Five poets won a slam-off to represent Swarthmore in CUPSI, the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, in a competition last Friday night. After 20 poets performed poems for a panel of judges and an enraptured audience crammed into Olde Club, the following students prevailed to form this year’s team: Julian Randall ‘15, Rose Wunrow ‘16, Ian Anderson ‘13, Noel Quiñones ’15, and Taryn Englehart ’15.
The poets must now work to write four individual poems and four group compositions for the competition in New York City in April—The Daily Gazette will check in along the way.
The Daily Gazette had the chance to speak with the five team members over email to hear their thoughts and experiences with poetry, the slam last Friday, and what it now means to be a team.
Cecilia Paasche: What is it, ultimately, that makes you value spoken word poetry? Why slam?
Julian Randall: People always seem at least a little shocked to learn that my favorite part of a slam or open mic is about ten minutes after it ends. Honestly, I think it’s just this awesome, beautiful thing to see all these people talking about the art and the parts of themselves they just shared. When people come up and tell me that they thought my piece was good, or that it touched them, that’s when I know I’m doing at least one thing right.
Ian Anderson: I love spoken word because it gives everyone a voice. As a former written-only poet, I’ve always leaned towards the artistic side of spoken word, rather than the competitive–slam poetry–because it’s been a great way for me to practice my poetry in a more traditional setting rather than a competition. I decided to take a risk and participate in my first slam and it paid off in a big way.
Taryn Englehart: I’m so easily distracted by form when I’m writing prose, counting syllables and forgetting narratives and all that, whereas spoken word is much more evocative, much more focused on the emotive aspect of what you’re producing. I dig that a lot. Finding out through performing that everyone else actually does know what the hell you’re saying, snapping to mark the words where they’re meeting you, makes what took all that confidence to share so, so worthwhile.
Noel Quiñones: No one can tell a story in the same that you can, even if it’s the same topic. I’ve always centered on that idea—no matter what, if you give the same exact prompt to ten people, you’ll get something completely different. And that’s why I do it. At the beginning, almost with every poet who starts slamming, generally they go to three topics: love, heritage, and tragedy. That’s always the starting point with a lot of poets—myself included. Once you get to the point when you start slamming about abstract things and connecting it back to the concrete…it’s beautiful.
Rose Wunrow: I’d never heard of spoken word poetry before this summer. But at the first meeting, one of the board members started off by saying, “We are OASIS, and now you are OASIS,” and it really summed up the whole atmosphere of support and community. Spoken word in general creates an environment of mutual respect which brings people out of their shells. As a writer, I love it because the form forces you to be completely honest with yourself – the performance aspect makes it easier to tell when a poet isn’t being genuine. It’s also such a flexible medium. There’s no one kind of spoken word poet.
CP: What did it feel like to perform on Friday? And what was it like when you were chosen for the team?
NQ: Regardless of the fact that I’ve been slamming for five years, I get nervous as hell every single time. Right when I heard I was on deck, I immediately left Olde Club and went outside and said my poem to a tree. I’ve never met someone who wasn’t nervous doing a slam piece. To get on the team a second time…it really reaffirmed a lot for me. To see 20 people go up on Friday and to see Olde Club packed—it reaffirmed the work I’ve been doing. It was amazing.
JR: Performing on Friday was kind of surreal because I’ve been wanting to be on this team since I first learned that CUPSI existed. I missed the slam last year and tried out on a Youtube video. And it was also just crazy looking out and seeing all those people smiling and waiting for me to pretend to be The Old Spice Man.
IA: I was very nervous on Friday. I hadn’t ever performed in a Slam setting, or been scored on a piece of performance poetry, so the experience was entirely new. I also felt like I was taking a risk by using an unknown piece of poetry in an extremely fierce competition. Making the team was a really validating and exciting moment.
TE: It felt like glossolalia [speaking in tongues], honestly. I have no experience performing or rehearsing so it all just tumbled out like opening a dryer still on spin-cycle. Being chosen then was all the more shocking. I didn’t have any expectations, but I’m ecstatic beyond coherence I’m a part of this team, working with my (incredible) friends and (very talented) fellow poets.
CP: Now that you are on the team, what are you looking forward to? What are your concerns?
NQ: Last year we picked the team in February and had to go to the competition in April. This year we have four months of creative time. I love working with a group. It’s great. Group pieces are beautiful things that happen. One of the team members from last year, Kojo said this on the plane back from LA: this year we went to learn, to see what this is all about. Next year, the team is going to go and compete.
TE: I’m looking forward to the whole year! The whole process—writing, re-writing, practicing, performing, hanging out with people who somehow always manage to make me happy just by existing. This whole year’s wrapped like a string around CUPSI for me. Now I actually have an excuse (not that any of us really need one) to write all the time. I’ve also written only one spoken word poem before, so I’m looking forward to learning from everyone, and hopefully getting a bit better at this.
RW: I know it’ll be challenging preparing all of the pieces, but for now it just feels like I’ve died and gone to poetic heaven. Write poetry with amazing people for hours every week from now until April? Really? I don’t think it gets better than that.
Photos by Ellen Sanchez-Huerta/The Daily Gazette.