It’s not very often that young people have a platform designed to share their voices with their community. Open mics can be great, but a lot of them are held in bars. Performances at a school likely don’t reach out beyond students’ parents.
For the last four years, a new opportunity has become available to middle and high school students in the Tacoma area to write, collaborate, and share their work with the greater Tacoma community. Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) is a teen poetry slam festival that originally started in Chicago in 2001 and gained national attention in 2010 when a documentary on the event was released. It landed in Tacoma — its first roots on the west coast — in 2016 and is now run by creative writing nonprofit Write253.
“What we want teens to do is create a close community inside of their schools,” said Michael Haeflinger, executive director of Write253 and the person responsible for bringing LTAB to Tacoma. “We don’t want to get too much in the way of that. We turn the lights on, turn the mics on, talk about the rules, and then as an organizing group back out as much as we can.”
The real face of LTAB, he said, is the students who get up and perform their poetry. This year, more than 100 students did so over the course of two weekends in March — some independently, some in one of the 13 groups that competed against one another.
Performers included students in middle and high school from across western Washington; for the first time, college-aged youth between 18 and 24 were also invited into the fold. And, following with a tradition established in Chicago, Tacoma’s LTAB includes recordings of poetry written by those in juvenile detention.
“Write253 is in Remann Hall (Juvenile Detention Center) every week to do writing workshops or book clubs,” said Haeflinger. “Before LTAB (every year), we bring in recording equipment and they can come and record their poems. Then we play those recordings throughout the festival.”
For Christina Butcher, LTAB coordinator, those moments are among the most powerful and get to the heart of what the festival is about.
“The first time I went to LTAB, hearing those poems played as the stage went dark and seeing the spotlight on the empty stage was so impactful to me,” she said. “It shows that there’s an organization working really hard to make sure that these youth still have voices in the community.”
This year, two of these poems were played by poets Andy and Zachary and touched on death, bravery, and fear.
Students who were able to be there physically also didn’t hold back difficult subject matter. Alexandra Wick, a 15-year-old first year at the Science and Math Institute, slammed a powerful poem about school shootings. The four-person team from Stadium High School — which has never participated in LTAB before — performed a group poem about putting on other people’s experiences like clothing items and learning to empathize. Others touched on body image, feminism, and social activism.
Olympia High School, which also took students to LTAB for the first time, had a team of nine: five first years and four seniors. The seniors performed a group piece about the process of learning not to apologize for being a certain way.
“We started off with a poem about atonement, apologizing to people we felt we needed to apologize to,” said Maisie Maclay, the senior behind putting together the school’s first team. Apologies went out to parents and old partners for not being or acting a certain way.
“In the process of working on it, we realized that maybe we don’t need to apologize to these people,” said Maclay. “We don’t need to be sorry for these things.”
Kameko Lashlee Gaul, another senior in the group piece, said that writing the piece has made her feel more confident in herself and her work.
“I do think it’s a normal thing for teenagers to apologize for things we create, or to undersell ourselves,” she said. “The process of flipping the script — deciding that apologizing to people about certain things actually isn’t necessary — has definitely helped me to drop that mentality a little bit.”
Olympia High School’s team made it to finals, held on March 23 at Alma Mater’s Fawcett Hall. There, individual poets and groups competed for their teams in front of a packed audience of community members. The crowned winner of the slam was the team from Fresh Start; their group poem, performed by four students of color, expressed the hurt and frustration they have experienced in being wrongly convicted but always targeted because of the color of their skin.
Next year, Haeflinger said that the number of teams — which was 13 this year — may well double.
“When we reach out to teenagers in particular, we’re just trying to make sure that we give them spaces and places and platforms to (share their creativity),” Butcher said. “There can always be more of something like that.”