#FlashbackFriday: Louder than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Festival

By Paulette Beete
a group of four students on a stage with festival banners behind them

A team of students performs at the Louder than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Writers Collective

Inspired by a Chicago program of the same name, Matt Mason, executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective, launched the Louder than a Bomb: Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival with the goal of giving young people first-hand experience with what he described as, "what poetry and creative writing and art can do for their lives." The National Endowment for the Arts-supported project operates in middle schools and high schools, serving nearly 1,000 students each year.

As part of the project, teaching artists work with participating schools to engage students—who are often initially intimidated by the idea of writing poetry—in after-school workshops that cover everything from the basics of writing a poem to the skill of performing poems in a competitive environment. Students also have the opportunity to engage with and learn from visiting writers throughout the program. Each team of students then goes on to perform in a variety of venues, such as at their school assemblies and community events. Finally, the teams from each school compete individually and as a group against other schools in a month-long tournament.

Mason described the program as a way to give students confidence in their own voices. "I really want these students to find effective ways to express themselves, to say what's important to them, what's important in their lives and in their worlds, find a good way of putting the words together to make that come alive to others and then provide them an audience to be able to say these important things of theirs and to have a receptive crowd to hear it and to respond," he said.

He added that the project also helps the students feel listened to. "I think that a huge part of it is that when you teach poetry writing to students, you're there to listen to them. I think that is absolutely important because all these kids have important things to say and so often in their worlds, they're not listened to…. We're putting it on them to be creative and tell us something, and we're here to listen," he explained.

Over the years, Mason has seen first-hand how Louder than a Bomb positively affects students. "Teachers have told us after the school year that there were students who were not coming to school much, [who] were not interested in school. But then they got drawn into Louder than a Bomb; they had to come to school or they would be ineligible for the team. So they ended up coming to school because of the poetry, and I think that's kind of an amazing thing," he noted.

According to Mason, the program is not only a boon for students, but also for local artists. He acknowledged that the grant support from the Arts Endowment has helped the organization to pay the local teaching artists. "A big part of the program is also supporting local artists by providing paying work and keeping them invested in the community," he said.

Since launching in 2011, Nebraska's Louder than a Bomb has grown from 13 participating schools to more than 50, including some in neighboring Iowa. While Mason is proud of the work his team has accomplished, he says the real secret to their success is the art of poetry itself. "I think [the program's] growth is a testament to how necessary poetry is in a community. There's a reason it's been around since society started: it helps people, it helps us all," he said.