Last February, a few weeks before the Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slam, Ciara Miller woke up at 3 AM. Her mother was yelling and banging on her bedroom door. “I looked out the window and it looked like the stuff from Rescue 911 or something,” she says. “The whole house [next door] was on fire. I started shaking and panicking.” As the fire spread to her building and the apartment began to fill with smoke, Ciara bundled her baby sister, Sagia, into her coat and fled down the back stairs into the alley. A few hours later her mother checked them into a motel, where they stayed for two days before moving to an aunt’s house. By Ciara’s count, about 12 people were already at her aunt’s, sleeping four or five to a bed. Not all of them were relatives. She woke up with feet nudging her throat, and had to hide her journal from curious cousins. All her belongings–including years’ worth of writing and the piece she’d been memorizing for the slam–had been left in the partially burned apartment.
Ciara’s mother wanted her to give up practicing for the slam, but Ciara, then 15, persisted. Gallery 37, whose team she competed with, came first, and, she says, “I didn’t want to mess up the team like that.” Her best friend, David McClendon, loaned her some of his older sister’s clothes until she had a chance to go shopping. Her coach, Tara Betts, helped her get rides to and from practice, two or three times a week after school and on weekends. “Tara kept asking me, ‘Where’s your piece at?'” Ciara says. “And I was like, it’s still in the apartment!” Finally, a week or so before the slam, she took the bus back to her old building and made her way past partially boarded up doorways and landings to the third floor. In the apartment she found a ragged-looking man–a squatter or possibly someone who was working on the place, she wasn’t sure–listening to the radio and drinking pop they’d left in the fridge. “I tried to act all tough,” she says, “shouting at him or whatever, but I was scared and mad–he was in there with all our stuff!” She retrieved some clothes, journals, and the poem, which was almost unreadable–perfume had gotten spilled on it. Later, the family was able to retrieve a lot of their larger belongings, but many bags of Ciara’s clothing and old writing were lost.
David and Ciara’s team made it to the finals of the competition, but ended up in third place. The Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Center and Wordwide teams took first and second place, advancing to Brave New Voices–the national youth slam, which would be held in Chicago in April.
The five highest-scoring individual poets in the slam also got to go to the nationals as an ad hoc team called the Chicago All-Stars. David made it, but Ciara missed by a fraction of a point. Though she was disappointed, Ciara attended the practices and helped David edit his poems. A few weeks before the slam, she was offered the role of “sacrificial poet”–slamspeak for an opening act whose performance allows the judges a trial run of scoring–for the All-Stars’ first bout.
Brave New Voices brought 20 teams from 12 states to Chicago. On the first day David and Ciara skipped school and took the bus to the Chicago Historical Society, where that afternoon’s bouts were held, to check out the other teams. The All-Stars were scheduled to compete at 5 PM. At ten till, just as the teams and their coaches began gathering in the auditorium, the last All-Star showed up–she’d been stuck in traffic on the Dan Ryan. Hip-hop beats filled the room and kids clustered in the aisles, hugging each other, bobbing their heads to the music, and swigging water.
The emcee got things started with a nod to good sportsmanship: “It’s important that we give all the youth a lotta lotta love, because they’ve come from a lotta far places, and it’s important for them to feel comfortable up here. If I say give the poet love, what is it gonna sound like?” People hollered and whistled and stomped their feet. Then the emcee explained that the sacrificial poet should be performing first, but it seemed she wasn’t here yet, so…
“She’s here! She’s here!” David yelled. The emcee apologized, and the All-Stars hollered Ciara’s name as she took the mike. “CC! Cia-RUH!” “Love you, too,” she said, and began a piece called “Vanilla Flavor,” about interracial romance. It was a gutsy move, considering that the poem’s inspiration–a young white guy and fellow poet she’d once had a crush on–was in the crowd.
