Spring semester is Louder than a Bomb (LTAB) season. This multi-week event draws more than 500 poets and some 120 teams from schools and community organizations to Chicago. They compete slam-style in what Young Chicago Authors, the organization behind the event, calls the world’s largest youth poetry festival.
Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Spoken Word Club members spend weeks preparing. An eight-person Slam Team writes solo and team poems to perform on stages across Chicago. Preliminary bouts began Feb. 26. OPRF’s team, coached by Peter Kahn, English teacher and Spoken Word educator, and Christian Robinson, assistant Spoken Word teacher, made it through quarter finals on March 12. Next up were semifinals on March 15, but with large audiences anticipated — up to 4,000 by the finals — that last competition week, which included the semifinals, team and individual final bouts, was postponed. It was simply not safe to perform in person due to COVID-19.
The good news: LTAB went on virtually with the OPRF Slam Team placing second. The bad news: Those last rounds going virtual meant no live performances, no encouraging crowds snapping fingers, no special awards like Best Piece of Writing (often taken home by an OPRF team member) or Spirit of the Slam, and no powerhouse guest performances.
Instead, one team video was submitted from an earlier rehearsal and one from a live LTAB quarterfinal bout. Four individual poem performances were recorded from students’ homes and submitted for the semifinals, three of which went on to the finals. The competitions went on as live virtual events. Judges still weighed in, commenting and scoring as before, only doing it in a comments section. Coaches and students watched and participated by writing comments as well.
“It was a weird switch-up of energy,” Robinson said. “There is so much crowd engagement that goes on live. Only seeing it through comments was very interesting. But it worked.”
LTAB wrapped on May 2. According to Robinson, Slam Team members were excited and grateful to participate, but there were mixed emotions.
“The team thoroughly enjoys participating together and being together so it’s good that wasn’t taken off the table, but … it’s sad they couldn’t get the full experience,” he said.
The eight Slam Team members had been meeting virtually through Google Meet with Kahn and Robinson for 5-6 weeks. Those meetings included voting for which pieces got submitted for semifinals and finals, no different from their usual drill during LTAB.
Some members of the Spoken Word Club, which can have as many as 70 students at in-person meetings at school, have met a few times too. The group is split by grade for virtual meetings. A recent Google Meet for seniors had approximately 20 students.
“They are good overall,” Robinson said of the virtual club meetings. “It takes a little warming up to, once you log in to the chat, and it’s a little awkward at first. You have to figure out who’s talking when. But once we get into it, everyone just settles down and is ready to catch up with each other.”
Now the club is preparing for a Senior Showcase.
Spoken Word would have had their in-person Spring Showcase on May 6. Three seniors who have been in the most showcases and the Ishma Stewart Scholarship winner would do solo pieces. And 60 to 70 other students would also do new works. Only about half of the club members are taking part in video-call meetings and the virtual Senior Showcase is a scaled-back event.
“Normally when we are in school, Christian and I are reminding kids in the hallways, there’s a student bulletin, sometimes we look up students’ schedules if they missed a meeting or we’ll call home — there’s a lot of things that are not at our disposal,” Kahn said. “And it’s not gearing up for a live performance. That’s part of it too.”
Seniors expected to perform are Jalen Daniels, Eliana Gerace and Matt Buchta and scholarship winner Micah Daniels. All seniors are invited to make a video sharing their experiences in Spoken Word for the showcase.
The Senior Showcase is scheduled for Wednesday, May 13, 7 p.m. It can be watched live at youtube.com/user/OPRFUtube.