By Jack Helbig
Reprinted with permission from Chicago Reader
Louder Than a Bomb changes lives. Just ask anyone who has participated in the annual five-week youth poetry festival, now in its 19th year.
“The first time I went to a [Louder than a Bomb] bout,” recalls slam poet and Dominican University student Ken Muñoz, “it blew my mind.” At the time Muñoz was a freshman performing with his Holy Trinity High School team. “To see folks my own age go up onstage and tell their stories through a medium as vulnerable and public as a poetry slam is exhilarating.”
His teammate Irene Govea, now a student at Illinois State University, was similarly shook. “Speaking my mind has never been easy for me, but [Louder Than a Bomb] gave me that platform where I could do that and it will be well received. My first year it was terrifying, my second year I was starting to get accustomed to it. By my third I was more vocal and excited about being onstage; by my senior year I was a team captain of entirely new members, so not only was I comfortable enough for myself, but also comfortable enough to lead and guide my team.”
Founded in 2001 by Chicago poets Kevin Coval and Anna West, Louder Than a Bomb, aka LTAB, emerged from Koval and West’s work teaching performance poetry at various schools and after-school programs. Recalls Coval, “I would see young people doing very interesting and new literary work. But because Chicago was segregated, students did not have a lot of chances to meet [students from other schools]. LTAB was created to counter the educational and cultural segregation of Chicago.”
Breaking down walls and creating a community of poets continues to be a major goal of LTAB, according to Britteney Black Rose Kapri, who runs the LTAB slam poetry competitions: “We hope students, particularly students of marginalized communities, build community with students that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, because they know their stories matter.”
For young poets like Muñoz and Govea, the LTAB experience was utterly transformative.
“Being a part of LTAB revolutionized not only the way I see the world, but also how I saw myself,” Muñoz explains, adding, “Because of the community I’m a part of, I want to create art that is worthy of sharing the stage with my peers, and LTAB creates the perfect platform to do just that.”
Govea was similarly pulled into communion with fellow performing poets: “LTAB taught me how to appreciate someone else’s struggles and triumphs, especially when you get to see someone you know (or don’t know) flourish from nerves to confidence onstage.”
“LTAB and [its parent organization, Young Chicago Authors] quite literally saved my life,” says Muñoz. “Without YCA and LTAB as a platform, I would have no outlet to let out my stress, or have a reason to push myself to be better.”