An organization that gives young students at Mexico High School a voice “Louder than a Bomb” are supporting a fellow chapter in its pursuit to attend a national poetry slam competition.
Mexico High School formed its chapter of the Louder organization two years ago. It participated in the regional competition April 20 during the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, but lost out to Hickman High School. That school’s chapter will perform at a fundraiser starting 2 p.m. Sunday at Logboat Brewing Co., 504 Fay St., in Columbia, that hopes to raise upward of $3,000 to get the Hickman chapter to the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival from July 17-29 in Las Vegas.
Recent graduate Hazen Blair was the driving force behind the Mexico chapter. He had attended events and performed his original poetry at Café Berlin in Columbia through the Columbia-based One Mic organization. Blair’s mother, Jamie, is the Mexico chapter’s coach and spoke with The Ledger about the intricacies of Louder and what it does for students.
Each chapter in the Mid-Missouri region — which includes Battle High School and Rock Bridge High School, along with Hickman, Mexico and others — has a team name and call-and-response slogan. The Mexico group is known as The Message and its slogan is “Speak the truth. Speak change.”
Louder teams bring up to four poets to each competition. There are three rounds for the individual poets and then a final group choreopoem, which means the group performs an original poem incorporating choreographed movement. Poets are judged by a panel, which gives marks out of 10. The high and low scores are excluded, and the average of what remains is the individual or team’s score.
Louder was formed in 2001 in Chicago after the 9/11 attacks when young people of color were being targeted by an anti-gang loitering law aimed at limiting freedom of assembly rights, according to the Louder website. It was founded by Kevin Coval, Anna West and a group of educators as a way to give youth a space in which to congregate and express themselves through writing and performing of spoken word poetry.
“When (Hazen) was at Missouri Scholars Academy, he had taken a spoken word class and had really gotten into it,” Jamie Blair said.
Hazen wanted to start a Louder chapter but needed a faculty sponsor. Sara Given, the high school’s speech and drama teacher, was the person they needed. The chapter started through Given’s sponsorship, while Jamie Blair serves as the team coach.
“Immediately, we got quite a bit of interest from other kids,” she said. “It’s been a really good outlet for kids.”
Heavier topics such as abuse, general societal worries and other issues faced by teenagers make it into chapter members’ original poetry. Sometimes they are things the students don’t feel comfortable talking about with their parents or even their friends, but they can express themselves through their poetry, Blair said.
“LTAB is a place where they can put all that stuff on the page, and then they can take it to the stage and lance those wounds and deal with that stuff in a supportive environment,” she said.
The biggest responsibility Blair has is to listen to the chapter members. “The kids talk about a lot of really intense, emotional stuff and the biggest thing that I can do is to listen to them with an open heart,” she said.
The team coach works with members on ways to make the greatest impact with their words, such as inflection, pace and delivery. The chapter holds practices during a study hour at the high school, along with off-campus meetings in the Audrain County Courthouse basement.
Chapter members work on poems at home. Blair provided a writing prompt — an alliterative alphabet poem incorporating American Sign Language — to help the team members develop choreopoem for competitions and share their work with the group.
Members of the Louder chapter do not have to perform their poetry publicly, Blair said. Some don’t perform out of a fear of public speaking, while others want to keep what they write in the group, which is treated as a safe space, she said.
“One of the first things we do in Louder is take a safe-space pledge,” she said. “We get together and we talk about exactly what we want to accomplish in our safe space and what sort of behaviors are not acceptable.”
Blair is impressed with how quickly the group started to feel like a family. Members come from different backgrounds and social groups and are able to talk about their issues through their poetry without judgement. Everyone is very grateful to have this safe space, she said.
“These kids tackle the most pressing issues — politically and in their own lives — in a way that is open and honest and you really need to have that promise that you’re not going to be made fun of for it. So that is where we start,” Blair said.
Students receive constructive criticism on their poetry, but no one is there to tear another student down, she said.
Each chapter is forward looking in their poetry writing, Blair said. Despite the competition setting, everyone is pulling for everybody, she said, which is why the Mexico chapter will be attending Sunday’s fundraiser, she said.
“We’re pulling for Hickman,” she said. “It’s about the poetry. It’s about these kids expressing the things that they see that are wrong with the world and the things they need to deal with and try to come up with a solution.”
The Mexico Louder chapter has not yet had a chance to perform for the community due to conflicting events with the high school’s speech and debate team, which also is sponsored by Given. The chapter is hoping to join the speech and debate umbrella in the next year so that it can be part of the speech, debate and theater showcase, Blair said.
“I really do think that LTAB and having this outlet for kids is everything,” she said.