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Louder Than a Bomb brings slam poetry workshop to campus

Image by Louder Than A Bomb

Image by Louder Than A Bomb

This article was originally published on Oct. 26, 2015.

Local high school students joined Beloit College students for a slam poetry workshop on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 24. Jamila Woods and Jasmine Barber, artists from Young Chicago Authors (YCA), led the workshop in Wilson Theatre. YCA is a nonprofit founded in 1991 to give youth a platform for expressing themselves through literary arts, including poetry, spoken word, verse, journalism, playwriting and fiction.

After introductions, Woods and Barber, both raised in Chicago, each shared a poem. Woods shared how she began writing because she felt isolated in high school, and wanted “to see myself reflected somewhere.” Barber started writing in “fifth or sixth grade” because she was bullied. After a teacher showed her Def Poetry Jam, she got more interested in pursuing poetry and spoken word. She has more recently started rapping, realizing she has a talent for it.

They asked the participants to make a few lists. The first list chronicled places participants consider home. Then, they had to choose one and make a list of sounds associated with it: smells, the people there, objects in and around it, activities there, and who they were. Then, the poets read “Where I’m From” by Willie Perdomo, asking the audience to respond. Participants were then given ten minutes to write with Blue Books and pencils provided, and then some shared their work.

For the second activity, participants were asked to make a list of “reasons why you’re dope,” as Barber put it. Then, a list of insecurities, followed by what you think is beautiful, challenges overcome or that you are still facing, what makes you feel better, and lastly, favorite outfit. Using the poem “Ego Trippin’ (There Must Be a Reason Why)” by Nikki Giovanni and the song “i” by Kendrick Lamar for inspiration, participants wrote with Taylor McFerrin music in the background and shared their own poems.

The poets admitted this could be a difficult piece for people to write — but also so important. “The society we live in makes it hard for us to say good things we love about ourselves,” Barber commented. “People don’t want you to love yourself.”

After thanking the audience for sharing, Woods, who is also a vocalist and songwriter and frontwoman of the soul duo M&O, shared an original song, singing a capella. Barber ended with a rap about her depression, using the instrumental version of J Dilla’s song “Colors of You.” Participants were encouraged to continue writing and invited to get more involved in LTAB.

Co-founded in 2001 by Kevin Coval and Anna West, LTAB is the world’s largest youth poetry slam festival, and is hosted by YCA. Held in February and March, the festival attracts over 1,000 participants from 120 schools in over 100 Chicago area zip codes. Chicago’s festival has four divisions: high school teams, high school indies, college teams and college indies. However, most of the poets are in high school. The festival has gained popularity and attention over the years, in part from a 2010 documentary by the same name. Other cities in addition to Chicago host their own LTAB festivals, and the festival includes LTAB University for individual college students to compete in.

Woods says LTAB is all about “putting youth voices at the forefront.” It “tries to transform the culture of school so that poetry is seen as cool … as important as a sports team.” Barber, who also plays basketball, sees a similar level of competition between slam poetry and athletics, especially with the point system.

Barber has performed at Steppenwolf, Printer’s Row and Second City, and has opened for Angela Davis and Common. She is the 2013 LTAB Indy College Slam Champion. Currently, she is in the process of writing her first children’s poetry book titled Tea Time with Dragons.

Woods received her B.A. from Brown University. Her first chapbook The Truth About Dolls (2012) contains a Pushcart Prize-nominated poem; her work has also appeared in the anthologies The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (2015), Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls (2014), and The UnCommon Core: Contemporary Poems for Learning & Living (2013); she also writes plays and dramaturgical writing.

Alli Littel’16 competed in LTAB in high school, and has worked there through an internship and an apprenticeship. A co-founder of the Beloit Poetry Project, she appreciated the workshop. “Beloit likes slam poetry, but I don’t think a lot of people believe they can actually do it,” she said. “I hope this workshop empowered students to be able to find their voice, whether or not they share it at open mics or slams on campus.”

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