Right now in Chicago, teen poets are leaving shrapnel all over city stages in the Young Chicago Authors’ annual Louder Than A Bomb Poetry Competition. (Click the link to read some of the history and background of the event.) This yearly gathering of teen poets is an exhilarating ride into the fine minds of teens who use poetry as a release valve, spitting their steam as the audience listens to their words that illustrate everything from the apathy of affluence to the dignity of struggle.
I had the pleasure of volunteering as a judge at preliminary Bout 16 on Sunday, February 26. (There are so many participants now that, on this day, as with most prelim days, there were two stages each running three separate prelims. This day, both stages happened to be at Columbia College. ) Each poet from each of the four-person teams performed individually and then the teams shared collaborative poems. As in traditional slam scoring, the judges scored on a scale from 1-10 with the highest and lowest scores being thrown out. But it isn’t the slam competition format that makes Louder Than A Bomb special. It’s the atmosphere.
Host Tim Stafford, a Def Jam poet, middle school teacher (shout out for the middle school teachers!) and member of the performance duo Death from Below, hosted the day with humor and skill, displaying a pure and genuine delight in these young writers. He reminded the teams that this event was not only about words, but also about community, and he encouraged the competitors to cheer on and support one another. (Which they did.) Organizer Emily Rose Kahn-Sheahan was not only the scorekeeper, but made sure to have the entire audience repeat her mantra of points: “The points aren’t the point; the point is the poetry” before announcing the results. Founder Kevin Coval was also on hand at this location, doing a little bit of everything, but most importantly, providing his approval and appreciation of the poets through his quiet, calming presence and a nod or shake of the head to show that a line had hit home.
And the poets themselves? Sixteen brave and honest kids who, having found a home in the house of words, threw open the windows and doors to invite the rest of the world inside. They performed with passion and courage – some read from their pages and many memorized their pieces, but all had obviously rehearsed their readings and their styles were as varied as their topics. Some swept the audience up in storyteller mode. Some used a hip-hop delivery that was infectious. Some rattled out their rage like machine guns, and others reached out to the audience like a trusted friend. Were they nervous? Sure. But adult poets who are trying to improve their reading of their own work could have learned much about engaging an audience by watching these kids. I know that I did.
After my judging bout, I spent some time reflecting as I worked the ticket table and continued to listen through the door. I thought about the phrasing and the stage presence and the camaraderie. But what kept ringing in my brain long after was a phrase that the audience used as each poet’s scores were revealed. When the audience felt the judges had been too harsh, they yelled, “Listen to the poem.” What better advice could we give?
To listen to some past finalists, visit Chicago station WBEZ online. And if you are in the Chicago vicinity, try to make it to a semi-final or final bout. The competition ends on March 12. And if you miss it? Find a high school or a youth arts center. Find out if it has a poetry group. And listen to the poem.