The other night I attended the finals for Chicago’s teen poetry slam “Louder Than a Bomb”. This was the 8th annual event which began in 2001 as a response to the impending war in Iraq. Feeling frustrated at their inability to influence national decision making and feeling unheard and left out of the process, these young poets and word artists determined that they would make a way for their voices to be heard. Silence was not an option. They felt that they could come together in a way that their words would resound louder than the weapons of war – “Louder Than a Bomb”. What has happened since is Chicago history.
For the past two years I have been telling anyone who will listen to me that they need to attend the event – at least the finals. Anyone who has the sense that the teens of today are a lost generation, or who believes that they lack guidance or direction could use an eye opening dose of this teen organized reality check. The depth of thought, perception, and creativity is nothing less than inspiring. You won’t see this on the news or in the daily papers, but it is the shape of now.
The young poets were age 14 to 19. They even had a junior crew of 3 kids – 11,11, and 12 years old – the next wave. The poets were male and female, black, white, Asian, and Latino, heterosexual and homosexual. What did they talk about? The event lasted over 3 hours, and the range of subjects was staggering. There were a number of poems about identity – poems on racism, inter racial and inter ethnic identity issues, homosexuality, religious identity. There were poems which affirmed religious belief; some which questioned it. Two poets in particular did challenging pieces rejecting the validity of accepted conceptions of God. One of the most moving works for me was a very unexpected piece that the poet presented from the point of view of a campus mass killer. The young poet’s willingness to place himself in that dark and uncomfortable place was courageous, but the way in which he brought light and meaning to what we all might see as abhorrent, demonstrated a state of mind which refuses to see itself as separate from even the “worst” among us. It was one of many examples of an inner maturity and openness that many of my “adult” friends should aspire to. There were artfully phrased boasts, expressions of vulnerability, and a generosity and graciousness of spirit that were deeply moving. All of this in a seething sea of dancing, cheering students, sprinkled with some mostly sedate elders. Onstage was DJ “Itchy 13” (last year he was “Itchy Fingers”) who kept the hip hop beats and grooves going – masterful in his sensitivity to the crowd and his ability to set a mood. This was their event, their time and they were doing it their way.
The “poetry slam” is a Chicago invention which over the years has become a worldwide phenomenon. Essentially it is a competition. Poets/MC’s and poetry teams present their work. Each piece has to be 3 minutes or less. There is a panel of judges who score each piece on a scale of 1 to 10. The poems have no profanity, no racist, misogynistic, or gay bashing content. It is worth noting that last year the night before the finals there was a playoff game between two high school basketball teams. The police had to come to break up what became a riot between the supporters of the two schools. At such sports events it has become routine procedure to have all attendees pass through metal detectors. Fights between schools are often expected. During the entire 8 year history of Louder Than a Bomb there have been no fights, no drug busts, no incident requiring police intervention. The medium is words and ideas. During the competition frequently the judges display scores that many in the audience disagree with, myself included. The response? The audience will shout out to the judges, “Listen to the poem!” No heckling or badmouthing the judges, or grumbling about a score because in the words of another Louder Than a Bomb maxim, “the point is not the points. The point is the poem.” They get over it and move on, supporting every poet who has the courage to speak.
This event every year sets me to thinking about community – about how it comes into being, how it lasts, it’s power and fragility. Of particular interest to me is the formation of communities across generations. It has become an accepted truism of western culture that generational differences must create a chasmlike divide in communication and understanding. It is as if until younger people begin to bend under the weight of certain proscribed responsibilities, they are unable to accurately comprehend the world around them. This has always struck me as a shortsighted approach rooted in a certain arrogance which equates repetition with wisdom. It is a normal occurrence that as we age we become less connected to the youthful world. To say that something is normal does not, however, say that it is natural or desirable.
I have known a number of people who did not succumb to this generational separation, not because they consciously resisted it, but I really don’t think that they felt it existed. For some reason their make up did not permit them to see it. Both my father and Bill Lawrence, the man who for me and many others was a spiritual teacher, always amazed me at the number of young friends they had. All of my friends would look forward to being around them. They would talk, laugh, and sometimes argue about a whole range of things. What all of the people my age (young, at that time) enjoyed and what they would remember years later were the stories. Both my dad and the Old Man, as we called Bill Lawrence, had lived richly layered lives, and were open in sharing their varied experiences. Sometimes the stories would seem fantastic to a young person. This stuff couldn’t be real. “Just keep living, son,” was what the Old Man would sometimes say in response to our incredulity. No need to believe, or listen to what he said. Just keep living and you will find out for yourself. That generous approach, and the fact that it seemed uncanny how often we would live our way into the truth of what he said, attracted a large group of searching young people to him.
In Tibetan Buddhist practice, very early in the life of the practitioner one is asked to consider the question, “what would be of most value at the time of death?” The idea being that we need to develop a sense of priorities during our embodied life. Just as we need a sense of priority and perspective when looking to life’s end, we also need to be clear about how we relate to one another while we are here. Another question we might ask ourselves is: What is the most valuable thing we can share with each other? I have come to believe that it is not merely our thoughts and advice, or what we consider to be our hard won knowledge, but our stories.
Of course, all stories are not equal. The stories of an unexamined life are more like entertainment – sound and fury, signifying nothing. But let someone awaken within the life they are living and their awareness brings meaning and significance to the most ordinary occurrences. For such a person there are no ordinary moments, and the stories that they share are charged with transformative power. One of the great values of a genuine teacher is that they add value not just in telling a story, but also in hearing one. “I once was lost, but now I’m found” can be the experience of being heard in this extraordinary way. In one sense the greatest spiritual texts in the world – the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Ramyana, the Stanzas of Dzyan – are storybooks – adventure stories told from the perspective of our deepest consciousness. Do we get it? Do we really hear? Listen to the poem. Listen to the story.