After an entire meeting spent looking at the original lines again, the team departed without a finished piece in hand. Then, Goodman went over the piece with an eye toward imagery. The next day, the team had a mostly finished poem. It still didn't tell a story, but instead it meditated on the idea of a mother making a decision between whether to abort her baby or have it and risk it being rejected by society.
"It is definitely a relief to have it finished finally after weeks of not having it put together at all," Opsenica said. "We have to work on it, but it's really good."
Williams was less satisfied with the outcome: "We went with what we had because of the time crunch."
1 day to go
An entire English classroom joins in as the poets chant their team name before they start their group performance.
The team has been going from classroom to classroom to practice performing. After each poem, the students in this class clap and "oh" and "aw." One girl shouts, "That was dope as hell," while another remarks that their performances were "intense."
But their pieces are not flawless; they're still dropping lines.
For the past week they've been hastily trying to memorize their own pieces as well as their parts in the group poem. During rehearsals, the coaches made the poets stop and start over every time they messed up. They analyzed each word, dissected where the poet should speak with more emphasis or where slight movements should be added.
"If you mess up onstage," Williams reminds the kids, "just keep going. The only person who knows you messed up is you."
The first bout
As Kenwood Academy's foursome spoke their lines, each exclamation seemed more forceful, and every light moment more tender than it had in rehearsal. Toward the end of the poem, they forgot a couple of lines, but they improvised well enough.
When the five judges returned their verdict — 9.3, 9.8, 9.8, 9.9, 9.9 — the group members felt satisfied with the performance, but they still weren't sure it would be good enough to win.
At the end of Kenwood's performance, every competitor was called to the stage before the final scores were read.
"It takes a lot of bravery and hard work and a lot of strength and courage to get up on this stage and share a part of yourself," Dan Sullivan, a Chicago-based poet and host of this bout, told the crowd before the winners were announced.
The team members of Epic Sound stood arm-in-arm waiting for the results. When their name was read as having placed first, the kids broke out into screams and a giant group hug.
In the lobby after the bout, the team members were still elated.
"I thought it went great," Nwoye said. "We were so nervous about the group piece, but we were so good with the group piece. It turned out way better (than I expected)."
The team members had been working toward a first-place finish, but afterward, they said the feeling of being onstage and letting their voice be heard was a bigger achievement.
"I feel accomplished for having finished, and I feel proud of (my teammates)," Harvey said. "It's just a great feeling to go up there and be part of something that you love to do."
Or, as a favorite LTAB mantra puts it: The point is not the points. The point is the poetry.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.