“My world is poetry / The first pronunciation of words in the white man’s voice / of a poetic nature / grasped my ears in a rhyme I never wanted to end / listening to each gasp of breath as he performs behind the mic where I fall in love with not a color but the / Voice that makes his incisive words put forth the vanilla flavor in myself.”
When she was done, her friends stood and cheered, then booed when they thought her scores were too low. The rest of the bout proceeded similarly: according to David, the scoring was lower across the board than it had been for the other round he’d attended that day. He was visibly disappointed with his own numbers: all but one judge had ranked him in the nines, and without a few perfect tens, he knew, they probably wouldn’t win. Back in the audience, he slouched in his seat, his head in his hands.
The All-Stars placed second, but they won the next day, beating the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Center team as well as teams from New York City and Winnetka. The noise was deafening, with much of the audience jumping up and down, chanting “Ten! Ten! Ten!” after each of the All-Stars’ performances.
Ciara had every intention of being there, but she and her mother had fought the night before and she was grounded. On that day, “all I could think about was going to see David compete against Gwendolyn Brooks,” she says. “That was the only thing I wanted to see.”
Ciara and David, now juniors at Lane Tech, live on the west side–Ciara with Sagia and their mother in Lawndale, David with his father in Austin. David says he can always spot the “rehabs”–people fresh out of, or about to enter, drug treatment centers. “They always got this certain color of lipstick. And they always got some type of bag with ’em, a garbage bag, or some real old 70s bag,” he says. Once a woman tried to buy drugs from him on a corner near his house. He was both amused and disgusted that he could be mistaken for a drug dealer. At the time he was working weekends at Kiddieland Amusement Park, in Melrose Park.
Ciara, on the other hand, gets frustrated by being seen as shy and quiet. “I’m like ugh, why am I like this? The only time you can hear me get loud is when I’m doing poetry, and that sucks.” In elementary school, she says, “kids used to always make fun of me because I talked ‘proper’ and got good grades….I think the reason I’m so quiet is because I’m afraid to let loose, because I fear someone will be there trying to ridicule me.”
Though they’re rarely seen apart at poetry events, they swear they’re just friends. “David is not my type,” Ciara says, “because I know him personally; I know he has these shifts in attitude.” She doesn’t like the way he mouths off sometimes, and his love of trendy clothing gets on her nerves. But she also says they’re too much alike: “We think too much the same; we always jinx, say the same thing at the same time. I don’t like that.” They have an agreement about certain key words that one or the other has claimed. (“Haven” is Ciara’s. So is “configuration.”) “He’s gotta ask me, is this your word?” Ciara says, laughing. “I look at him like, yep, that’s my word, take it out!”
Ciara and David both want to go to NYU; they’re taking the ACTs this spring. “I definitely feel different from other kids at school,” Ciara says. “I feel like all the black kids are into rap and R & B, fighting, and want to party, and they’re not really into schoolwork. I’m into some of the things they are into, but I can’t talk to them about poetry slams or issues that go on in my life. I think that’s why David and I get along so well. He’s the only black person at Lane Tech that understands me and sees the same thing I see when I look at race at our school.”
The two met not at Lane Tech, a huge school with more than 4,000 students, but through Gallery 37’s summer apprenticeship program, where Ciara’s a veteran–she completed her first session when she was 14. That summer she was in a creative writing program, but was most impressed by what the performance poetry apprentices, including David and a young woman named Charan Morris, were doing. “I was a little creative writer, watching this girl get onstage talking about being a roughneck and how she wasn’t sexy enough to get the attention of some guy,” she says. “It was the best poem I ever heard. I loved her appearance onstage. Everyone who was in Gallery that summer remembers her and her poem to this day. I was thinking, ‘I could never be as good as her.'”
That fall at school Ciara recognized David and said hello. He told her that he was going to try out for the school’s performance poetry program (also run by Gallery 37), and she decided to try out too, though at the time she was still mostly interested in writing mysteries. “That all changed,” she says, as she and David, the only black students in the program that semester, become friends. The following summer they signed up together for another Gallery 37 performance poetry class, this one taught by Betts. “It was my summer at Gallery,” says Ciara shyly. “Everyone was looking at me the way they did Charan.”
