Soft guitar music played quietly as four high school students moved their microphones into position, forming a tight quadrangle on the small stage. As they readied themselves to perform — junior Jada-Amina Harvey and sophomores Omari Ferrell, Ike Nwoye and Nanyamka Gallardo — their anxiety was as intense as the bright lights bearing down on them.
This was the final performance of Epic Sound, Kenwood Academy's slam poetry team, in their first bout in Louder Than a Bomb, Chicago's largest youth poetry slam. It was the group poem round, and just hours ago, when they were practicing in the lobby, they had struggled to get through their piece.
Because Epic Sound was in first place after four rounds of individual pieces, they were performing last, as the rules dictated. The group that finished right before them had aced its poem about prejudice, receiving a 30, the highest score possible.
As they watched the previous groups perform, the teammates whispered reminders about choreography, lines and pacing to each other.
"Don't overthink it," warned Ashaki Howard, one of the team's coaches.
The audience of about 200 fell silent as the group paused to collect themselves before their first line.
This is the poem they've been struggling with for months.
This is the moment they've been working toward.
This is Louder Than a Bomb.
More than 900 high school students from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs participated in this year's Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam, now in its 13th year. The high school portion of the slam is set up like a tournament, with teams from each school competing in two preliminary bouts before the winning teams battle in semifinal and final rounds. This year more than 100 teams vied for just four spots in the final team round.
The tournament was co-founded by Kevin Coval and Anna West, both Chicago-based poets and educators. Sitting in the offices of Young Chicago Authors, the organization that hosts LTAB, Coval said he and West started the slam as a way for students to voice their frustrations, triumphs, desires and sorrows through poetry.
The first slam was in 2001: The Twin Towers had fallen, the city was trying to pass a controversial anti-gang loitering law. Coval felt the media were telling only part of the story of what it was like to grow up in Chicago, making the stories of "young people of color in urban environments (seem) monolithic" and portraying teens as "dangerous."
"We wanted to create a space for young people who were living the statistics and the stories that the media was reporting, to have a space to tell the other side of the story, on their own terms and in their own words," Coval said.
Paul Teruel, the director of community partnerships at Columbia College Chicago's Center for Community Arts Partnerships, said programs like Louder Than a Bomb allow students to meet teens from different backgrounds. Louder Than a Bomb "levels the teenage dichotomy between classes and ages," Teruel said. At Louder Than a Bomb, "I've seen students from affluent high schools working with students from low-income high schools, and it's like a meeting of the minds all about the art form. It's rare to see teens in the Chicagoland area coming together for a single purpose, and Louder Than a Bomb does that."
The students competing at LTAB are from a wide range of economic backgrounds, with participating schools as diverse as New Trier High School, in Winnetka, and TEAM Englewood Community Academy High School, in Chicago.
The extracurricular slam team at Kenwood Academy has competed since the festival's first year. Last year, the team made it to finals but lost by less than a point to Northside College Prep. This year the team hopes to make it to finals again, but they have a handicap: Every member is new to LTAB.
Kenwood Academy is a neighborhood high school on the city's South Side. Nearly 85 percent of the 1,776 students enrolled at Kenwood are African-American, and 69.8 percent are low-income.
To help the kids train, Nina Williams, 33, an English and creative writing teacher at Kenwood and the team's coach, recruited three alumni coaches: Slayton Goodman, Imani Gordon and Ashaki Howard.
65 days until Epic Sound's first bout
The Thursday before winter break, Epic Sound's small slam team, also including sophomores Sara Opsenica and Lyric Johnson and freshman Iain Irwin, gathered after school. The team members greeted each other with jokes and hugs. Some were friends before joining the team, but they had grown closer since slam team rehearsals started in early November.
They connected through poetry.
"I've always had a passion for writing and poetry," Harvey said. "I live poetry, I'm always reciting things I've heard and writing down words that interest me. I just love words."
The team members moved desks into a circle and began discussing possible topics for the required group poem, which is collaboratively written by the team and performed by four students. One student suggested something on mass murders and mental health, while another brought up colorism in the African-American community. One student threw out the idea of doing a piece on beauty supply stores and why women feel the need to buy products to make themselves more beautiful, and someone else said the group should write about people who jump to religion in times of trouble without having created a relationship with that faith.
The form forces students to make poetry, normally a solitary enterprise, a group activity.
"You have to dissolve your ego," Coval said, discussing the keys to writing a group piece. "You have to be willing to collaborate, listen to other people, listen to stuff you like, listen to stuff you don't like."
