Sejahari Villegas of Kuumba Lynx performs during the final round of the Louder Than a Bomb poetry competition March 15 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre downtown. [Photo by Sebastian Lama]

The words can be soft like a pillow or hard like bullets. They can be comforting like grandma’s hands or cold like handcuffs.

Words are powerful. If the pen is mightier than the sword, how powerful can a voice be? That’s the idea behind Chicago’s Louder Than a Bomb, one of the largest youth poetry festivals in the world. The festival’s title actually comes from the name of a track on the classic Public Enemy album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”

Each year the festival puts more than 1,000 young poets from Chicago-area middle and high schools together in a furious battle of words that validates and celebrates their view of the world. Founded in 2001 by poet and author Kevin Coval, the festival is the signature project of the Young Chicago Authors, a nonprofit that looks to help youth across the city transform their lives through writing, poetry and performance. Throughout the year, young people learn to become wordsmiths through open-mic performances, a writing program rooted in nonfiction and elements of journalism, a workshop that teaches the artistry of beat-making and emceeing, and instruction in writing poetry and performing spoken word.

But it’s Louder Than a Bomb that’s the soul of the Young Chicago Authors: a mic, a stage, a pen, a page, an attitude. The judges grade the poets’ words and performance, determining whether they’ll advance to the next round. There are five rounds per competition. The audience grades them, too, but with finger snaps and applause. In that moment on stage, one voice is truly louder than a bomb.

Here are a few poems and poets that were featured in this year’s Louder Than a Bomb competition, and a poem by a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors.

For more information about the Young Chicago Authors program, visit