Rhymes and reasons

Wild cries of “Listen to the poem!” reverberated amid whistles through the royal purple hallways of Englewood Community Academy High School. “Yes! No! Listen to the poem!” the audience chanted as up on stage twenty-odd students from schools across the South Side recited their poetry in Englewood’s first Youth Poetry Duo Slam.

The event, with a competitive section for paired presentations and a noncompetitive section for independent performances, is an extension of Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB), the teen poetry slam competition founded in 2001. Inspired by LTAB, the Englewood Academy slam was entirely the initiative of South Side teachers, and featured the teams they have coached in a wide inter-city network of young poets–even the event’s emcee was an educator. “We wanted to take it upon ourselves to continue the community thing that LTAB has become,” said Melissa Hughes, an English teacher and one of the organizers of the event. “The kids were skeptical at first,” added Dave Stieber, another organizer. “But then we took them to Louder Than a Bomb and they saw how cool poetry slams were and really went for it.”

With their voices racing up and down the cadences of their self-crafted poems the young performers told tales of frustrated love, sexual encounters, music, race, and what it feels like to be born while your twin dies.

“I live in the town of the crazies” breathed one of the contenders, Zoe, crescendoing mightily through her poem about life in Englewood. “Look down other mighty nations, a utopia that reached the brim edge of existence!” The performers linked phrases with tightly enunciated sibilance, they spat plosive consonants, they closed their eyes and gestured madly. “It’s very lively, that’s what I like about it,” said Zoe. “I just want to go up on stage and have the audience listen.”

“Yes, the kids love to perform, it comes so naturally to them,” said Hughes. And indeed, even when the poetry was over, six boys took the stage bobbing and weaving in a synchronized dance. A brother and sister grabbed microphones and began to sing as DJ Itchy Fingers whooped from the sound box, and the teacher-cum-emcee hopped down letting his happy students swarm the stage.