44 days to go
Over the break, the team decided to focus its group piece on abortion. The main character in the piece will be a pregnant teen, and the group wants to explore whether it is better not to be born than to be born into an unjust world. The topic came from Ferrell, whose father got him thinking about "the right to live."
"The pro-choice, pro-life debate has been in the media for forever ..." Harvey said. "We settled on that because we found some good metaphors and good analogies."
Every team member brought in at least one poem to contribute to the group piece. As the team circled up and read through each person's piece, Williams counseled them to think about what they want the greater meaning of this poem to be.
"What is the theme that you guys want your listeners to walk away with?" she asked. "What is the universal theme of this poem that touches the audience in some way?"
39 days to go
In addition to the group piece, four individual team members participate in the competition. During the past month of rehearsals, team members brought in drafts of individual pieces, recited them and received edits.
Each student's poem is completely different. Nwoye is writing from the point of view of a veteran about coping after returning from war. Ferrell's piece looks at the difference between animals and humans, focusing on violence. Opsenica's poem, "The Emotional Effects of Cancer," is autobiographical. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma three days into her freshman year.
The piece centers on the side effects of chemotherapy. "When I (was diagnosed with) cancer, I didn't feel bad," she said. "Once they started hitting me with chemo it killed everything. It just destroyed my mind, my body, (I) just constantly felt horrible. ... I wanted to write that chemo helps you, but the whole time, it's poison really; you're poisoning yourself in the hope that you'll get better."
Sara, whose black mop of hair has grown in since she stopped intensive chemo about 10 months ago and who lost her mother when she was 8, said that poetry is like a form of therapy for her.
"(Poetry) is a way to keep my sanity," she said. "It's almost better than a therapist because you can write and your keyboard won't talk back to you. No one's going to judge me, whatever I write I don't have to show it to anybody. I can hit the delete button."
At the bout
On a cold Saturday afternoon in February, during Epic Sound's first bout, Opsenica's piece began slowly and somberly but picked up speed and intensity toward the middle of the poem when she rattled off the extensive list of drugs she took and side effects she experienced.
Fevers of 105, neutropenia, anemia, panic attacks
Vincristine, Doxorubicin, Methotrexate
T-Cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
She grabbed her arms and rubbed her torso as she spoke, her voice thick with desperation.
When she finished, the room erupted with screams and claps, and some of her teammates ran to embrace her.
"I got offstage and I wanted to pass out," she said later. "It think it was (my best performance) so far. I put my soul into it."
The judges seemed to agree; her scores, on a scale of 1-10: 9, 9, 9.2, 9.2, 10.
25 days to go
Since winter break, the kids have written more than 10 pieces, totaling about 1,800 words for the group piece. The poem still lacks a clear beginning and end, and the kids are not sure what the four parts should be, let alone who should play them.
In today's practice, Goodman, one of the alumni coaches, led the team members as they analyzed each piece, going line-by-line and word-by-word.
"I was on the team for four years, and we've never waited this long to finish" the group piece, said Gordon, another alumni coach. "I'm not necessarily freaking out because I've seen people put group pieces together (in a couple days), and they've been good. I've seen other teams do it; it's just I've never seen it on this team."
10 days to go
"It's poetry. I know that, (but) poetry is actually the most critical thing in the world, so don't think that it is not critical," Williams said, obviously frustrated. "It's people's lifeblood, so this is important."
All the team members are disheartened by the state of the group piece. They've spent almost two weeks examining each poem, highlighting their favorite parts of each piece, but they haven't nailed down a story.
"With there being seven of us, I think that there were too many perspectives," Harvey said. "Sometimes writing with a prompt is really hard for people to do, and coming together (on one idea) was very, very hard. There were just so many debates on who the characters should be, and I feel that it (complicated the piece) too much."
Williams, a coach and Kenwood teacher, found herself conflicted: She needed to lead the group but also wanted to let the students drive the piece's construction.
"(The piece) is a little unfocused because they are new," she said. "This is the first year that I have had 100 percent new kids. In the past, I've always had at least one experienced kid carry over to the next year. Also, I try not to lead anything because I really think this needs to be student-led, but with everybody being new, this can't be student-led because they don't know what they are doing necessarily yet."
Last week, the team had gathered around a computer and put all the lines they liked from each piece on one document. That night, Harvey crafted an introduction and tried to split up lines. Over the weekend, Ferrell took the piece home and reworked what Harvey had done, but the group was concerned that his version turned out cliché.
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.