Teddy Jackson had a really, really long day.
He had to get up early to make sure he got to West Town Academy on time, went through a full day of school, including a school-wide assembly.
And the day didn’t end there.
He then went to West Town’s African American Fest and, finally, he went home. Yet while most 17-year-old guys would crash on the couch and turn on the TV, Teddy had other plans. He went into his room, closed the door and wrote. Just like he does everyday, usually 10 times a day, sometimes even more.
Teddy is one of over 500 Chicago students involved in the 11th annual Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry festival. It’s the largest poetry slam in the world, involving teens from all sides of the city, from all backgrounds and with all sorts of things to say. The festival is put on by Young Chicago Authors, in an ongoing effort to encourage self-expression and literacy among youth across the city.
“At first, most of the things they say in their first poem are, ‘I matter,’ and ‘Please listen to me,'” said Robbie Telfer, the festival’s director. “But we also look forward to that second or third program where they’ve established that they matter, and then they say here’s what they think about the world.”
The festival started Feb 19 with registration-also known as “Crossing the Street,” in LTAB speak-and concludes with the finals on March 21. The competition is set up like an athletic tournament: beginning with registration day, continuing with highly competitive bouts and ending with a high-energy final round.
The point of registration day, beyond rules and paperwork, is to introduce students to each other, helping them gain a greater perspective about their city. In groups of seven- seven complete strangers at that-the students are asked to create a group poem to present in front of their peers.
While this task may seem daunting for some, the participants dove right in without hesitation, scribbling into graph paper notebooks while brainstorming out loud.
The poems that came out of this exercise covered a range of topics: segregation, drug abuse, foster care, love, passion for writing, and even R. Kelly. According to Telfer, each year’s festival hits at the heart of these and other big issues.
“The youth need an important outlet to have their voices heard,” he said-but deeper issues are present.
Telfer worries that his mentorship, and the student’s use of writing aren’t enough to combat the daily trauma facing some teens.
But for kids like Teddy, poetry and writing have to be enough. What else will he do with all the thoughts and emotions crowding his brain?
“I just write what’s on my mind, so it won’t be in the way when I do other stuff,” he said. “If I blank out, I just do acrostic poems. I just let it all out.”
In 2008, filmmakers Greg Jacobs and John Siskel followed three Chicago area high school teams and their students as they prepared for that year’s Louder Than A Bomb competition. The film debuted in 2010, and has garnered awards from 17 different film festivals. Louder Than A Bomb is currently being shown in selected theaters across the United States and will be back to Chicago in May.