Dominique Chestand opens the night with safe space rules recited in ritual call and response:
“No racist—NO RACIST. No sexist—NO SEXIST. No homophobic—NO HOMOPHOBIC. No able-ist—NO ABLE-IST. No gender-biased—NO GENDER-BIASED. No transphobic—NO TRANSPHOBIC, or otherwise derogatory language is to be used.”
The host warms the room and passes the mic to the first performer, a young artist named Kalil. “This is about falling in love for the first time...or whatever,” he admits into the microphone. Appreciation settles heavy. The next poet begins, “This is about dealing with social anxiety.” Another closes, “Just because I’m Black doesn’t make me less Hispanic.”
Chicago’s longest-running youth open mic, WordPlay has been a sandbox for Chance The Rapper, Jamila Woods, Mick Jenkins, Noname, Saba, Nico Segal, the hundred poets present tonight and thousands of others.
At 8:15p Saaji Mahal takes the stage and absorbs gravity in dreadlocks and a dress: “I’m from wait until your Dad gets home, and Dad’s never home.”
What is this place where truth is yours to speak and always appreciated? It feels the only way to fail here is to be inauthentic. “No matter what, no matter where you come from, no matter what background, you hear the stories of these youth and you're just absolutely blown away by what it is they have to say, how they craft it, the emotion, energy they put in it, and just how deeply they feel about what they're saying,” says Eric Coval, a long-time educator and Louder Than A Bomb Coach.
Gertrude wrote about her unibrow, a beauty mark shaved in high school. Tonight she lamented the trimming of heritage, wanting it back, to thunderous applause.
For 28 years, Young Chicago Authors has been a nurturing force for uncelebrated stories and craft, incubating radical inclusivity and platforming young poets. “We create spaces where we allow youth to tell us who they are, rather than us telling them who they should be,” says Heather Roberts, Senior Education Manager for Young Chicago Authors (YCA).
“We all walk the world with so much in us; how often do we have the opportunity to sit and write it down, or share it in a public forum in a safe space where people genuinely want to hear a story of yours for a few minutes at a time,” says artistic director Kevin Coval.
“What you see here is pretty much kids bearing their souls, man, in a space where they don't really get a chance. They're not just bringing their story here, they're bringing their whole selves here, and they get a chance to really make sure that they get that out to the audience.”Fredique BautistaSpecial Education ParaprofessionalNoble Network of Charter Schools
Before each open mic, YCA teaching artists host an hourlong workshop. Given prompts and feedback, the students craft their craft. This is where many rising talents find their start and begin their unfolding, like Patricia Frazier, named 2018 National Youth Poet Laureate, and E’mon Lauren, Chicago’s first Youth Poet Laureate. Both of whom have published books with Haymarket Books.
“To be honest, the age that we are now, we are dealing with a lot of trauma," says E'mon. "When we are telling our stories, we're at the point of speaking out on all the hurt that we deal with. And saying, ‘Hey, this is how we are going to make it better. This is how we are going to move forward.’”
Fredique unfolded here as well, first a quiet student poet and now a public school teacher: “This space gave me a place to find myself and I think it gives the poets that I coach a chance to find themselves as well,” he says. “You can be quiet in real life, but on stage it could be what you feel inside. It helps you find words to express what you feel. It's not just prose, it doesn't just follow a meter. It is a performance of yourself and your real life experience.”
Matt Muse is another. A young rapper and musician from the west suburbs, Matt led a weekly open mic on his college campus until graduation pushed him to look for more opportunities, preferably in the city. That’s how he heard about WordPlay: “Those first few times where that energy in the room, it was like, I've never been in a room with so much camaraderie amongst artists. WordPlay was so encouraging. They showed love to everybody, and that was the big thing for me—the safe space rules and the amount of love in the room.”
This weekly moment gives rhythm to the deep work of reflection and also creates opportunity for vulnerable known-ness and maturing empathy. One student said it this way: “We all may look different and talk different and come from different places of the city. But even though our struggles are different, we can find similarities between those struggles. We're all people of color, even though some of us may not look like it.”
