Art Works Blog

A Youth Festival Where Poetry Is Louder than a Bomb

When José Olivarez walked into the Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry festival as a shy 15-year-old, he discovered an electric atmosphere filled with the rhythms of hip-hop music, young people rapping, people dancing, and the beats of someone’s drums. “I remember feeling, ‘Oh, my God. I've walked into the coolest place on the planet,’” he recalled. “It was the first time that I didn't feel like a weird kid for wanting to write, for reading so much. It felt like I had found a place that could feel like home.”

The signature program of Young Chicago Authors—a frequent NEA grantee—Louder Than A Bomb was first held in a theater basement in 2001 with five participating teams. Today, the festival takes place over the course of five weeks, annually drawing 1,000 young poets from around the greater Chicago area who compete as teams in a tournament-style spoken word contest. This year, 110 teams have registered.

Olivarez’s experience at Louder Than A Bomb is testament to the impact the festival can have. Today, he is a 2016 Poets House Emerging Poet Fellowship, co-hosts the poetry podcast The Poetry Gods, and has his first book of poetry, Citizen Illegal, forthcoming in September. Many of the people he met at Louder Than A Bomb developed into lifelong friendships, including his roommate Nate Marshall, a Cave Canem Fellow whose latest book of poetry, Wild Hundreds, was published in 2015.

Olivarez is also the marketing manager for Young Chicago Authors, where he hopes to pass on the confidence, creativity, and sense of community he found at Louder Than A Bomb. In addition to the festival, Young Chicago Authors also hosts in-school writing residencies with teaching artists, community poetry and journalism workshops, and open mic nights.

Through all the organization’s programs, the main goal is to have students feel like they are “experts of their own stories.” During writing workshops, for example, participants are asked to talk about their families, their language, their backgrounds, and their neighborhoods. As students develop their authorial voices, they also gain a sense of agency as they transform their personal experiences into narratives of their own making. “[Students] are able to not just repeat the world, but they're able to architect it, shape it, and mold it,” said Olivarez. “They're able to create a vision for the type of world they want to live in.”

At Louder Than A Bomb, hundreds of other participants and audience members are ready to listen to these visions as they’re performed onstage. Olivarez still remembers the impact this had on him as a teenager. “There's the immediate feedback loop of applause,” he said. “My parents are Mexican immigrants, and my first experiences with school were very combative. To have a room full of people listening to me made me feel powerful, and gave me the encouragement to continue speaking. It made me feel like my stories were valuable.”

Equally important, the festival reinforces that the stories of friends, neighbors, and strangers are just as valuable. Olivarez noted that only a few minutes of each participant’s time at Louder Than A Bomb is actually spent performing; the vast majority of each day is spent listening to the performances of others. Because participants come from across the city and suburbs, students frequently find themselves listening to stories and experiences vastly different from their own—a type of interaction that Olivarez noted can be unusual in a city that still struggles with racial and socioeconomic divides. “We tell students that it's not about the competition, that what we're really trying to engage in is collaborative work,” said Olivarez. “We're trying to change the culture in Chicago to celebrate creativity, to celebrate each voice, and to try and envision a different world for ourselves.”

This collaborative environment is nurtured through nightly social and artistic events, which are designed to establish connections among participants. The goal is that the festival’s inclusive, non-competitive spirit will have participants rooting for each other rather than against, creating a powerful atmosphere of acceptance, understanding, and respect—both for oneself and for others.

Ultimately, Olivarez said, this is what Louder Than A Bomb and Young Chicago Authors are all about. “Not everyone is going to become a poet or an artist and that's fine,” said Olivarez. “What we want is to establish a generation of young people with a particular vision for collaboration, for listening, for understanding that we are both the experts of our own stories, and that we also have a need to connect with each other—that all of our futures are dependent on our ability to work together and listen and grow.”


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