Volunteer Bomb Squad

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

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DJ Ca$hera in action #LTAB19

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,

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LTAB Judge Beth Finke and Whitney

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.

So Fly Mother

There’s no North Star to navigate me through today’s rapidly expanding and changing vernacular. I’ll bet my parents felt this and probably theirs before them. In my early teens I used the word “cool” in a conversation with my mother. I forget everything about that conversation except she snapped.

“Stop using that word. You sound like a degenerate beatnik.”

Oh. My. GoD. That’s exactly what I wanted to be. I’ve used cool ever since to describe things I like, assuming whatever I like falls into the universal “cool” column.

“Awesome” took the place of cool in the public square when I wasn’t looking. I’m mildly annoyed at the overuse of awesome but at least people use it close to its true meaning, unlike cool which confounds us with all its meanings: aloof, care-free, chill, funky, and in the case of Barack Obama—sophisticated, elegant and unflappable.

The Webopedia has a comprehensive list of texting language. ROFL means rolling on floor laughing. LMK means let me know. And my favorite, STFU means shut the fuck up which is teetering on the cliff of overuse in the aftermath of the painful November 2016 election and the reign of the twittering emperor.

Nothing stumps me more than hip hop language. Until recently I thought hip hop and its musical sister, rap, glorified pimps, whores, violence, drug dealing and guns. But I’ve met writers in the hip hop world who are neither gangsters nor malevolent. I see a world of hip hop creatives whose first thought every morning is to write. it. down. Like rock ’n’ roll before it, hip hop is a creative outlet for young people who are on to us, who use poetry, music, fashion, video and street art to proclaim their intolerance of our white privilege.

The words though are tough. I get the word homie, meaning a good friend as if from the neighborhood or home. “Hoe” a diminutive form of whore is used as a general insult, much like bitch. But, it’s elevated to a type of red badge of courage for poet Britteney Black Rose Kapri who titled her book Black Queer Hoe. I like it but as a former barfly who sold herself for Rolling Rock, I can’t bring myself to use it—yet. For that matter as a former drug addict I bristle at the use of the word dope as a substitute for cool, as in the HBO series, Two Dope Queens.

Recently I participated in an intergenerational poetry workshop taught by Kevin Coval, Chicago’s Hip Hop Chronicler. Kevin MC’d a performance of us workshoppers and our poems at Lookingglass Theater. He introduced me as “so fly”, and I immediately thought of Super Fly. The slang “fly” dates back farther than the 1971 movie though. In my teens I heard “fly” in 1920’s African American Fast Talkin’ Blues on old scratchy 78 RPM records. It was someone like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Lead Belly who used the word fly to describe a stylish, snappy, sophisticated woman. My 1960’s beatnik-wannabe friends and I never adopted fly in place of cool because it sounded too black.

BOCn5vf4SLqbLC+5R+QVewThey all called my mother cool behind her back not because she dressed in black turtlenecks like a degenerate beatnik but because with her acid tongue and casual elegance she let them drink beer in her living room and laughed at all their jokes.

I accept Kevin’s compliment with gratitude, but I will never be as fly as my mother was.

A People’s History of Chicago

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Chicago poet Kevin Coval came to a luncheon of forty older adults in the Gold Coast to read from his new book, A People’s History of Chicago. This was not Kevin’s usual audience, which is young, disaffected and enlightened high school kids from the neighborhoods. After his reading, he passed out small notebooks and pencils and asked us to write a list of what you see when you walk out your front door. Then he gave us 8 minutes to write a poem.

Kevin is the Artistic Director at Young Chicago Authors, an ongoing free workshop that meets every Saturday at Milwaukee and Division. He invited all of us to the workshop, saying “we need you.”

And so the next Saturday I climbed to the 2nd floor high-ceilinged room of bare brick walls and planked floors. Twenty chairs were arranged in a circle in the middle of the room and loose, unlined sheets of paper and pencils were in a box in the middle of the circle. This is not just organization, it’s respect.

Poet-teacher Jose Guadalupe Oliverez sat on a chair in the circle and as people emerged from the staircase, he motioned to them to join him. He asked us to state our first names, age and our high schools. A group of 16-year-olds from Crane High School and their spoken-word coach, a 19 yr old poet from Calumet City, a 16 year old Lincoln Parker home from boarding school and a 20 year old jewelry maker made up the group. I apologized, “I’m Regan and I’m old. Thank you for letting me sit in.” Jose prompted us to write lists, reading various poems for inspiration about truth and lying. He gave us 8 minutes to write. At the end, each of us recited one poem.
_____________
Lying

I get on the bus
See a cohort
Where you goin?
To the March at Trump.

You go girl, he says
thinking I’m alive in pursuit of justice

Am I? I dress for the day
with buttons and banners
Tell others I’ll see you there!
Notify on Twitter and FaceBook

Then go downtown and what?
I tell others it works
to be in the number, to yell
This is What Democracy Looks Like

I write letters, make calls, send emails
Proclaiming the what and why
but then in silent spaces
I doubt.

Does my voice matter?
I tell others theirs does, mine does.

I doubt.
Will it get better?
for me
or you
or them
or us

Am I acting, lying?
What about the rest of ‘em?
Are we all just hoping, acting, lying?
_______________

Hot and weak at the bus stop I was thinking about the racism-felt poems I’d just heard from the young poets. A woman in a McDonald’s uniform came along complaining, “Where the fuck is the bus?” She asked if I had been to the new Division Street Target and before I answered, she added, “I can’t go there. They tore down my home to build it.”

I beseeched God, “when will it ever end?”