Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit
The tenth annual "Louder Than a Bomb" youth poetry slam exploded across the stage of the Vic Theatre on Saturday night as dozens of Chicago-area teens grabbed a microphone and spoke in voices brazen, bold and truthful about the stories of their lives.
Billed as the "Real Chicago Renaissance," LTAB is the largest teen poetry slam in the country. The event, which is in association with Columbia College and the non-profit group Young Chicago Authors, capped three weeks of competitive preliminary slams in which over 500 students and 60 poetry teams from diverse neighborhoods, backgrounds and cultures across the Chicago area came together to perform, and were painstakingly whittled down to four finalist teams of five, plus six individual poets.
In the final rounds at the Vic, the creative energy that had been building for weeks broke free, and the young poets held the audience of the packed theater in thrall for over three hours. The event had the feeling of a call to arms, with many performers beseeching the audience to fight against injustice and believe in the power of the pen. Each team rose to perform individual and collective spoken word set pieces, many of which brought tears, "woos" and waves of laughter from the crowd.
"Louder than a Bomb" started a decade ago when poets Anna West and Kevin Coval, both teachers, decided to make a shift in how they were approaching their students.
"I think as educators we should realize that in order to engage kids in the classroom, we need to ask them questions about their own lives," Covell said. "It's a pedagogical flip that we do where we ask students, 'Where do you come from, what do you think?' And that's what you see on stage."
Professors (and former members of the Weather Underground) Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn have acted as judges for "Louder Than a Bomb" since the inception of the festival. Famous as political radicals in their own youths, both spoke passionately of the power of the event and its open platform for youthful voices to speak out against violence and injustice.
"I've been involved for ten years, and this is one of the great organizations in Chicago," Dohrn said. "You can have competition without hostility, and it shows that imagination trumps violence, and that these kids have a lot to say and their truth is rarely heard by the powers that be in this society. The more we can amplify their voices through events like this, the better we will all be."
Ayers agreed. "The basic invitation of "Louder Than a Bomb" is to tell your story," he said. "Your intelligence, your humanity, and your approach to life are louder than any bomb, any weapon, any gun. The message is that peace is stronger than war."
Inspired by the LTAB, Emmy award-winning filmmakers Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs have produced a documentary film about the festival. Also titled "Louder Than a Bomb," the film will premier at the Cleveland International Film Festival later this month.
The winning slam team, Kuumba Lynx, and the winning Indy poet, Brendon Johnson, will now go on to compete at the international "Brave New Voices" poetry slam to be held in Los Angeles in July. Lynx's team member Darius Parker, 19, may have spoken for all the LTAB participants when he expressed these words in his performance poem: "I find hope in poetry. I boldly speak my mind. I stand firmly on my ground. (...) I am a force beamed here to enlighten. My words may bring smiles, they may also bring tears." The message of "Louder Than a Bomb" is that the words of teens, spoken with vision and pride, can light a fuse that may change the world.
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