Started in 2001, Louder Than a Bomb is a teen poetry slam featuring Chicago students from almost every neighborhood. Initially held in the basement of the Chopin Theatre—probably breaking the fire code, the group’s founder says—it has now grown to a three-and-a-half week festival featuring over 90 teams and 750 poets. Founder Kevin Coval joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm, and spoke with us earlier on Thursday.
In 2001, you were performing and leading creative writing workshops in Chicago high schools. How did that transform into Louder than a Bomb?
I met other poet educators and we came to work together at Young Chicago Authors, and developed a core of teachers using creative writing in the classroom. The reason we came up with the idea for the festival was the [World Trade Center] had just fallen, and the country went crazy and started criminalizing brown people all over the planet. The City Council was going to pass a law against gangs that could lock up people for hanging out. We wanted to create a culture of hope. Unless we could create a centralized space where the neighborhoods could come together, the kids would never meet and share their poetry.
Over the past decade, have you noticed common themes among the performances?
The beauty of poetry is it seeks to articulate the particular and specific in order to elucidate the universal. So some of those particularities change—some of the slang and songs and fads in popular culture change. But the heart remains the same. Young people still desire to be heard. In our classroom culture, often we don’t really hear the honest stories of young people. It’s something universal from South Shore to the North Shore. Over the course of a slam bout, you’ll hear everything from the horrible to the hilarious. You hear a lot about violence and grand inequity, issues of segregation and economic disparities, and you’ll also hear poetic imagination of the future world.
Where did the Louder Than a Bomb name come from?
It’s taken from a Public Enemy song. The festival is very much in the spirit of hip hop culture, mixing [community organizer] Saul Alinsky and [DJ and Universal Zulu Nation founder] Afrika Bambaataa, organizing creative culture crews to create a new culture for a new city, essentially. The title goes to the idea, at a time of war against bodies of color, the story is more powerful than weapons. These poems we’re hearing are more powerful than bombs.
Which poems still stick out to you, even years after you’ve heard them?
Each year, there’s a dozen or more poems that stick out. Those are the poems that do not win, by and large. The competition aspect of slam is like a silly parlor game.
The best day of the festival is the day before we open it to the public. It’s called Crossing the Street. It’s the only mandatory event that we do. We deemphasize the competition, and the students write together. They form new little micro-crews. The poems I remember, the ones people take away with them, you don’t remember the score, but you do remember the content.
Why do you think some of the most powerful poems don't win the competition, mostly?
When young people are doing the work of recording and reporting what’s in front of their nose—that becomes the most powerful stories. It’s like news bureaus from the block—you get firsthand, front-line reports of one it’s like to be a Chicagoan, in the broadest, broadest sense. But an incredibly well-crafted poem probably needs multiple listening to be really understood.
Louder Than a Bomb alum Lamar Jorden also joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Check out his performance of "We Step," in an extra from the documentary: