Last Friday morning Beth Finke, Whitney the Seeing Eye dog, and I met at one of Columbia College’s Michigan Avenue buildings in Chicago to volunteer for this year’s Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam. In the elevator, DJ Ca$hera gave us a hearty hello. She’s Louder Than A Bomb’s famous house DJ, working the entire six-week competition.
Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) is Chicago’s annual youth poetry slam. Sponsored by Young Chicago Authors, the slam hosts over 1,000 youth poets in tournament-style bouts, all open to the public. Students representing Chicago area high schools stand on stage performing their own original poems to an audience of spoken word coaches, teachers, peers and strangers.
LTAB requires an army of volunteers for the events to run smoothly. Beth and I could have been check-in/greeters, merchandise sellers, timekeepers, social
media ambassadors or judges. Judges! What could be more perfect for Beth, who teaches writing by listening to student recitations in her five weekly classes, than to be a judge for a spoken word competition? When I offered to be at her side for the first round, she agreed to sign up.
So there we were Friday morning, seated ten feet from the stage in the front row with lap-size white boards and markers. This was one of the first rounds of the five-week competition. Before the bout began, MC Tim “Toaster” Henderson briefed us on how to judge.
“Write numbers on the board from 7-10. Use decimals,” he said.
“A ten means the student is so good you’d pay their college tuition.” Translation: don’t give tens out too freely.
I sat next to Beth thinking I’d help her write on the board. But guess what? Beth didn’t need help. I was at least able to handle the eraser, cleaning Beth’s white board for each new poet.
On stage, DJ Ca$hera fired out bouncy hip-hop tunes. I even recognized a few. A “sacrificial” poet came first to get the ball rolling, make the room competition-ready, and give the judges a practice round. Then one after the other, poets from five different high schools kicked up onto the stage, introducing themselves by giving their names and the name of their poem before starting their reading. Many poets read from their phones, beating out words that particularized a slice of their lives: hard-bitten parents, bullies, sisters getting raped, and “fear of falling off a mountain of success.” One girl pushed through tears throwing down bars about her mother’s drinking, “her cheeks deflated like old birthday balloons.”
DJ Ca$hera turntabled tunes that artfully reflected the poets’ words. MC Toaster shouted out the numbers we wrote on our boards, and his playful comebacks to some of our scores encouraged the audience to shout LISTEN TO THE POEM whenever a poet got a score of 9.0 or lower.
Next we judged the entire team of poets from each school. Each group performed one poem together, succinct, snappy and sophisticated.
In the end all of the young poets hopped onto the stage to hear the winners. While waiting for their scores to be tallied, they hugged and jammed to DJ Ca$hera’s rousing wind-up. When the winners were announced, they all cheered for each other.
Whitney, unharnessed, made friends with the high schoolers sitting behind us,
squirreling her way under Beth’s chair, encouraging them to rub her ears. We had to dig her out from under there when it was time to leave.
On the way out we met Eric Coval, a suburban high school spoken word coach. Eric’s brother, Kevin Coval, Chicago’s unofficial poet laureate, created LTAB 19 years ago.
It was only 1:00 in the afternoon when we breezed back onto Michigan Avenue, fully entertained and far too stimulated. Now we’re checking the online schedule to see if we can find a time slot to come back and judge again.
#LTAB19 is still looking for volunteers, no experience necessary, The slam continues through March 17, 2019. 2-hour shifts are available weekdays and weekends, and you can sign up here.
Tickets still available for the final rounds of Louder Than A Bomb at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Look for me there.