This year is something of a breakthrough for spoken word poetry at Swarthmore. This past spring, a team of five students represented the college for the first time at CUPSI, Los Angeles’ annual College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.
OASIS, the campus’ slam poetry group, has seen a sharp rise in attendance at its meetings and its events. WSRN even has a new student-run radio show broadcasting spoken word every Saturday at 10 p.m.
“There used to be four or five of us at our regular Thursday meetings last year,” said OASIS member Noel Quiñones ’15. “This past Thursday, at our third meeting so far this year, we had 24 or 25 people.”
Many of OASIS’s members are excited about how much the group has grown. Before one of the group’s founding members, Javier Perez ’13, started his poem at this Friday’s open mic night, he took a moment to address the crowd.
“I remember our first OASIS meeting last year,” he said. “There were just five of us sitting at the top of Bond. It means a lot to us that this event is even happening this year.”
The open mic night wasn’t crowded, but its fifty or so attendees filled almost every available seat. At the event’s start, Quiñones asked the audience to raise a hand if they’d been to a poetry slam event before. Two-thirds put up their hands. A lot of returners, but some getting their first exposure to the form. The event itself seemed more assured of itself, too. More performers than at any previous open mic had memorized their pieces and weren’t holding pieces of paper in front of their faces. This allowed performers to interact with the audience and to incorporate gestures and motions, to move with and physically inhabit their pieces.
“I think it went really well,” said Haydil Henriquez ’14. “We had a pretty great turnout.”
The event featured members of the Tri-Co, like Marissa Gibson, a Haverford sophomore who performed a surprisingly moving spoken word piece that was preceded by a minimal guitar interlude.
“I started coming to Swat things because there was more going on within the spoken word scene,” Gibson said. “The scene here is definitely much more affluent. We have open mic nights, but they feature less slam and a lot more music performances.”
Nevertheless, Haverford’s slam scene, like Swarthmore’s, has grown considerably over the past year.
“We didn’t send a team to CUPSI last year,” Gibson said, “but we had a ton of interested members this year and our clubs are really becoming quite active.”
The same can surely be said of OASIS. This weekend, most of the group’s members performed at its Friday open mic night, several presented their work at Saturday’s Fiesta del Barrio on Parrish Beach, and many participated in Sunday’s slam with guest poet Kai Davis. Davis’ old coach, a poet who goes by the name Vision, will be working with OASIS in monthly workshops.
“He came last year for two sessions,” Quiñones said. “He did great work for us and we said, ‘Can we work with you on a regular basis?’”
OASIS applied for SBC funding to hire a coach in hopes that their work with him will complement the work they do with Dilruba Ahmed, Program Assistant at the Intercultural Center.
“Vision is more towards slam and presentation and Dilruba is more focused on craft and writing,” Quiñones said.
Ahmed, an accomplished poet who put out a book of poetry with taste-making independent press Graywolf in 2011, contacted OASIS to see if they needed any coaching.
Swarthmore professor Peter Schmidt has also contacted OASIS in order to do a slam event in conjunction with the modern American poetry class he is teaching this spring.
“This stuff never used to happen, people contacting us,” Quiñones said. Quiñones usually plays the group’s frontman. His Facebook post to the Class of 2015 advertising the event began, “You know you missed it. Don’t even try and lie to me and say you didn’t think over the summer, damn what will O.A.S.I.S. do next?” But when talking about the group’s accomplishments in person, he seems honestly humbled by their success.
“We realized how much support we had when we did our CUPSI showcase last year,” he said. “The room was packed. When Javier and Alaina saw the room, they were blown away. They never thought that could have happened their first year.”
Despite not receiving funding from the college, OASIS sent five members to CUPSI last year, where Swarthmore’s team competed in two days of preliminary events, but didn’t earn a place in the semi-final rounds.
This year, the team is putting more focus on its CUPSI team, selecting the team in November in order to prepare for the competition in April. However, the group is confident that however they do in competition, they’ll still be happy to continue the work they do on campus.
“In general, we just like sharing our pieces and finding people to support us,” said Haydil Gutierrez. And she isn’t just paying lip service to an ideal. When fellow poet Julian Randall ’15 walked by at the end of the open mic night, she interrupted our interview to slap him on the back.
“Yo, you killed it!” she yelled. “I almost jumped out of my chair. And that line about Abercrombie, that had me dying. I didn’t know if I was going to pee myself or not.”
This year, OASIS hopes to connect with more students who just want to work on the page, too, in order to foster a larger community of writers.
OASIS is riding a wave of newfound enthusiasm. So far they’ve done a good job of riding it out.