Poetry Out Loud: Louder Than a Bomb

Posted on Fri, Nov 3 2017 2:00 pm by Taylor Seaberg

four students reading and listening to slam poetryphoto by Veronica Crichton-Hill


Poetry Out Loud is a recitation competition founded in 2005 to inspire students and encourage their literary development. Through this competition, students obtain confidence, a critical knowledge of traditional/contemporary writing, and a mastery of public speaking. Since its start, the competition has reached over 3 million students in over 10,000 schools in the nation. The MN State Competition for Poetry Out Loud will take place at The Loft Literary Center this spring. With the Trump administration attempting to do what some deem as “abolishing culture” by cutting funding to National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding that supports these programs, the number one question stands:

“What is the importance of poetry to youth? And what is its overall benefit to youth development?”

One of my favorite responses to that question is to describe my experience with a long-standing Chicagoan youth spoken word forum known as Young Chicago Authors (YCA).

In a darkly lit room in west end Chicago, nestled above a weathered green building with an almost comically placed “New Fish” shop sits Young Chicago Authors (YCA)—a home away from home for many youth coming from Chicago public schools that aim to refine their unabashed lyrical and literary sound. Teetering up a cramped flight of stairs, newcomers are greeted by an Afro-punk runway of black and brown youth (ranging from 13 to 21) rocking vibrant colors, perfectly structured fades and high top afros, bantu knots, free form locs and delicately made twists. Beyond their outward aesthetic, what is truly astounding is their nearly flawless self-made productions that cradle well syncopated boom baps and 808 style trap kicks, often with contemporary civil rights chants that would make even the late Mahalia Jackson weep. Childhood comedians that hop on stage proceed to make the whole room erupt in laughter. Kids are relentless in their coarse language and teasing, but also considerate in critiquing their peers, reflective of the raw and real off-color humor of Def Comedy Jam.

This very room that birthed artists like soul-singer and poet Jamila Woods, singer-emcee Vic Mensa, spoken word artist and rapper Noname, and unsigned artist prodigy Chance the Rapper, would also house one of the biggest youth poetry slam competitions in the world: Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB).

Louder Than A Bomb was founded in 2001 in retaliation to the Chicago’s Gang Congregation Ordinance which prohibited "criminal street gang members" from loitering in public places. For many youth (particularly those from designated “inner-city” Southside Chicago), this law took away the right to assemble in groups consisting of more than two people. Two Chicago-based poets—Kevin Coval and Anna West—then created a forum for youth to link up and vocalize their perspective through the writing and performing of spoken word poetry.

Every year the event brings over 1,000 youth poets for a month of poetry bouts, workshops, and special events. Students from schools and community groups in the Chicago area perform original work, either in solo and group poem format, in a continuous tournament-style competition.

LTAB became so popular it even released its first full length documentary in 2010, following four Chicago-area high school poetry teams.

Now over 13 cities in the United States use the model of this poetry competition to help their students organize. LTAB curates the YCA Annual National Symposium, a three-day summit connecting educators and organizers with hip hop pedagogy and extensive cultural literacy to aid in youth development.  

With competitions like LTAB students not only transcend the often racialized and politicized stigmas associated with being a youth based in Chicago but many often move on to develop/cultivate varying artistic mediums (such as music production, choreography, playwriting and comedy).

You can read more on the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and/or Young Chicago Authors here.

The MN State Competition will take place at the Target Performance Hall at Open Book in Minneapolis, in spring of 2018. Check out the Loft Literary Center program page for more details on attending the competition or (for high school educators) registering for next year.

Taylor Seaberg, the Loft's 2017-18 Poetry Out Loud intern, is an African American multi-instrumentalist with a passion for music in digital, electric, and acoustic realms. Taylor is a current 2016-2017 Intermedia Arts Spoken Word Verve Grant recipient and multi-instrumentalist/founder of alt jazz, neo soul, hip hop collective, Seaberg, with players Jay Weiler (drums), Logan Mehr (keys), Matt Trice (saxophone), and Justin Halverson (bass). Taylor is also an acting event coordinator for artist non-profits Button Poetry and Face Forward. You can learn more about Taylor's work here.