Betts suggested Ciara apply to Young Chicago Authors, where she also teaches. Of several hundred applicants that year, Ciara and David were among 20 to be accepted for the three-year program. Louder Than a Bomb is organized by YCA, which has become the centripetal force of Chicago’s teen slam community since it was founded in 1991. Last year’s slam drew more than 125 teens from 25 schools and community centers. One of the most remarkable features of the event, says Betts, is the way it seems to transcend the rigid social stratification of high school. “It doesn’t matter what part of the city they’re from; they’re willing to work together and learn from each other. And that always astounds me,” she says. “You see this kid with a mohawk; then you see the kid from the west side who’s wearing FUBU. You see a bunch of kids that you would never assume would be hanging out. And they’re all having a party, having a good time!”
Betts had been slamming for years before she began coaching. She stopped competing herself to focus on writing, but she still sees slam as “a really good opportunity for kids….Performance poetry is a good way to build their confidence and get them to be confident articulating what they’re thinking to others.” During the weeks leading up to 2003’s Louder Than a Bomb, she earned the nickname “Mama” for her moral support and devotion to her students’ work, and for sometimes coming through with rides, cab fare, or a snack at McDonald’s. “She was there for us,” Ciara says, though she admits that when she first worked with Betts, she thought Betts was too strict: “If you came in late she’d stare up at that clock.” Now, she says, Betts is one of the few adults with whom she feels comfortable discussing things like crushes on boys or her fights with her mom.
Ciara, Betts says, is so talented that, ironically, she’s at a disadvantage in the slam format. “Her ideas are very original in terms of what she wants to tell in her stories,” Betts says, “and I keep telling her maybe slam isn’t the venue for her pieces, because it’s just too much for people to soak in at once. She’s willing to talk about subjects that are a little bit risky. I know when she did ‘Our Nation’s Rapist,’ a lot of people didn’t understand that poem. I told her, ‘It’s too smart and it’s too detailed for a slam. There’s so much going on.’ And some people thought she was saying we should protect our nation’s rapists. I’m like, well then you didn’t hear the rest of the poem! That’s not what she’s saying.”
As part of YCA’s scholarship program, Ciara and David will each be eligible for up to $2,000 in tuition aid when they graduate from high school, provided they keep coming to Saturday morning classes. Between that and part-time jobs (Ciara’s currently working for a telemarketing company) they think they can save enough for college over the next year or so. For David, a military brat, moving to New York City wouldn’t be a big deal; he spent years of his childhood in Germany, Las Vegas, and California. Ciara, on the other hand, faces resistance. Her mother says that “only sluts” leave home to go to college. Ciara’s been out of Chicago exactly twice: in fourth grade for a trip to Wisconsin, and last fall when YCA took her, David, and another young poet to compete in a slam in San Francisco, all expenses paid.
After an open mike at the Cultural Center, David and Ciara and I waited for a cab on the corner of Randolph and Michigan. I asked her to recite a poem. Nah, she said. Not here. Maybe later. There were people all around, she was bundled up in a puffy red parka, and she was holding Sagia, then nine months old.
David tried flattery, telling Ciara that she was the best poet he knew, “for real,” and reminding her that “holding off is your worst trait.” Only after David performed one of his pieces–“Filas,” a critique of brand consciousness and its effect on teenagers’ self-confidence–did she agree to recite “Our Nation’s Rapist,” the poem Betts referred to. David took the baby.
“My cousin built a haven for children whose parents quit cuddling them like wine bottles,” Ciara began, from memory. She spoke forcefully, as if onstage. “He secured kids from men whose pants could not hug waists but could buckle their bodies to little girls / I carried photos of my cousin to school / Junior high students stalked our apartment / Giggling with expectations of his blue-checker boxers.” David chimed in on some of his favorite lines. The poem was morally complex, a grim narrative dealing with sexual assault–a common theme in teen slam poetry–without succumbing to cliche. But Betts was right. It wasn’t an easy work to digest on first listen.
