“Louder than a Bomb” is a new documentary about Chicago’s poetry slam competition for high schoolers. Watching these teenagers thrill to finding their own voices and hearing each other’s stories makes it one of the most inspiring films of the year. I spoke to co-director Jon Siskel (nephew of the late critic Gene Siskel) about making the film.
How did you discover the poetry slam competition in Chicago?
My co-director, Greg Jacobs, was driving on the North Side of Chicago on a Saturday night and saw outside this club called The Metro hundreds of kids lined up under this marquee that said “Louder than a Bomb Poetry Slam.” He thought, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, all these kids, every shape size, color, lined up for poetry on a Saturday night.” Greg came in Monday and said, “I think I’ve got our next subject.” We reached out to the founder of Louder than a Bomb Kevin Coval and he invited us to visit a slam and it was really that moment, going to the slam, seeing the kids on stage and the exchange with the audience that was so electrifying — it was one of those things where you know it when you see it. When you get into documentaries you know it is going to be such a long commitment so you’re always kind of cautioning and looking for a way out. “Is something wrong here? Is something not going to work?” But every step of the way it was just better and better and better.
How did you select the kids you were going to focus on?
Our first criteria was that we wanted the best poets. If you’re going to make a movie about a poetry slam, you have to start with that. There are these amazing moments of bravery with other poets who are not shining stars but who get up on stage, paper shaking, not necessarily a great poet but they’re up there pouring their hearts out. But we wanted the poetry to sing and be great.
There were about 40 teams competing at that time. Kevin narrowed it down to a dozen schools. We spent a year hanging out with the kids and part of that year was the first competition we filmed, Nate doing “LeBron James” and Adam doing “Poet Breathe Now.” We heard some stuff that Nova did that was amazing and the Steinmenauts won that year.
What makes a good poem?
I think these kids are writing great poems on paper, but with Slam it’s a combination of really good writing with really good performance. All of our kids in totally different ways do that amazingly well. I think people start giggling when they first see Adam on screen, the hippie kid, dorky, nerdy-ish, but when he gets up on stage he grabs the audience by the throat. And Nova just silences audiences, even in the scene where she’s performing her piece in the classroom about her father, every audience is just holding their breath. She is just devastating. There’s this honesty — I don’t know how they do that. What is so amazing is that it starts in the classroom with this teamwork and so you have Nova putting this stuff out in front of her peers, and Lemar and Big C, putting this very emotional territory in front of people.
Why does poetry make that possible in a way that say, writing an essay does not?
They’re reporting from the streets, talking about things happening around them. “Counting Graves” is this incredibly powerful poem. They create personas and characters. But a lot of the slam comes from this very personal place and that is highly valued by the audience and the judges.
What did you leave out that you wish you could have included?
So much. We had over 350 hours of footage and the movie is 99 minutes. For the educational DVD we’ve been able to add this really beautiful poem from Nate. And it’s going to air on OWN and they will put out a DVD and we hope there will be extras in that.
Are the slam kids influenced by classic poetry? Do they read it in school?
Oh yeah. Nate’s walls are covered with Bob Dylan and Langston Hughes. They read Gwendolyn Brooks, they read all kinds of stuff. Kevin and the teachers bring all kinds of influences and poetry into the classroom. Nate uses the word villanelle, a reference to a classic formal poetry structure.
Tell me about the teachers who work with these kids.
They are incredible. I think “love” is a word people are uncomfortable with, but it is really what this movie is about, love between the teammates, love from the community, and love between these teachers and their students. The teachers are the heroes of the film, not in a hammering political way but you just see it.
Chicago public radio station WBEZ co-sponsors Louder Than a Bomb and has posted audio from many of the Louder Than a Bomb poetry slams.