With those two words, Quincy High School student Noor Al-saad made it clear she had a few things to say about her country.
On another overcast Saturday morning, the roomful of teenagers in front of her might have wished they were still in bed. But here, in a hotel conference room in Boston, the students were wide awake and hungry for words.
“I have never written a poem angry,” said Al-saad, a petite, soft-spoken young woman wearing a blue headwrap. “My words don’t fall that way.”
But the subject of her poem, as it unfolded, was clearly upsetting to her: She’s been thinking about police brutality, and as she recited a litany of names — “Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray” — her voice rose in frustration.
The young poets who showcase at Louder Than a Bomb, the annual Boston-area version of the competition billed as the world’s largest poetry slam festival, are predisposed to social consciousness. A diverse range of students representing high schools from as far afield as Lynn, Lexington, Lowell, and Worcester write and perform each year about issues affecting their lives, including racial justice, immigration, transgender rights, and economic instability.
But in the sixth year of the tournament, hosted by the Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective (MassLEAP), the stakes for these students seem especially high.
Given all the “problematic things happening in this world,” explained Michelle Garcia, a poet from KIPP Academy in Lynn who is competing in her fourth year at LTAB, the festival provides young people with a place to voice their concerns and grievances.
“You have the power to say something,” she said, “and here’s your platform. Yeah, it’s a competition, but you’re also building a community.”
This year’s Louder Than a Bomb tournament, spread out over a month, continued last week with a semifinal round at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. Individual finals are set for April 29 at UMass Boston, followed by team finals May 6 at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester.
On a Saturday in early April, the fifth floor of the Sheraton Boston was packed with poets from this year’s 40 competing teams — a steadily growing number that has made the Massachusetts LTAB the second-biggest festival of its kind, after founding city Chicago. In one crowded conference room, event host Zenaida Elena noted that there was an American flag visible out the window behind her.
“Seems kind of symbolic for some reason,” she said.
Many of the poems, in fact, took stock of the debates currently mobilizing under the flag. One poet mentioned Dachau and Syria in the same breath. Another repeated a familiar mantra: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” A third, a young woman with long blue nails and a large gold cross hanging from her neck, recalled the first time she realized she’d been given a label. It was third grade. They called her “immigrant.”
“We’ve created a society where we can only be one of the many things we are,” she said, drawing murmurs of agreement.
‘You have the power to say something and here’s your platform. Yeah, it’s a competition, but you’re also building a community.’
Audiences at LTAB bouts are unapologetically vocal, urging on teammates and opponents and chiding the volunteer judges when they’re stingy with scores. There’s a standard reaction to that: “Listen to the poem!” students will scold.
Each team, composed of a half-dozen students or so, has an adult coach or two. One of those coaches, Yana Minchenko, teaches Humanities at Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury. The LTAB team she co-leads (with fellow teacher Juliet Buesing) won last year’s competition.
Poetry creates spaces for the students to initiate conversations on difficult topics, said Minchenko — in many cases, “conversations that do not take place in their classrooms, or even in their families. This is the space where they demand attention for themselves.”
The Urban Science team proved the power of their collective voice recently when their group poem about school-system budget cuts caught the attention of the superintendent’s office and the mayor’s administration.
“I’m hoping that some of these people grow up and take a place in a position of politics,” said Minchenko. “They’re so ignited by political urgency.”
MassLEAP recently incorporated as a non-profit, and Garcia was named one of two students on the organization’s board. Having participated in LTAB through her high school years, she plans to continue her commitment to the program after she graduates.
“Poetry has shaped my life in every aspect,” she said. “Now I want to be a writer and go into political science.”
Jonathan Mendoza competed in LTAB as a student at Framingham High School before moving to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music, where he has created his own major combining arts and social advocacy. He volunteers as poetry coach for the LTAB team from the writing program at 826 Boston.
“The students talk about their growth as writers, performers, and people, and I’m growing just watching them,” said Mendoza. He just returned from a trip to Chicago, where he competed with a Berklee team in this year’s college-level competition, College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. (One of his poems, about white privilege, was chosen as one of the festival’s three best.)
For Mendoza, giving young people the opportunity to express themselves through poetry is an inherently political act. “The processing these kids are doing internally while reflecting in their writing is very inspiring,” he says. “They’re doing that work every day, and becoming better people.
“I’ve been bragging about them nonstop,” he added with a laugh.
For more information on remaining Louder Than a Bomb 2017 festival dates, go to www.massleap.org.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @sullivanjames.