The youth poets of Michigan have something to say

Photos by Justin Milhouse/Courtesy Louder Than a Bomb: The Michigan Youth Poetry Festival.

The youth poets of Michigan have something to say.

“My city taught me what it means to survive, despite.” – Ashley Carson, 18, Citywide Poets

They aren’t spending their Saturday night in a Detroit auditorium just to talk about the Kardashians or other trifling things. They are here on Wayne State University’s campus to drop the mic, to bring some truth. This mix of more than 100 students from across Southeast Michigan – African-American, Caucasian, Indian, male, female, some in hijab, others in brightly colored kicks – are here to watch and compete in the final battle of Louder Than a Bomb: The Michigan Youth Poetry Festival.

“I am afraid to go to college. Scared I won’t fit in. Scared I won’t get in. … I’m scared to go to college. I don’t know what it will be like. I don’t know what I will be like.” – Dzifa Adjei, 17, Pioneer High School

Four teams have made it to the championship bout – The Elements from Troy; Citywide Poets from Detroit; Arts Academy in the Woods from Fraser; and Pioneer High School from Ann Arbor – and all are looking to bring home the title. They compete in five rounds – four individual slams and one group poem – that force them tell the audience their innermost thoughts, ranging from the impact of gun violence to fighting the demons of depression. Bar by bar, they bare their souls for the judges, showing off their writing prowess and their performance skills.

“It’s been exciting,” said Benjamin Alfaro, who organizes Louder Than A Bomb as part of his work with InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a multiple winner of the Knight Arts Challenge that teaches writing and poetry to Detroit students. “I’m reminded how much artistic activity is in high school. But they have so few venues to express themselves.”

““I know who I am. I am a goddess if I’ve ever seen one.”– Yasmin Morgan, 16, Art Academy in the Woods

Alfaro and InsideOut are trying to expand those opportunities. Last year, Knight Foundation awarded them $50,000 over two years to expand Louder Than a Bomb in Michigan. Rather than just a one-day event, the festival will span multiple days and InsideOut will offer year-round programing with visiting poets and authors.

That’s a huge step forward from 2012, when Alfaro, himself a former slam poet, brought the Louder Than A Bomb concept to Michigan from Chicago, where it was founded by the Young Chicago Authors group in 2000. (It is also the subject of an award-winning feature-length documentary.)

“I have a good sense of director but I still get lost a lot. That is to say I know where I want to go but not how to get there.” Lilly Kujawski, 17, Pioneer High School

Alfaro and Jeff Kass, his former mentor, started the program jointly between InsideOut and the Neutral Zone, a youth center in Ann Arbor where Kass is the literary arts director in addition to teaching creative writing at Pioneer High School. But Louder Than a Bomb became so popular that it outgrew the space, so InsideOut agreed to take full responsibility for the program and move it to Detroit. The first year four teams competed; now 15 teams from across Southeast Michigan have shown up on this Saturday in March to watch and compete. Next year, Alfaro hopes to have even more teams from across the state.

“The best part is seeing people like Ben giving back and making this their career,” said Kass, who coaches the Pioneer team and continues to advise Alfaro. “He’s giving kids a microphone and that’s incredibly powerful. I’m always surprised by the number of kids who have social anxiety and have not opened their mouths in class, and little by little you get them to open up. It has to be a powerful sensation having someone listen.”

“Mama, I know I am not worthy of your love, but I am not worthless.” – Vedika Aigalikar, 16, The Elements

As the emcee revs up the crowd, getting them to chant “be con-sis-tent” at the judges, a young woman paces in the background. Raagini Chandra, 16, is preparing for her individual bout. She’s competing with Team Elements from the Troy Public Library, and this is her first time in the finals. In fact, she just started with the group two months ago and can’t believe she made it this far.

Her parents are also in the audience, and she will apologize to her mother for her poem, “I want it,” about being a young woman grappling with her own sexuality.

“We are afraid of language that gives women power over their own sexuality,” she tells the crowd, which snaps its fingers in approval.

Her moment on stage blurs by and Chandra strides off the stage as the judges flash their scores. The crowd calls its approval. But Chandra is already preparing for the group round in which her team will perform an intense poem about identity as immigrant families.

“Why are you so American?”

Why aren’t you American enough?”

“We don’t know.”

It will be enough to put the team into first place. For Chandra to say she is Louder Than a Bomb.

“Doing spoken word poetry has taught me to respect who I am and to share parts of myself I would have kept hidden before,” she said.

Amy Haimerl is a Detroit-based author and journalist. Follow her on Twitter@haimerlad.