Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Louder Than a Bomb" Brings Poetry Slam Into the Spotlight

Testify to the Power of Poetry!
A new documentary called Louder Than a Bomb is screening this Friday in Chicago. It tells the story of four Chicago teens who have been selected to participate in the annual "Louder Than a Bomb" Poetry Slam event in which more than 600 teens from 60 schools come to perform their unique and original poetry.

Some of you might immediately start yawning, but before you pass judgement, you ought to know a few things about Poetry Slam.

Poetry Slam is a competitive art, in which poets combine elements of writing, acting, and dance to create dynamic presentations of their work. Five judges score the process using an Olympic 0-10 scale, looking at not just the words of the poet, but the overall performance. There are specific rules in competition: no props, costumes, or instruments. There is a 3-minute time limit for each performance with a ten second grace period. Audiences are encouraged to make their feelings about the poet's work known, giving the whole event a real community vibe that is unbelievably cool.

The first Slam was held in Chicago in 1984. A construction worker and poet named Marc Smith established it at a Jazz club, the Get Me High Lounge. Popularity increased and by 1990 the first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco. Slams are now a worldwide phenomenon.

For me, I first learned about Poetry Slam at the California League of High Schools conference in November 2002. A teacher/speaker held a workshop on Slam's effectiveness in encouraging students to write. I was intrigued and decided to try it. In the Spring of that year, I hosted my first Poetry Slam event at San Jacinto High School's theater for my English students. The winners prize was $5.00 in coins, and the judges culled from administrators, fellow teachers and parents.

The event was a success. Students who initially seemed reticent to perform found their voice and delivered beautiful poetry. I was remarkably proud of these kids, who before we even started writing poetry were quick to express their hatred for the artform. I'd like to think some hearts and minds were changed over the course of the Slam.

After I left San Jacinto High, I took the Slam to the middle school level and found more success with 8th grade English Language Learners. We didn't have the same facilities at Ruth O. Harris Middle School that we did at the high school, but it didn't matter. I invited the parents to join us for an evening potluck in the school's multi-purpose room. Again, the warmth of the community and the spirit of the evening brought out the best in the kids, who delivered some remarkable poetry.

Anything that encourages kids to think, write, and express the whirlwind of ideas consuming their minds is something beautiful. Poetry Slam offers this opportunity. And by making it a fun competition, kids will rise to the occasion.

I'm looking forward to Louder Than a Bomb more than any feature film this year.* Maybe it's because of my experience with Poetry Slam, but mainly because it appears to be a celebration of the creativity of youth.

*According to the film's official website, the documentary will be airing sometime soon on Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network. While I am usually very critical of Oprah, this is great and gives most of us who can't get into the big cities to see small films like this in limited release a chance to see it.

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