In Louder Than a Bomb, the annual poetry slam in Chicago provides a structure, a deadline and a stage, a gathering of artists who inspire one another.
Louder Than a BombDirector: Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Cast: Kevin Coval, Adam Gottlieb, Elizabeth Graf, Kevin Harris, John Hood, Lamar Jorden, Peter Kahn, Jésus Lark, Nate Marshall, She'Kira McKnight, Preye Porri, James Sloan, Charles Smith, Robbie Q. Telfer, Nova Venerable
Studio: Oprah Winfrey Network
US date: 2011-05-18 (IFC Center)
I wanted them to learn that the world is bigger than a poetry slam.
-- Nate Marshall
"We're really not known for winning anything except sports, so we have to fight for everything we earn." Lamar Jordan lives in Chicago. His sense of context, his self-awareness, is hard-won and ongoing. A young man in process, Lamar introduces himself in Louder Than a Bomb using his nickname, "The Truth," and then tells it. "When I was growing up," says this 19-year-old, "I was a bit of a troublemaker and I did some things I regret. I like damaged a lot of things in the house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. The first time I made my father cry was the first time he heard me perform poetry."
Lamar's story, at once so personal and so resonant, shapes the poems he writes and performs. A member of Steinmetz High School's slam poetry team, in 2008, he's both proud and apprehensive. The year before, when the Steinmenauts first competed at the Louder Than a Bomb slam -- the city's largest, featuring teams from 60 high schools -- they surprised nearly everyone by winning the championship. Now, they hope to repeat, but at the same time, they mean to keep a perspective.
All the contestants are well aware of the contradiction in what they do. Though poems are immeasurable, they are also subject to judgments -- as the documentary shows repeatedly, each performance earns points, like Olympic dives, cards held up by judges numbered one through 10. "It's an outrageous thing, it's a stupid thing, giving scores and numbers to poems," admits Kevin Coval, LTAB's co-founder. "But then in the moment where it actually affects a team that maybe should have won, you're like, 'What are we doing? Really, what are we doing?'"
What they're doing is complicated, as you might guess. While competitors say more than once at LTAB, "The point is not the point, the point is the poetry," they also do compete, seriously and passionately. (The competition calls for four solo performances and a team performance.) Even as scores might seem unfair or even "stupid," as a concept, they do provide a kind of structure, a deadline and a stage, a gathering of artists who motivate and thrill one another. As they prepare for LTAB, the teams serve as alternate families. Steinmetz's Coach John Hood insists, "We try to instill that in every kid, that they're part of something even if they don’t perform. That's okay, because we need everybody we can get, because we're all we've got."
Louder Than a Bomb underlines this idea, showing how teams offer support and refuge, and also become occasional sources of tension. Opening in May at New York's IFC Center and soon airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network, the film offers a series of storylines. As in other recent competition documentaries (say, Mad Hot Ballroom, Rize, Resolved), these are organized around a few individuals, charismatic and representative. Like Lamar's, his rivals' stories are inspiring, instances of obstacles overcome. Nate Marshall from Whitney Young Magnet High School South Side remembers that both his parents were addicts (his mother, now clean, marvels at his skills: "When I saw him on stage, I was like, 'Wow, is that my child? The quiet one?'") As brilliant as his work may be, Nate puts his energy into helping younger team members. "Would it be cool to win slam?" he asks. "Hell, yeah. But if I don’t, I'll probably just be like the Dan Marino of slam. Dan Marino's a cool guy."
Nate's combination of pride and humility seems very different from Nova Venerable's intensity. A student at Oak Park/River Forest High School, she introduces herself by saying, "I was really angry all the time, I used to try to fight people every day, I used to yell at people, choke people stab at people with pencils." Poetry gave her a constructive outlet, she says, a way to express herself and feel rewarded for it. "What she writes about is hardcore, raw stuff, and when she says it, she gets to that place," says her coach, Peter Kahn, "You're there with her." Indeed, as she performs her poems about her father, now absent, who was an addict ("I fell into a caregiver role," she explains), and her younger brother Cody, who has Fragile X syndrome (in his case, producing Type One diabetes, autism, and seizures), she creates vivid, profound images. She brings remarkable poise and ferocity to her performances. "When I started writing," she says, "Everything that I was holding inside that came out was such a big relief, I didn’t have to worry too much about feelings of guilt, I didn’t have to worry about being upset. My life just kind of seemed to fit when I started writing."
As Nova imagines herself teaching high school someday (math or English, or maybe both), she also looks forward to having a "normal," stable life, a marriage and children, but not until she's 26. Her sense of what might be normal is shaped by what she doesn’t have. Adam Gottlieb, from Northside College Prep, has a different gauge. Wholly supported by his parents ("Well, you know there's a tremendous job market for slam poets," his dad laughs), Adam is at once supremely confident and conscious ("I've always had privilege"). He loves the slam community, the model it provides for a "better world." Describing LTAB, he turns giddy, bouncing just a little on his bed as he speaks: "If you're somewhere else in the first week of March, you're in the wrong place. Louder Than a Bomb is the coolest place to be on the planet."
The film shows just how cool, through the participants' investments, their hard work, and the changing lives. The slams are a means more than an end, a means of "learning about new people and understanding new people and really feeling inspired by people who are very different than you," as Adam puts it. "I would like to say that that's changing the world. And if not, it's definitely coming much, much closer."
This ideal is visible at LTAB. After months of preparation -- and some drama -- the competition comprises the film's lengthy closing sequence, with a montage of presentations, scoreboards, and reaction shots. As regular as this structure may be, the performances are terrific. And these are the point.