated the competition with poems about their struggles with suicide, bullying, black identity, beauty standards, and what it means to be born in Generation Y. Perhaps the most famous poem is one that didn’t even qualify for competition, the group piece from TEAM Englewood, which has gone viral on YouTube, made headlines in Chicago newspapers, and was recognized last night when it received the Chuck D Award for Lyrical Terrorism.

The school I coach for was recognized on finals stage last night as well; one of my students, who was the second ranked individual competitor, was the calibration poet for the competition. We received a few other accolades, including placing in the top 8 team overall; yours truly won the coaches’ slam. Best of all, my coworker — the English teacher who brought me into the school in the first place — received a surprised award as Coach of the Year for the culture of poetry he’s cultivated in our school for the past three years.

For me, working with teenagers is the single most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. It is difficult to describe what it feels like to cultivate and be cultivated by young people. It feels immense, especially because I came to slam poetry the same way as many of them — most days I believe the reason I’m still alive is because I found myself filling a notebook when I could not stand the world around me. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to read those notebook entries out loud, and even more to approach them as a serious artist. My students have inspired the best slam poems I have ever written, not because teaching is intrinsically good material for poems (it isn’t), but because their abilities as witnesses, survivors, storytellers, and performers is inspirational. 

When I first came to Louder Than A Bomb as a college-aged competitor, it was because I had begun writing about my trauma for the first time, and felt slam was the best avenue for my work. At the coaches slam this year, I named my trauma and told my story through poetry in a direct way for the first time. I learned how to do that from my students.

Even with the obvious importance it has to its participants, there is a lot that’s imperfect about Louder Than A Bomb and its host organization, Young Chicago Authors.  The host of last night’s finals, Dominique Chestand, pointed out that she was the first female host of the event (which is in its 14th season). Two poets, H. Melt and Bea Cordilia, got on stage to commemorate a fellow trans* poet who had passed away late last year.

“Louder Than A Bomb and Young Chicago Authors needs to be a safer space for LGBTQ poets,” H. Melt bravely proclaimed for the 2,000 poets in the auditorium. Later, they tweeted: “I wonder if two trans people have ever shared a stage before at LTAB.”

At the same time, there is much to love about this festival; in addition to giving platforms for the voices of Chicago’s youth, its overall mission is to fight segregation in this city — which is probably the most visible in our constantly assailed public school system.

And we can all learn a lot from watching this festival. The writing is earnist in its scathing criticisms of the now and the obliterating hope for the future. Although LTAB2014 is over as of last night’s competition, I know I am not alone in feeling that the work is just beginning. This year is the first time I’ve witnessed my students decide to be poets — for some, that means changing their career goals; for others, it means going to more workshops and reading more books.

But I think all of us wrapped up this season with a new determination. We know this city has more stories to tell than one month can contain.

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