Saturday night, 2500 people packed the Cadillac Palace Theater in Chicago for the Louder Than a Bomb Poetry Finals. I stood in line surrounded by large groups of teenagers; to add to the bizarre atmosphere, revolutionary communists with bullhorns and leaflets were encouraging the crowd to spark violent change in this country. I was more than a little out of my element.
I’d never been to a poetry slam before, neither at the high school or the adult level. I had no idea what to expect.
When we sat down, the emcee began speaking about lyrical warfare and I wondered even more about what I was in for. Then the kids got up to the mike and everything else melted away. These kids were amazing. Authentic. Raw. And incredibly talented.
Saturday night poets were from four high schools throughout the Chicago area: the best of the 400 high schools that had begun the competition four weeks ago. They ranged in age from 15 to 18, boys and girls from diverse backgrounds. Each poem was three minutes or less, read out loud at a mike on a giant, blackened stage to a theater filled with supporters. When the poems moved the audience, the theater filled with the cricket-like roar of snapping fingers.
With their words, they painted the sad reality of growing up in Chicago: gun violence, rape, and abortion. But they also covered some more universal teenage topics: cheating girlfriends, social media, Catholic school, and body image.
These beautiful, talented kids were the pure voice of Chicago. Here are links to the NPR Louder than a Bomb studio recordings of a few of my favorite poems.
Mia Harris is 17. Her poem, Thick, was about coming to terms with her body.
Hannah Srajer is 18 and from our local high school, Oak Park River Forest. Her poem, the Trial of Eve, took on Eve’s legacy in the way the world views women.
Emma Coleman is 18 and a senior at Northside College Prep High School. Her poem was entitled Even the Toilets in Catholic Middle School Are Blessed.
These will only give you a vague sense of the magic that took place Saturday night. To truly get the feel of things, you’ll have to make sure not to miss Louder than a Bomb in 2014.