Five members of OASIS (Our Art, Spoken in Soul), the spoken word poetry group on campus, flew to Los Angeles over the weekend to represent Swarthmore College for the first time at the College Unions’ Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI). Held at the University of La Verne from April 18-21, the competition featured 48 teams from across the country — over twice the number of schools represented at the event last year. Finishing in fourth place in the first preliminary bout and missing first by only a little over a point in the next, Swarthmore’s team put on a strong showing, especially as first-time competitors.
Noel Quiñones ’15, Javier Perez ’13, Mame Bonsu ’14, Kojo Boateng ’14 and Mary Jean Chan ’12 were selected to participate in the competition based on results from a slam held in Olde Club earlier in the month. Judged by three students from the Tri-Co, each poet was allowed one poem to showcase their abilities, which was then scored by the panel. The five performers with the highest scoring poems made the CUPSI team and then entered an intensive period of writing and collaboration, producing five poems each and four group pieces for the competition in LA.
Judges at slams are typically randomly selected from the audience, which CUPSI does as well. Poems are scored primarily based on their emotional impact on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being a “perfect” poem. Perez and Quinones both scored 10’s at the slam in Los Angeles, an impressive feat in a renowned competition.
Quiñones was a huge force in organizing the CUPSI initiative for members of OASIS. OASIS member Julian Randall ’15 described CUPSI as “Noel’s baby,” and said “slam poetry is his really great passion in life. He was so happy when he was there… he was just in his element.” Serving as treasurer of OASIS with Haydil Henriquez ’14, Quiñones played a major role in organizing the April 18th CUPSI showcase, which featured the work the team members produced for the national slam. The motivation for the event was more than just practice: a week and a half before they were scheduled to leave for LA, a funding issue left the group one plane ticket short. Forced to pay out of pocket, the showcase served a secondary purpose of eliciting donations to help offset the ticket cost.
“The Showcase turned out to be really amazing,” Quiñones said in a phone interview. “We got the most donations out of any Paces event this year … the support from the Swarthmore community shocked us. There were over 100 people at the event. To have that much support, while we were at Swarthmore and also through calls, texts, and Facebook posts after we had left, was incredible.”
CUPSI kept team members busy, even when not competing. Arriving in LA an hour before their preliminary bout, OASIS members jumped right into the competition. Without having the time to develop a strategy and figure out how the slam worked, the initial round was challenging, but the team quickly pulled it together — in less than a day — and nearly took first place in their second bout. In the following days, they attended multiple workshops and watched other teams compete in two rounds of preliminary bouts, a semi-final, and the finals, which took place on Sunday. Additionally, yoga sessions, 5K runs and Disneyland excursions were made available for the competitors during their down time, although CUPSI itself held more intrigue for the performers.
“CUPSI was one of the best experiences of my life,” Quiñones said in a phone interview. “The feeling of being surrounded by 300 poets from the entire country … it was really inspiring to hear all these different poems and ideas, all these poets thinking outside the box. There was so much talent. And we made so many connections off stage, so many people were saying ‘If you’re ever in this city, if you’re ever in that city, we can organize an event.’ … it reaffirmed passion for this art form, that there’s people all over the country really dedicated to this and they want to share this story with everyone.”
Marc Smith is credited with creating the slam, which he brought to the Get Me High Lounge and the Green Mill, clubs part of the Chicago jazz scene in the mid-1980s. His event, the Uptown Poetry Slam, has inspired a movement towards this art form across the country; as shown by the increased number of teams competing at CUPSI, the movement is still gaining momentum. “As we have more and more open mics on campus, more people are getting involved,” said Randall, noting the growing membership of OASIS on Swarthmore’s campus alone. Spoken word poetry, originating earlier than the slam itself, is characterized by its emphasis on performance and emotional content that traditionally deals with political or social critiques.
Members of OASIS come into the group with varying levels of experience; some, like Quiñones, have been involved with spoken word since high school. Others, like Chan, are relatively new to the art form. Exposed to slam for the first time at Joshua Bennett’s performance in LPAC this January, Chan was wildly surprised by her selection for the national team. Persuaded by a friend to perform a poem in the last five minutes of the tryouts, Chan chalked her reading up as a “fun experience” and left the venue before the final selection could be made. She received a text half an hour later informing her she’d made the cut.
Her whirlwind weekend in LA was made especially poignant by her impending graduation. “It’s been such a blessing,” Chan said of her experience at nationals. “It’s been transformative for me. I’ve never heard so much amazing poetry in such a short time. There was such emotional intensity — the poems really packed a punch, and dealt with such heavy topics. Some poems dealt with rape, sexual assault, heartbreak … I’ve never heard poems that are so explicit about topics that are so difficult.” Inspired by a workshop in LA exploring page poetry versus spoken word, Chan hopes to potentially bring slam poetry overseas when she leaves for graduate school in the UK this fall.
The remaining four members of the team plan on drawing from their experience in future years and at future slams. As a young team, there is room to grow, and the future looks promising for spoken word at Swarthmore. “Right after we found out we didn’t make it to semi-finals, we were already talking about 2013 CUPSI team,” Quinones said. “We really want to push the boundaries of art form. The stuff we saw we weren’t prepared for, but we have the talent and now we know how to strategize. Now we need to start pushing the envelope.”
Quiñones mentioned his teammate Perez in describing the transformative nature of CUPSI. “On the plane ride back, Javier said that before California, he thought this was a hobby, and now it’s something he needs to do for the rest of his life.”