This time of year, articles start to appear about the citywide teen poetry slam Louder Than a Bomb. They’re written with compassion, and talk of how wonderful the youth are, how electrifying their stories become on stage, and how exciting the poetry competition is. As festival director, I’m grateful for the exposure the press has granted LTAB, but there are some important points about our little youth poetry slam that need public clarification. So here we are.
From the start, it’s vital that we acknowledge that any slam poetry competition is at best a fun game, at worst a farce. Poetry slam rules are intentionally simplistic: Olympic-style scores from randomly selected judges are assigned to three-minute poems and the highest-scoring team or individual wins. However, poetry can only be played like a sport metaphorically. It’s more like a board game, like Monopoly, where there is certainly talent and skill attributed to the winner, but there are always those random-ass dice (our dice are called “subjectivity”). Slam becomes a farce if a poet ever takes the competition too seriously, so we try to be straight with youth about this from the beginning. At our big opening event, Crossing the Street—where all 500 of the youth participants and 100 mentors have literally crossed many streets from every side of the city, suburbs, exurbs, and boonies—we tell them they’ve been tricked. Slam is a scam to get young people— many of whom would not otherwise think these things were for them—excited about poetry, literacy and art. Indeed, especially to disenfranchised populations, the status quo is constantly reminding them that they’re not in the conversation. Therefore, the reason we trick our students is poetry, yes, but also to grow community. And just so you know, healthy communities are the only solution you and I have to total global annihilation. That isn’t a joke.
All people—audience and participants included, understand competition intuitively—and it’s up to us as mentors to step in and shake the youth when they’re caring more about a score than their peers. Every emcee at our events has been trained to repeat the adage from slam elder statesmen Allan Wolf, “The points are not the point; the point is poetry.” It’s a good trick.
So the way I see it, there are two kinds of students we get at LTAB: the first are the young people who have never had an audience applaud for them in their lives; their poems are raw and are often about asserting agency in a world that constantly betrays them. We applaud their perseverance and resiliency. The second group is the artists; they are figuring out their audience, style, communication, swagger. They are beginning to think and articulate themselves in more complex ways.
As mentors we try to move as many kids from that first group into the second. Of course to improve literacy, aesthetic thinking, empathy, but also to arm them with critical thought and poise for when they will inevitably be exploited. Exploitation in Chicago is inescapable, and I often find myself telling our youth of color that their lives are just going to be harder than others’, and though we can help, in the end they need to teach themselves the things they’ll need to know to survive.
However, exploitation can also happen inside our community. We have an audience on hand that will applaud for our students no matter what. Often newcomers at our events are very surprised when they see the youth not only speak without vomiting on themselves but actually speak with eloquence. These people have been trained by mainstream media to expect so very little from kids that they hold them to dangerously low standards, infantilizing them with their approval. We have to mentor our audiences as well not to clap for the wrong reasons. Everyone has to start seeing slam poetry as a beginning to the much larger conversations that we need to grind out.
Why are we even talking about exploitation at a literary event? Because to our youth the work isn’t just theoretical exercises designed to fill unread poetry journals and fill out academic resumes. At our poetry slam the youth are living their art, setting their triumphs and tragedies in your lap and asking you to deal with them. So our goals are bigger than poetry: we want Louder Than a Bomb to make crossing the street seem a lot easier than it tends to be in Chicago.
Crossing the Street goes down Saturday 19, but is not open to the public. The open competition begins February 25.