Louder Than a Bomb
A teen poetry slam dunk
While young adults played a major role in sparking revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, a youth movement of a different kind has taken root in the Midwest. Since 2001, Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) has become the world's largest teen poetry festival, bringing together Chicago's youth and bridging social-economic, gang, and racial lines. In 2014, more than 1,000 students from over 120 schools and organizations wrote, rhymed, and rapped with the hope of securing an individual or team spot in the festival's final slams.
LTAB was founded over a decade ago by the group Young Chicago Authors (YCA), and its former executive director Anna West and Kevin Coval, the current artistic director of LTAB. When asked about the inspiration for LTAB, Coval explained, "In 2001, the towers fell and brown people around the planet were being criminalized. In Chicago, the city council was trying to pass an anti-gang loitering law violating first amendment rights of kids of color. Many of these students were in our classrooms." "In this culture of fear we wanted to create a culture of hope. To resist the dominant narrative and create our own voice. A small group of writers and educators realized we knew hundreds of young writers from all over the city," said Coval, "and we thought they should know each other."
Poetry for Our Time
Unlike poetry slams in other cities where kids begin as solo competitors and are then placed into teams if they advance, LTAB begins at the school level. The program is collaborative—much like sports. Schools and community organizations form teams, allowing kids to explore their writing talents under the guidance of teachers. Students between the ages of 13 to 19 are encouraged to write about their lives and discover what poetry means to them. "Everyone has a story and each is the best recorder/reporter of their own experience," says Coval, "I think young writers need to be asked the right questions and given the right prompts. Literature is a body they can add to. It is something alive right now in the notebooks of people who look like them. As an educator, I counter how poetry is typically thought of and taught."
Kevin Coval not only is the artistic director of LTAB, but is also the author of everyday people and slingshots. He has performed on four continents and on four seasons of Russell Simmons' HBO Def Poetry Jam. In high school, it was a love of hip hop that got Coval writing. "I discovered a love for poetry through music and many young writers find a love of language in similar places though not in their English textbooks, which are antiquated and contain 'masters' that are predominantly dead, white dudes. Poetry is alive in the mouths of the masses and once a student is hip to that they are glad to contribute." Making poetry accessible and relevant to students gives them a platform, an outlet for their stories, but it also exposes them to experiences beyond their own. "For 3 minutes at a time the students speak about their lives. For the other 87 minutes, they are listening to the lives and stories and dreams of others. Kids that don't look like them and come from a different neighborhood. In listening, the city shrinks," says Coval.
In March 2012, an award-winning documentary about LTAB was released on DVD. The movie, also called Louder Than a Bomb, was one of 18 films in the 2011 American Documentary Showcase, a program created by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Also in 2011, the film was a part of the "OWN Documentary Club," a monthly showcase on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
The success and growth of LTAB can be seen in other ways, too. Alumni have an 85% high school graduation rate and there have been no incidents of violence in the festival's 15 year history. Louder than a bomb, indeed.