Two weekends ago, high school poets from across Chicago took to the stage for the finals of the Louder than a Bomb (LTAB) poetry slam, a competition that seeks to engage the city in the “pedagogy of listening,” as Young Chicago Authors marketing manager José Olivarez says. Olivarez has been involved in LTAB since 2005: while he began as a student participant in the festival, he’s now working to make the slam an annual reality.
Many Chicagoans only see the LTAB poets when they perform in the mid-March finals. The relationships between the poets themselves, however, begin forming from their very first day of school, when they start building teams. They get opportunities to meet other poets from around their region of the city during local competitions in the early winter, and from around the entire city during the LTAB finals in the spring. These cross-city friendships have a poignant origin—the first LTAB festival took place in 2001, after anti-gang/loitering laws were created to prevent Chicago youth from assembling in groups.
This year, over 1,000 poets came together from seventy-nine different zip codes, no small feat in one of the country’s most segregated cities.
“The impacts of the festival are felt beyond just those four to five weeks of finals, quarterfinals, and semifinals,” Olivarez said. “They continue to reverberate in and around the lives of these young people for years to come.”
LTAB has expanded its impact in recent years through its creation of special programs: Louder than a Bomba, Halal if You Hear Me, Purim Party, and Queeriosity, have featured work by Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, and LGBTQ poets respectively.
“These are spaces in which young poets get to exist without having to translate their realities or parts of their identities for their audience,” Olivarez said. “It was really powerful to hear poets speaking about the joyful and sweet parts of being Mexican at a time when ICE raids are common in the city [sometimes with the cooperation of the Chicago Police Department], despite Chicago being a sanctuary city.”
Jalen Kobayashi from Whitney Young Magnet High School won the LTAB 2018 individual finals with “Or So It Was Told,” an ode to the women in his life. The Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy won the team championships. Other performances featured topics ranging from Will Smith, to a poem entitled ‘how to be Mexican,’ to pieces on Chicago’s youth activism. The Brooks team performed a piece about the No Cop Academy campaign, alluding to the city’s proposed funding of a $95 million police facility—funding that could have gone to Chicago’s public schools, for example. The poem was met with loud appreciation from the audience. After the performance, the poets called on their friends, classmates, and audience members to attend an upcoming No Cop Academy youth summit.
Poems like these highlighted one of the most integral parts of LTAB’s work: poets’ ability to blend metaphor and movement to affect cultural and political change.
“Stories that come out of this festival have real impacts and real stakes that extend beyond the four walls of the auditorium,” Olivarez said. “In many ways, Louder Than A Bomb is actually a local community organizing model that shows the importance of organizing where you’re at.”
For youth who missed the winter LTAB programming, Young Chicago Authors will host one final LTAB event this year. Louder Than a Prom, an alternative citywide dance, will occur on April 28 at the House Of Vans.
Shola Jimoh, Nequa Valley High School
“Contortions of the African Woman”
My mother prays daily. I hear her whisper as she frantically converts punches and police sirens into neat packages for God. I hope he receives them.
Aisha June, Goodman Theatre Youth Poetry Ensemble
“Living as a Juxtaposition”
There are seven great mysteries in the world. When the pyramids appeared, lesbian sex became the eighth hardest concept for men to understand.
Aaliyah Muhammed, Percy L. Julian High School
Don’t expect this to rhyme, I just want this to be a long hate letter to you.
Morgan Varnado, Oak Park and River Forest high school
“Fresh aka Blessings at Will Smith’s Funeral”
There’s a list in my back pocket of people I would die for and it’s all Black children on scooters and it keeps getting bigger and bigger whenever my little cousin smiles at me.
Arielle Appleberry, Gwendolyn Brooks High School
“How a $20 Bill Taught Me That Black Capitalism is an Oxymoron”
My grandma spends her government checks on the lottery, which I don’t understand, because isn’t being a Black woman in America already enough of a gamble? Give her check right back to the state and call that a Black tax return.
Taisaun Levi, Crane Medical Preparatory High School
I speak that blue socks, red socks, green socks, purple socks. It seems like my Ventra and CPS are twins because both they ass underfunded.