Film Shows Slam Poets Are 'Louder Than A Bomb'

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The film "Louder Than a Bomb" explores the world's largest youth poetry slam by the same name. It follows Chicago high school students as they compete, revealing how writing helps them develop personal identities, find community and gain therapy. The film has won awards at 15 film festivals. It starts its national theatrical rollout in N.Y. today. Host Michel Martin speaks with the film's co-director Greg Jacobs.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now we want to tell you about a competition where those involved say the point is not the point. It's the poetry. It's billed as the largest youth poetry slam in the world. It's held in Chicago, and it's called Louder than a Bomb. And now there's a new documentary about it that is getting big buzz and winning awards even before its official debut. Here's a clip.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Louder than a Bomb")

NATE MARSHALL: So excuse the couplet cockiness I ever show when rocking this - just trying to give my everything for everything I got from this. Kevin Colger(ph) told me I could write. My slam coach told me not to hype. I've loved and lost on final stages. The fates told me it's not the night. But still, I thank this forum for help making me so strong, for letting me talk about sex, drugs, basketball and moms. Fond farewell to this chapter and to all the joy and laughter, this for every kid whose voice has been louder than a bomb.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: That was 2008 slam poetry competitor Nate Marshall. And it comes from the new documentary "Louder Than a Bomb." Its nationwide theatrical rollout begins today at the IFC Center in New York. It's scheduled to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN, later this year.

Here to tell us more about it is the film's co-director, Greg Jacobs. He's with us from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

GREG JACOBS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: How did you get onto this?

JACOBS: I just happened to be driving by near Wrigley Field in Chicago with my wife and there's a famous rock club nearby called The Metro. And that night on the marquee there was a sign that said Louder than a Bomb High School Poetry Slam Finals Tonight, and a line of kids of all shapes and sizes and colors all down the block. Chicago's such a segregated city that it was unusual to see that kind of diversity among youth. And to see it on a Saturday night for kids who were there to see poetry was not something that I remembered doing for fun when I was in high school.

And that also meant that there were kids who were onstage who were reading and performing their poems for other kids. That struck me as amazingly brave and unusual. I went back on Monday and talked to my co-director Jon Siskel about how interesting this seemed. And he said, well, let's take a look.

MARTIN: The title of the film comes from the title of the competition itself. Where does that come from?

JACOBS: The idea came shortly after 9/11, actually. The coincidence of 9/11 and at the time in Chicago, there was talk about anti-gang loitering laws that would essentially make it a crime for kids to gather in small groups. And there were a bunch of poets and teachers who were working with these kids in the schools and knew how creative they were, but wanted to provide a safe space for them where they could do the kind of creativity they were seeing without having to worry about the kind of pressures that were then going on in the world.

So they decided to create this space by setting up a citywide poetry slam. And they kind of cribbed the title from a Public Enemy song, "Louder Than a Bomb," because the notion was these kids' words are more powerful than any weapon.

MARTIN: The film follows three individuals from separate teams and then a team as a whole. And one of the things that I think interesting is that the film makes the point that this isn't just something that poor kids do when they had nothing else to do. that they were kids from all different backgrounds who were attracted to this. And that's my way of leading with Adam. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "Louder than a Bomb")

ADAM GOTTLIEB: Poetry is loud because once you start your piece you can die behind that microphone and death may be breathless, but poetry is deathless, so breath be our savior eternal.



GOTTLIEB: Poets, breathe once with me now.


GOTTLIEB: That's one poem we all wrote.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit about Adam Gottlieb. He's from Northside College Prep. Why was he attracted to poetry in general, the poetry slam experience and to Louder Than a Bomb?

JACOBS: I always describe Adam as the most exotic character you will see in any documentary because he is perfectly well adjusted. He is an incredibly sweet, hippy kid from a very comfortable middle-class family. And when you see him in this context at Louder Than a Bomb or at the slam, you kind of think he's going to get beaten up and get his lunch money stolen. But then he gets on stage and he is this absolutely astonishing performer.

He sort of represents the incredible community that gets created at this event where kids from all sides of the city who may never ever come in contact with each other, get to meet and hear each other's stories and learn to respect each other.

