Poetry fest unleashes the political imaginations of Chicago’s youth

Photo courtesy of Young Chicago Authors Photo courtesy of Young Chicago Authors A select group of high school-aged Chicago lyricists will take the stage at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday for the finals of the 2016 Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) youth poetry festival. The event comes less than a week after Illinois residents vote in this year’s general primary election. While at face value, the two happenings seem disconnected, LTAB founder Kevin Coval says that his youth poetry festival has played a powerful role in contributing to Chicago’s present political discourse. Kevin Coval (LTAB founder, poet, and author) Kevin Coval (LTAB founder, poet, and author) “These young people are using their political imaginations to envision locally elected school boards, police reforms, prison justice and public school demilitarization,” Coval said. “Young people are so attuned to what’s happening in the city. When we talk about police brutality and a mayor’s office that’s hidden a murder—young people know what’s up.” The political influence of Chicago’s youth in recent months cannot be exaggerated. Young activists with groups like Black Lives Matter-Chicago, Black Youth Project 100 and Assata’s Daughters should be largely credited with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s fall from grace. Coval mentioned that LTAB has a growing relationship with Black Youth Project 100 and Assata’s Daughters. According to Coval, the present turmoil of Chicago makes for great poetry. “I think this is the best year of the poem we’ve ever seen,” he said, “and Chicago is in a moment where a lot of ears are attuned to what young people are making.” Young Chicago Authors was oen of the 2016 MacArthur Award winners. Young Chicago Authors is a 2016 MacArthur Award winner. Coval started LTAB in 2001 in response to the Chicago City Council’s efforts at the time to pass an anti gang-loitering law, a political endeavor, Coval said, prompted by post-9/11 anxieties. At the time, critics of the anti-loitering legislation argued that the law would unfairly target minorities and sweep up innocent civilians. The law granted police officers broad powers to arrest or harass anyone they suspected of being in a gang. “We wanted to create a cultural space to counter that monolith,” Coval explained. “In that moment of chaos and fear, we wanted to create a space that valued the narratives of kids of color and working-class kids.” Coval’s intention was to create a space in which young poets could creatively voice their opposition to the legislation. He didn’t foresee the extent to which the event would expand. “Immediately afterward,” Coval said, “people started asking, ‘When’s next year’s event?’” What started as a one-night, 25-student competition back in 2001 has now transformed into a five-week festival that features 1200 high school-aged poets. Coval said that LTAB continues to branch out and is now in the process of forming international partnerships. “It’s continuing to expand every year,” Coval said. “We’ve shared our model of organizing with 15 other cities across America, and we’re beginning to bring in global partners. This year, there will be a Louder Than A Bomb starting in Toronto.” Coval explained that eventually, he’d like to turn Chicago’s LTAB festival into a statewide event that resembles something akin to the Illinois state high school basketball tournament. “We have a long way to go,” he said, “and it’s not just about Chicago anymore.” Saturday’s LTAB finals at the Auditorium Theatre begin at 6 p.m. and will run for approximately an hour and a half. Four teams of 10-12 students, each team from a specific Chicago-area high school, will compete against each other for the festival’s crown. Each student will have only three minutes to speak. Tickets can be purchased at youngchicagoauthors.org.  
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Sam Rappaport