Another student says, “A lot of times, family isn't consistent. People you love, they aren't consistent. For a lot of teens in Chicago, we don't have a place that is consistent to go to, and we don't have a lot of people who are consistent in our lives. YCA is that space is for us.”
We're all people of color, even though some of us may not look like it.
At this point, in family fashion, the students start talking over each other and finishing each other’s sentences: “We know when we come here on Tuesdays from 6:00 to 7:00 we have a writing workshop, from 7:00 to 8:30 we know there is an open mic and we can perform there if we please…anyone can come in and perform, they make it safe…it's a place you can also consider home, it's a place that's consistent for you.”
This dimension of YCA being a consistent and consistently safe space is central and precious. “A lot of our students, they view this place as home,” says Heather. “As someone new comes in, they make sure the new person knows the rules and don't disrespect the space. There is this sense of family and respect that's there, and a love of poetry that you won't find anywhere else.”
“It gives them a place to be comfortable speaking about things that most of the times they're uncomfortable talking about,” says Fredique. “Things that don't really come up in school. Things that don't really come up in a job interview. Things that nobody will ask them about.”
Louder than a Bomb
Every Spring, WordPlay and school poetry clubs ramp up into the world’s largest youth poetry festival, Louder Than A Bomb. A five-week series of competitions begins with Crossing the Street—a one day gathering of all 1,200 students blended into 120 teams with 300-some educators, all YCA staff including teaching artists, artistic directors, and a grandmaster of slam at the helm. From this point on, 70+ preliminary bouts move us closer to finals at the end of March.
Backstage at the Columbia College auditorium some are seated, some are kneeling, others teeter on tiptoes in a mix Converse high-tops, Jordans, and boots, rehearsing their lines one last time before the lights are on them.
“On a scale of one to three, how sad do you wanna go?” a girl in a hoodie asks her audience. “Three!” the unanimous response.
“The stories you'll hear at Louder Than a Bomb are reflective of every kind of kid in the city,” says Kevin, “Every kind of experience of what it means to be a young person and be shitty at math or have a crush and also know what it's like to lose a homie to police violence. So I think you get everything from the hopeful to the hilarious to the horrible all on one stage. I think it's part of the reason why it resonates with the audience, because in part, they also see themselves or their stories reflected on the stage.”
“Someone new to LTAB coming in, they would see people from a bunch of different communities within the city sharing their own stories and their narratives,” says Naomi Sanchez, a student and competitor in this year's festival. “Whether it be about social justice, racism, sexism, homophobia and just sharing their stories and what they've gone through, through their own written words and in their own voices, using their own emotion and feelings and passion.”
The problem is that when neighborhoods are best known for their worst statistics, the stories of those places get hijacked by stereotypes, which generally go uncontested given the absence of a more true narrative.
“The reality is if you don't tell your own story, somebody is going to tell it for you. And the last thing you want is for somebody to tell your story and tell it wrong. I think with minority youth, our stories are told wrong a lot. And I think that's really why it's important.”Matt MuseTeaching ArtistYoung Chicago Authors
“Our dream world is for poetry club to be able to walk down the hallway and everyone knows who they are, right?” says Heather. “So, as if you are a basketball star, we want folks to be able to equate that with being a poetry star. Having that letterman's jacket and knowing that you're a part of that team. And so, we go in and we work both in class and after school with teachers to help build that culture.”
To that end, YCA teaching artists are transforming poetry culture in fifteen of Chicago’s public high schools, as well as within the juvenile detention center.
Fredique Bautista, a public school teacher / Photo by Tuan Huynh
Now a teacher himself in Englewood, Fredique has carried YCA and LTAB along with him: “Easily put: I loved it so much, I had to spread it. We need to have a team because these kids have stories. They have voices that nobody hears, especially here downtown. That's always what I think is the most important thing that YCA does is give these young people who feel like they're voiceless the power to express their experiences.”
A profound and shining example, E’mon’s first book, Commando, explores what she terms ‘hood womanism that fights sexism’: "It’s really just talking about the different types of wars, the different types of fights that women go through, that I have to go through, in claiming my identity and understanding the types of identities that people wanted to give me, or that people wanted to take away from me."
