Listen to the Poem!

Written by Marlena Wadley, Nick Dimas, Christian Sanchez and Tanya Munoz
Photos via YCA

Louder Than a Bomb is coming to an end, and bout by bout teams leave us; but even the squads that don’t move on leave us with words and feelings that will linger for weeks. On March 2nd and 3rd, the top 32 teams took part in LTAB’s quarter finals at Malcolm X College on the West Side of Chicago.

Young poets, eager to share their truths and stories, paced back and forth in front of the auditorium doors. Outside, teams practiced their poems to a wall, or a small crowd. Other teams huddled together and held hands.

It’s intimidating, going up on stage and sharing your emotions with a room full of people, then getting a score. However, facilitators and hosts constantly reminded the students that, “The point is not the point, the point is the poetry.”

The poets made that very clear each time they walked up to the mic. One by one, they left everything they had inside of them on the stage and in the crowd. As scores were announced the crowd became energized and let them know just what they thought, chanting out, “Listen to the Poem!” if scores came out that the audience didn’t think matched the beauty and power of the performance. This method of scoring is unique and inclusive, by also allowing the audience to influence the scores. It is a community scoring system. And as the MC reminded us, the scores are secondary to the primary goal of creating community amongst the LTAB participants.

The YCA Press Corp. each talked about a piece the resonated with them the most and why it made such an impact.


One of the pieces that hit me the most was performed by Amir Hardeman from the Hyde Park Arts Center team. His piece described the life and rhythm of the Bucket Boys that we commonly see on the side of the highway. His string of alliteration wove together a thread of experience that had no chronological order but was read as a stream of conscious.

The poem broke down the essence of the struggle that many face on the South Side of Chicago, partaking in the view of the highway drummer boy who plays for change and a sense of humanity.

Amir goes to my school and we have been close friends for about 4 years, and this piece resonated with me because I remember times when I was with him and drummer boys off the block would walk up and dap up with Amir, both in understanding of each other’s story.

Poetry strives to tell our stories, and for Chicago youth competing in Louder Than A Bomb it is a way of life. However, what a majority of onlookers may see is a finished product. They may shed tears, laugh or rejoice with the performance of the poet, but rarely does the audience see the moments that became the journey to the poem. I have had an incredibly unique experience from listening to Amir’s poem, because not only am I here with him in the present listening to the story unfold on stage, I was also there in some of the experiences that created the material for the piece. As the Great poet Gwendolyn Brooks once said, “I wrote what I saw in the streets; that was my material.” – Nick Dimas


Another amazing poet that stuck out from that night was a student representing the team Victory Gardens. Damien Golan, 19 years old, confidently strutted on stage and introduced himself. In his poem he talked about his struggles as identifying as a bi-sexual, Latinx, man. He recalls putting on make-up as a young child, and steeling his mom’s red heels. He also recalls being punished for it.

“For me [performing that poem] meant that I was finally coming to terms with my identity. I am young, bisexual latino, man. Incidents like the pulse shooting, homophobia, transphobia, it’s all here,” Golan said. “People are diminished because they identify as being queer, or being Latinx, or both, and that’s not okay. I know I am apart of that group. I feel like I need to represent myself and other people who have been marginalized.”

Throughout the interview, many other poets who competed came up to Golan to congratulate him on doing a great job and to simply let him know they loved his poem. Support and solidarity was shown to one another the entire night.

Poets who had competed the day before showed up, poets who didn’t make it to quarters showed up to showed up, and in the back of the auditorium, Kevin Koval sat, looking out at everyone like a proud dad. – Tanya Munoz


The poem from this night that most lingered with me was the team poem recited by Rebirth.

Their choreography quickly set them apart from the competition and the weight of their words made them the most exhilarating performance of the night for me.

They talked about Chicago and why they stay here. The reality of moving to another part of the country doesn’t diminish the real threats that exist in the lives of young people of color. “Baltimore, Ferguson?” they asked. Are people of color really safe in any city in this country? While police brutality, racism, and economic inequity plague the nation as a whole there isn’t a safe space to seek shelter from these issues.

Rebirth also highlighted the positives of the city giving homage to their Chicago favorites. The powerful performance was part of the reason that the team received first place in the bout they participated in. – Christian Sanchez


Kuumba Lynx’s very own Sammy Ortega’s piece was a page ripped from my diary. A piece that juxtaposes education and military, Ortega focused on having a free ride to the military, instead of college. His face doused in emotion, the genuine concern for his future written all over his body while he sharply executed military positions and gestures.

If not most students, I definitely remember the fear of life after high school. Being an average student, joining the military was not far-fetched. I remember my friends shooting at me “that’s stupid”, “You’re going to die”, “Why Would you do that?” Then shame swarmed my body; I wasn’t smart enough or rich enough to attend college. Standardized test was a bust, grades lukewarm, and a college fund that my loving parents scraped up after each paycheck, miss me. Military seemed like the only option.

Sammy Ortega’s piece was a story too familiar. Hearing him pour out a line saying he has a free ride to a death sentence sent shudders down my spine. It was the same fear my friends and I shared. This piece shed light on the way education and military is treated in Chicago and or plainly in America. So much money spent on weapons, and not enough to help the education system. Not enough to send more students to college minus the debt, or not enough to help more students get the proper education needed to earn the full ride. Sammy’s chilling piece and jaw-dropping performance was not only all 10s, but a wake up call to the system. Write on. – Marlena Wadley


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