As Ciara’s voice rose, so did Sagia’s squeals. “She’s getting more outspoken now!” Ciara exclaimed, taking her sister back into her arms.
Ciara was supposed to be tending her at home, but she’d snuck out, bringing the baby along. She’d left a note, but was hoping to make it home before her mother got back from night school.
Ciara’s fond of her sister. She doesn’t even mind looking after her so much, she says. But she resents being mistaken for a teenage mother–especially when the assumption is followed by unsolicited advice from total strangers. One day a cashier at Burger King chastised her for not having more blankets covering the baby. “I’m walking down the street and people are looking at me like, ‘She’s too young, she don’t know what she’s doing.’ And I’m like, this is not my child!” she says.
Toward the end of one open mike last spring, Sagia began to wail. While Ciara searched frantically through a plastic sack for a bottle, other teenagers glanced at them and smiled uncomfortably. Afterward a blond girl approached Ciara and David and began cooing at the baby. “She’s so cute,” she said. “Are you…the parents?”
Louder Than a Bomb 2004 is this weekend; Ciara’s competing on her own and coaching the Lane Tech team, with David helping out. At a practice last month, they sat on school desks, waiting for a petite Asian-American girl named Yoshi Rhodes to perform a piece. Ciara was anxious that the team wouldn’t be ready in time. In the last three months she’d had to kick two poets off it for not practicing enough. She gets frustrated when people goof off or don’t memorize their work. “It’s just hard at times,” she says. “You don’t want to yell. It’s like, how can I yell at people I’m friends with? But then you get to cussing.”
“Father taught me lemon was my natural color, and I was to marry it,” Yoshi begins, and David hoots in support. As Yoshi continues, hesitating occasionally, Ciara, David, and Yoshi’s teammate James Durante chime in with the missing words, coaxing her on.
Yoshi stops completely, stumped by an entire line. “Oh noooo! I have to practice this!” Yoshi shouts. “Oh man, this is bad.”
“Yes it is,” Ciara says.
“That’s why you should always carry copies of your poems,” David chides.
When Yoshi finishes, everyone claps. “Two-point-eight,” Ciara says jokingly, then quickly switches gears. “I think Yoshi is gonna make it to finals,” she says under her breath.
She’s taken to some aspects of authority more than others. “I get to tell you what I think of you as a poet, what I think about your writing, and I get to give you my feedback,” she says. “I get to schedule practices, you know; I like that feeling. And I love writing on their papers; that’s the funnest thing, reading over their poems and stuff.”
James and Yoshi are quick to praise Ciara and David. “The critique is amazing,” Yoshi says. “They just know what the audience wants. They know what looks good and sounds good and what doesn’t.”
“But at the same time,” James says of Ciara, “she’s learning to be a better poet because she’s giving critique. Basically, it’s a learn-learn situation.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Ciara says. “It’s given me motivation, you know; if I tell them to slow down, ‘You’re not enunciating,’ tell ’em to stand up straight, do what I say, then I have to do that too! And when I go to YCA I don’t give lip to nobody, because I understand their position now.” She recalls how a fellow YCA poet once told her that one of her poems was cliched. “I was like, nah, you’re a hater. But then I changed it, and it sounded way better. That’s the problem with most poets: they think their poems are done. If somebody tells you something’s wrong with your piece, maybe it’s just their opinion, but maybe they’re right, you know?”
“You don’t realize your piece needs work until you see all that stuff written on it–white paper with ink all over it,” James says. He shows me one of his poems, on a rumpled piece of paper that looks like it’s been stuffed in the bottom of a backpack and folded and unfolded many times. Ciara’s handwritten comments fill both margins.
“It’s lovely,” Yoshi says. “I love getting my papers back with all that.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.