(credit: Patrick Shannon)

By Mason Johnson

Young Chicago Authors

“You have to earn the kids’ trust before you can challenge them. We have institutionalized that idea here.”

The “here” Robbie Q. Telfer mentions is Young Chicago Authors (YCA), where he is the Director of Programs. A 20-year-old writing organization, YCA, according to Robbie, “Centers the young person in the organization as the most important thing,” and endeavors to get “them to express themselves creatively as a form of not only identity formation for that young person, but civic engagement for the organization as a whole.”

Robbie (who is in his thirties, and is therefore only old to the teenagers he works with) explains this to me as we sit in his cramped office. We’re eating pita sandwiches. It’s very messy. I worry about the ingredients in mine – I get paranoid about food. He assures me that I’ll live.

Thankfully, for the world, he’s right.

So what does YCA literally do? They teach kids how to express themselves, mostly through writing, with a series of programs that includes open mics (like their weekly open mic called WordPlay), a weekly media literacy class focused on their web magazine Say What, and their free Saturday writing workshop called Check the Method – the founding program of the organization.

And Robbie? Robbie is the guy who helps ensure YCA is a place kids want to share their writing.

Robbie explains that the hard part isn’t getting kids to write, because most already are. The hard part is to keep them writing. Part of the problem, as Robbie sees it, is that the writing kids do “isn’t seen by their schools as art, or they don’t think it’s seen as art.” That YCA has to get kids “to see that what they’re doing matters, that their voices matter, and what they’re doing is viable. That they can work on it from where they’re at and they don’t have to sound like old dead white people, which is usually the curriculum standard.”

Nina Coomes performs at Louder Than a Bomb (credit: Rebekah Raleigh)

Enter: Louder Than A Bomb

One of YCA’s most important tools is Louder Then A Bomb (LTAB), the biggest youth poetry festival in the world, which Robbie organizes with Chicago poet and festival cofounder Kevin Coval. LTAB is a competition that pits teams of high school students against each other as they attempt to win the most points in a poetic battle royal. The competition aspect of LTAB is one of the least important parts, as seen through one of their mottos: “The point is not the points, the point is the poetry.”

Anyone who’s seen an LTAB match knows that most kids really take this motto to heart. Few competitions engender the love, growth and passion demonstrated by the kids who compete. It’s an infectious feeling, spreading from competitors to audience easily.

In fact, Telfer sees a lot of worth in the audience: “Being an audience member is just as important as being a poet on stage and we try to make that a two-way conversation as much as possible. I think a lot of arts fail–and a lot of arts education fails–when they just make it a one-way conversation.”

Malcolm London performs at Louder Than a Bomb (credit: Rebekah Raleigh)

What are the benefits of LTAB? According to Telfer, “If you learn how to communicate effectively to an audience, you are not only figuring out how to say the things you need in order to succeed, but you’re also developing empathy and compassion to the person you’re talking to.”

Empathy and compassion? Some of our politicians should try slam poetry out…

Many of you may even recognize the name Louder Than A Bomb. My dentist, for example, knows about it. I found this out recently as her hands were shoved firmly into my mouth: “I caught the best documentary on the Oprah channel recently…”

Yes, that’s right, Louder Than A Bomb’s documentary (see the trailer here) recently aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Its shining quality is its portrayal of the kids, something Robbie appreciates: “The film knew that the story was these kids – that you had to feature their voices and their poetry. When a young person sees a young person who looks and sounds like them succeeding, that, as an audience member, is very gratifying. It shows them what they’re capable of.”

Robbie goes head to head with a worth adversary at the Lincoln, NE Poetry Slam (credit: Kim Fogle)

The Poet

Robbie’s life doesn’t only revolve around hanging out with kids (that’d be creepy) – he’s also a decent poet in his own right (take that kids). You can see his poems in Spiking the Sucker Punch, his collection of poetry out from Write Bloody Publishing.

Robbie’s poetry–an awkward, funny mix of words and phrases you feel you can snatch from the buzzing air around you–is best seen in person. He is, first and foremost, a performance poet. (His words are pretty darn fun to read though too.)

The easiest place to see Robbie is at The Encyclopedia Show, the live literary extravaganza he co-founded with the equally talented Shanny Jean Maney. The first Wednesday of every month at Chicago’s Vittum Theatre, Shanny and Robbie bring together a series of performers to tell the audience about a pre-determined topic. This year’s shows have covered subjects like “puberty” and “invasive species!” Very rarely do performers do the topics accurate, educational justice, which is probably one of the reasons the show is so oddly entertaining. Seeing them get it so (hilariously) wrong just feels so (hilariously) right. In fact, Chicago’s Encyclopedia Show has been so successful it is now in ten different cities around the world.

“Creating poetry or essays or stories for that one moment you’re in is a kind of art,” Robbie shares, hinting at one of the reasons The Encyclopedia Show might be so entertaining. “It’s okay that they only live and die in that moment. That’s what makes it more interesting.”

For a society that exploits the worth out of everything it does (bad TV shows based off bad movies, gigantic trilogies, cheap toy lines, reunion tours for washed-up bands…), Robbie’s view on readings and art is interesting: “I think there’s a lot of use and function in something that is impermanent.”

Robbie then stares off into the corner of his office, his eyes become wispy, and he says in a mock-poetic voice, “The flower blooms only for a brief time, and then it is gone…”

The performance is all in the timing, kids, and Robbie Q. Telfer has it down to a science. A wacky, nonsensical science.

The next Encyclopedia Show is May 2nd – that’s this Wednesday. The theme is “Alan Turing.” Do yourself a favor and check it out.

I’ll see ya there.

Conversations‘ is a sporadic series of articles in which Mason Johnson interviews individuals who represent what Chicago once was, currently is, and one day will be. See more interviews here.

Mason Johnson, CBS Chicago