Inside the Vic Theatre, Nate Marshall walks up to a microphone and says, "Look! I got these other poets shook." Indeed, the other poets and the audience began clapping and whooping when Marshall finished his poem, which was ultimately about humility and gratitude. But, they also applauded loudly after fellow teen slammer Nova Venerable spoke passionately about caring for her autistic brother and after Adam Gottlieb spoke about the relationship between Jews and blacks, and after the students of the Steinmetz Academic Centre recounted the senseless shooting of a little boy.
Marshall, along with Venerable, Gottlieb and the students known as "The Steinmenauts" have their lives followed in the documentary, "Louder Than a Bomb," which opens all over the country this month, starting with its New York release on May 18. The film has also been picked to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and after being shown last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival, "Louder Than a Bomb" returns to Chicago for a weeklong run that starts Friday week at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
The feature-length film follows Marshall and the other students as they prepare to compete in Chicago's "Louder Than a Bomb," the nation's largest teen poetry slam. Run by the Young Chicago Authors, the slam lures more than 600 students from 60 schools for several days of slam competition. But as the film shows, and the slam's mantra reiterates, "The point is not the points; the point is the poetry."
We caught up with Marshall, who lives on Chicago's South Side, as he was strolling along Wacker Drive, taking a break between his travels to promote "Louder Than a Bomb" to talk to us about his parents' past drug addiction, Chicago's reputation as a center for slam and how he has developed as a poet.
CB: You're 21 now and entering your last year at Vanderbilt University, but "Louder than a Bomb" documents your senior year of high school. What is it like having that part of your life documented in a movie that's about to be released nationally?
NM: It's very strange to have your senior year of high school documented in that way. It's always new for other people, and it's weird because I remember a lot of the things now, but obviously, I wonder how important all this would be if it wasn't in the movie, just specific pieces and details of my life.
The documentary explains that your parents are recovering drug addicts. What kind of influence does their past have on your poetry?
I mean, their past is something that I definitely touch on, but in the same respect, I try to always ... use them responsibly. I mean, my parents are doing really well now, and I'm very proud of them, and I don't want to portray an inaccurate image based on what they did 15 years ago. But it's definitely something they know I write about and present.
You were someone in the film who really thrived in various spheres, from hanging out in your neighborhood on 116th to mentoring your peers at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. What was it like to navigate those worlds and how does it affect your poetry?
I think for me, it was always kind of present. I have a really rare education in terms of Chicago. It's always been racially and socioeconomically diverse, and that's kind of allowed me to see how a lot of different people live in a lot of different areas. I think it shows up in my writing, just maybe kind of in the various nomenclature and things I'm able to use and pull in. I can heavily employ African-American vernacular or whatever. All that's within my relevant experience, and I think it helps. My senior year of high school, I did an independent project on Shakespeare, and I also listened to a lot of Twista.
What, to you, are marks of great slam poetry?
It varies because a lot of poems do a lot of different things well. So sometimes, it's like a great stage presence and sense of movement and intentionality without feeling, like forced. Or it's just the poem on the page, the way it can be about the story. Just tell a good story, that's just all I need you to do. It could be the lyrical nature of the poem, but for me, those possibilities are kind of limitless and a bit reason why I'm attracted to poetry.
You and some of the other teen poets profiled in "Louder Than a Bomb" have an incredibly deep gift for introspection, perspective and an ability to turn something raw into something lyrical. Do the "Louder Than a Bomb" slam poets have some kind of insight or maturity not found in other teens?
[The film producers] were kind of intentional about the people they picked. They picked people who kind of had interesting stories and certainly thought there was quality in their writing. The amount of perspective, I think, is not unique to 'Louder Than a Bomb.' In general, it's one of those things that gets kind of lost, and that's how little young people are asked about their perspective and outlook as thoroughly as they are in a poetry slam. I think that's one of the reasons why it seems kind of bizarre -- the idea that there are that many young people in one room to be listened to and to listen to each other. That's bizarre in our culture.
"Louder Than a Bomb" runs from May 20-May 26 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
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