“Our work is kind of an unlocking as educators. We need that radical imagination unleashed into the civic sphere, so we could rethink about how we engage with one another.”Kevin CovalArtistic DirectorYoung Chicago Authors
“The pedagogy is about that individual artist being in concert with their community, and the power of that communal voice and what that can do in terms of civic engagement, in terms of art as activism, in terms of community organizing—those values and that intentionality is baked in, it's not secondary,” says Heather.
“Part of our work is to locate ourselves in a historic moment, but also the inheritors of legacies of literature,” explains Kevin. “Our matriarch is Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks, who mentored, of course, the black arts poets in this city and around the country. Ms. Brooks talked a lot about the necessity of telling your own story, telling the stories that are in front of your nose. She said that her material, when she considered what she was gonna write about, she found her material in the streets, which is very hip-hop of her to say.”
“Chuck D said that hip hop was the black CNN,” Kevin continues, “and hip hop introduced me to historians who told a different narrative of American history than I was getting in my history classes. I think we see ourselves as then the inheritors of these traditions of literature and poetry, to then also continue the work of telling counter-narratives.”
In the crucible years of beginning to become who they are, young people from varied backgrounds, experiences, and types of pain, are coming to life through poetry, on a platform built just for them. They’ve come by the hundreds, and for years. The necessary work now is for us to listen.
The young poet storytellers are quick to give credit where credit is due for their growth in voice, heart, and craft. Indeed, they are eager to credit their mentors and ‘favorite teacher who was coach of my school’s poetry club.’
Student Naomi Sanchez, for one, is quick to name names: “The two key figures that really influenced my being a poet and my writing have definitely been Kevin Coval and Jamila Woods. José Olivarez and Toaster and Kush Thompson and E’mon Lauren, all those people would sit down and help me edit my poems and ask me questions and ask about my story and what these words mean. It really helped me be able to articulate what I want to say and how I want to say, and what I want to be heard from my words.”
Kevin Coval, Artistic Director at YCA and Founder of Louder Than A Bomb
Fredique names his ninth grade English teacher, Ms. Jocelyn Hathaway: “She's one of the original Louder Than A Bomb coaches, original YCA, all that stuff. I used to be very quiet and this pretty much blew me up. It almost seems like I became a different person by being given this avenue to express myself. My coach, Ms. Hathaway, she kind of pulled me along the whole thing. She was my guide through it all.”
“The most influential voice that I found in YCA was Patricia Frazier,” says poet and coach, Kennedy Harris. “She was the captain when I joined my school’s Louder Than a Bomb team. She edited my poems and I heard a lot of her poems. She has book now, and it's one of my favorite books.”
“Toaster. Definitely Toaster,” adds high school senior Jerome/J Post/The Postman. “I'd seen one of Toaster's poems on YouTube. His images, his out-there ideas…he had such a different way of describing things and it just kind of intrigued me. He's been this constant mentor for me. He always edits my work and then gives this wild encouragement and offers to help. I definitely attribute most of my growth, a lot of my growth, to people like Toaster.”
Jerome, Senior, Gwendolyn Brooks High School
“It's just in the everyday—being around them, doing workshops with them. I spent so much time with my team, honestly, that's family. Blood couldn't make us any closer.”JeromeSeniorGwendolyn Brooks High School
This, along with radical inclusivity, is another cultural signature that gives me hope for a humble-powerful next generation capable of accomplishing the systemic change we need. Here they are taught to speak truth poetically, listen deeply, and appreciate generously.
I think metrics-based programs are generally good at meeting needs, but to affect core changes in culture we need to look to the creators and in Young Chicago Authors we see a groundswell of poetic truth and deep listening. The Crossing the Street event that kicks off Louder Than A Bomb was without a doubt the most radically inclusive and genuinely hope-building space I've ever been in.
The safe space rules should be commonplace. The celebration of difference and appreciation for honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability should be our norm. The young people are leading us there and I think we should pay attention.
I'd like to thank the entire family and staff at Young Chicago Authors and LTAB for graciously allowing us to shadow your work for months. And to David Johnson, Brandon Ritter, Brandon Mattingly, Chet Turnbeaugh, and Tuan Huynh for contributing multiple days of life to help shape this piece.
Here's to the poets.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly