By Chasity Hale
Stanford’s Spoken Word Collective recently competed in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) and placed second out of 65 teams. Members Angel Smith ’21, Darnell Carson ’21, Amulya Yerrapotu ’20 and their coach Emily Dial MA ‘18 described the competition and the projects they’re working on now that it’s over.
On April 4-7, the competing members traveled to Philadelphia to compete in this year’s CUPSI held at Temple University. In addition to Smith, Carson and Yerrapotu, Melinda Hernandez ‘21 and Morgan-Me’Lyn Grant ‘20 competed. Others members of the Stanford poetry community — CUPSI competitors from the previous year and members of the Spoken Word Collective — attended as well.
On April 4 and 5, all entrants competed in the preliminary bouts. On April 6, a select number of teams, proportional to the number of registered teams, progressed to semi-finals. Then, on April 7, the top four continued on to finals, which concluded with the choosing of one winner. A diverse group of three to five judges score each poem on a scale from 0 to 10. If there are five judges, the highest and the lowest scores are dropped then the rest are added up. The magnitude of a team’s total score determines whether or not they progress through the competition. Other events, such as workshops and open mics, are also part of CUPSI. For example, this year there was a workshop on building a YouTube poetry channel and there were queer and indigenous open mic events.
Many of Stanford’s team members are new to slamming. In fact, all of our poets who attended CUPSI this year were first time entrants. As they advanced from the preliminary bouts to semi-finals to finals, they carried a mix of emotions — uncertainty, joy and nervousness. “[We] got farther than [I think] we thought we would,” said Carson. During semi-finals, when they found out they had won first place, and would get the opportunity to compete in finals, they were moved to tears. Smith described the experience as both “overwhelming and humbling.” At that point, Smith said, “getting to the final round was less about how we’d place from one to four,” but more about how far they had gotten already.
The journey from the first bouts to final round were described as hectic yet enjoyable. The team had prepared between 12 and 16 poems. They described to me their process of co-writing, saying that it’s often helpful if someone can create the framework of the poem then have the others help flesh it out. Because slam poetry is often situated in the writer’s own experiences, when writing something as a collective, it can be difficult to represent everyone’s voices. One of the greatest feelings though, Carson told me, is “when you get to that moment when you go, that’s it — those are the words, that’s the choreo we were looking for.”
Another difficult, but equally rewarding part of slam is choosing which poems to actually perform. “Going in [to each round], you don’t know a lot,” said Carson, so the poets had to sense the crowd’s emotions in order to know which poems to select from their repertoire. This task was fairly easy in the beginning, said the team, because at slam competitions like CUPSI, the teams get to watch their competitors perform. Seeing how the general audience receives other poems provides a lot of information. “You don’t know what poems you’re gonna throw until you get into the round and see how people are feeling, [then decide] if you [want to] throw a funny one or a more serious [one],” Smith said.
As the competition advances and the environment gets more intense, it also gets more difficult to decide which poems to choose. “Slam is a space of vulnerability,” Smith said. This is one of its best and most characteristic facets, but it also contributes to the difficulty of choosing poems. Ideally, everyone on the team would get to perform their own pieces (which often carry great personal meaning), but because they don’t have unlimited time, in the words of Carson, “You don’t always get to perform the poems you want to.” Even so, they powered through it, making choices, even when they were hard to make, and supporting one another throughout the competition.
“[There is] a big responsibility that comes with it, too, just in that you’re given such a large stage, and so many people watching.” Yerrapotu said. “I felt the weight of that. Now that I’ve been given this incredible privilege, it’s on me to treat it with respect, and perform pieces that respect myself and respect the community.” There was added pressure this year, too, following a controversy at CUPSI 2017. The competition’s featured poet on final stage offended many of that year’s participants with his poems, which seemed to attack the identities and the interests of many of the poets. In response to last year’s happenings, Dial said she was glad the team got to play a role in “setting the tone [for the future of CUPSI], and reminding people of the stories that need to be told,” Dial said.
The Stanford team competed against CUPSI veterans, some of whom are coached by famous poets. They praised the other poets for their masterful and moving poems. “And the Bout Fits!” Carson exclaimed, introducing to me a term the team uses to discuss the color coordinated and/or themed outfits that many of the teams wear to competition. “There’s competition, but there’s love, too,” Smith added. “Even when you’re competing, you’re cheering for one another.” Carson expressed to me his amazement at the poets’ multifacetedness, saying “[they’re] like geminis.” What he meant by this is that they’re two-sided — supportive and kind offstage, yet oozing with seriousness, completely immersed in the poetry onstage.
At the end of an incredible, surreal few days away from home, the team returned to Stanford, where they were welcomed with congratulations and support from the community. Now that the competition is over, the poetry community has plans. Since joining the team, writing and performing poems together, they’ve grown close, and are excited to collaborate more in the future.
For Carson and Smith, they have both just completed and released publications, which are available on Amazon for purchase. Check out Work in Progress by Darnell Carson and To Be Seen by Angel Smith, and look out for future writing by the Stanford slam poetry team.
For Yerrapotu, the process of writing slam “starts with a single moment, where [she] can see different threads in [her] life coming together in meaningful ways,” and she plans to “learn how to take [her] poetry more seriously” by practicing and pursuing more opportunities.