MARTIN: And then there's Nova. Nova's kind of a tough cookie.

JACOBS: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: And just give you a little sense of that - well, instead of playing Nova, we'll play a little bit from her coach when he first met her and how he describes Nova.

(Soundbite of film, "Louder than a Bomb")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I told her, Nova, you did a great job, but you're a freshman and there are a lot of upperclassmen with more experience who are going to make the team ahead of you. She gave me this mean, dirty look. She stormed out the room and I heard her say something, like, I didn't make the team because I'm a god(beep) freshman, what kind of bull(beep) is that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And fortunately she didn't just throw in the towel at that point. But it was clear no one was going to mess with this kid.

MARTIN: And how did she get drawn to this poetry slam? And tell us a little bit more about here life, if you would. About why - in part, why she's so tough.

JACOBS: Yeah. She's a beautiful young woman, half Indian, half African-American with a thousand watt smile, but she is absolute steel. She grew up in a family of, I think, four kids. And her youngest brother, Cody, has something called fragile X syndrome and a whole other host of problems. Her parents got divorced. And that left her mom to work three jobs and essentially left Nova to take care of Cody.

So while everybody else was out having fun and partying and whatever, Nova was always the incredibly responsible one. By the time she got into high school, she had a lot of anger because of that. So her coach convinced her to sign up for the slam team and she did and having this outlet really seemed to make everything better.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about Nate Marshall, whom we met in the beginning of the introduction. We played a short clip from him. Tell me about why you picked him.

JACOBS: His parents, when he was very, very little, were both drug addicts. They soon afterwards cleaned up. And ultimately the home Nate came from was a very loving, kind of working class house with his mom in particular as this incredibly strong central figure. And he was identified early on as gifted. He is an extraordinarily talented writer as well as an extraordinary talented rapper.

One of my favorite moments in the film at the very end when we're asking the kids what they plan on doing, he says he's going to go to grad school to become a professor and/or rap star.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, of course.

JACOBS: Yeah, maybe both.

MARTIN: What else would you do? Exactly.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Greg Jacobs, co-director of "Louder Than a Bomb." It's a new documentary about the world's largest youth poetry slam held in Chicago. The poetry slam is by the same name and the film begins its national theatrical rollout tonight in New York.

Greg, we've been talking about some of the characters in the film. But I do have to mention that this film has been very well received, even before it's been viewed nationally. I'm wondering what you think people are responding to? I don't think you'll mind my mentioning, it's won 11 festival awards before it's even been widely seen. So what do you think people respond to?

JACOBS: I think people see hope in these kids. They see profound love in the teachers and the parents and the communities around them. And the hope is that they leave the theater feeling that the world's a better place than when they walked in.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about that, too, because one of the things that the film follows is the team from Steinmetz Academic Centre, which is - they describe it as not being one of the places that people think excellence comes from. And we are living in a time when there's a lot of talk about American education and teachers are up to snuff, whether the kids are learning enough.

There are some people who have the impression that just kids are going to hell in a handbasket. Is part of the message of this film no they're not? Or is part of the message of the film that any kid can be great if they find something that they love?

JACOBS: That second way is a very good way to put it. The Steinmetz kids got started and a lot of the themes of their work involve how much talent there is at Steinmetz that doesn't really have an outlet. The expectations are so low and the assumptions about these kids are so low, that nothing ever happens with it. So I think the Steinmetz kids are such an inspiration because they are sort of what happens if you're banging your head against the ceiling and then all of the sudden there's a space and you get to fly out of it.

MARTIN: And has it whetted your desire to write a few poems yourself?

JACOBS: I am not going to be writing any poetry because seeing how good these kids are make me say I'm just happy to be on the other side of the camera.

MARTIN: All right. Greg Jacobs is the co-director of "Louder Than a Bomb." It's a documentary about the world's largest high school performance poetry competition by the same name. Its national theatrical release starts today and Greg Jacobs was with us from Chicago. Thank you so much for joining us.

JACOBS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: If you'd like to find out how you can see the film, we'll link to its website on our website. Go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

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