Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Chicago is the largest youth poetry festival in the world. Over 1,000 young poets aged twelve to nineteen compete in a series of four elimination bouts, the final an unparallelled culmination of hard work, energy, and style. Founded in Chicago in 2001 by poets Anna West and Kevin Coval, LTAB has grown exponentially in its seventeen years, with competitions now held in thirteen cities across the United States and Canada. Its popularity makes sense: young people are making art, so why not give them a stage—and a goal—to work toward.
Chicago Studies (CS) has a deep partnership with LTAB Chicago. This year, the partnership included January’s “People’s History of Chicago Night,” a group poetry performance held at the Logan Center featuring Kevin Coval alongside local poets, including student-poets from Rebuild Foundation. CS also sponsored a group of fifteen Hyde Parkers and University students and staff to watch the final bout of LTAB’s youth competition.
The final is always exciting, and the stakes are high: it’s held in Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University downtown, where the four best teams put their hearts on the line as they perform in front of a packed house. The crowd is on fire the whole night, and the few silent moments come packed with collective awe. First time attendee Jaime Hermosillo said of this year’s final, “The energy was incredible; I especially enjoyed the energy before the event began and in between performances. It was empowering to see brown and black students enjoying the space, being in community with one another, and vibing to the music.”
In addition to the main youth competition, LTAB offers a variety of different competitions, including a University Competition. When CS attended LTAB University, we were surprised to see Ashvini Kartik-Narayan, who performed at People’s History of Chicago Night and whose poem became part of an event video. Ashvini’s poem for LTAB centered on her mother, and family quickly became a theme of the night. Katherine, the poet-victor of the night, won the final round with a charged poem about her brother.
During LTAB University, emotions ran high on stage and off. Poets waited nervously before performing, burst on stage, and, for the most part, returned happy, though there were a few wet eyes when performers heard they wouldn’t be moving onto the next round. No one was afraid to dive into real, difficult issues—mental health, abuse, and sexual identity were all discussed frankly, the poets’ words cracking through layers of stigma. Briana Payton, another first time attendee, said, “I was so struck by the depth and sophistication with which the students analyzed social issues in their pieces.”
This is what LTAB is so good at doing: getting people to share their lives, perspectives, and art in a co-created space that is both open and critical. But it’s also simply a place for kids to have fun and unwind on stage. Because as Jaime Hermosillo said, “Students were living the in the moment and truly being carefree, even if it was for just a few hours.”
April 24, 2018