Students compete online for spot on National Poetry Slam team

On April 15, Julian Randall ’15 and Javier Perez ’13 will compete in the final round of the first online slam held to assemble a team for the 2014 National Poetry Slam. If the two accomplished poets receive enough “likes” on their second YouTube video submissions, the two will join a team and compete in Oakland, California this August in the National Slam. Both Randall and Perez already made it past the first round of the slam, hosted by the Tumblr page “Fuck Yeah Slam Poetry!”, a blog co-run by the organization Button Poetry and the writer/performer Wonder Dave.

Randall, currently studying abroad at Goldsmith’s, University of London, submitted his poem “Open Letter to An Abercrombie Salesman” for the first round of the competition, a piece that some of us at Swarthmore have had the fortune to see live. The piece insightfully exposes the superficiality and conformity of our consumer culture and Randall delivers it with characteristic energy and sincerity.

For his second submission, to be posted this Saturday, Randall said in a Skype interview, “I did one that people have seen before but with an ending that only a few people have seen.” Randall will be submitting his poem “Valentina,” a piece about an undocumented girl that changed his life. “I loved that girl so much but I never got to say goodbye or good luck,” he said. The new ending captures that sentiment beautifully with the words, “Valentina, every time I do this poem it’s a prayer that you’re still listening, that you’re still somewhere.”

The poem that promoted Perez to the final round is “a poem about wanting to achieve a sense of freedom,” he said over Skype from Kingston, Jamaica. Perez is now traveling around the world for a project through a Thomas Watson Fellowship to work with incarcerated youth with poetry and spoken word. He has voyaged thus far in South Africa, Australia, Guatemala and Zambia, and will go to Brazil after Jamaica. “Freedom on the Inside,” the poem he submitted to the first round, is both specific and universal as it explores freedom and transcendence of imprisonment with powerful lines like, “Before those four walls become your skin, turn them into a cocoon.”

In the final round, Perez will submit a personal piece about his mother in which he crafts an explosive comparison between his mother’s cooking and her experience of war and turmoil. At one point in the poem Perez asks, “can you taste her memories,” and the answer is a most definite yes; the metaphors at work are incredibly evocative and the language strong and effective.

Randall and Perez are far from home, and both believe that the experience of travel has contributed to their poetry. “This is my first time out of the country ever,” Randall said. “I’ve been doing a lot of poems about what exactly home is—the places and the people that I’m missing.” He also believes that having more unstructured time is “freeing up” his writing process.

In addition to writing, Randall has been busy performing slam poetry with Noel Quiñones ’15 at venues in London, an experience that has proved culturally fascinating and extremely rewarding. “We could not have asked for a better reception,” Randall said.

Perez also feels that travel has enhanced his art. “Traveling is one of the best things a poet can do,” he said over Skype. “Poetry is all about connecting and reaching something more, on a deeper level that gets past all the divisions that we add. You’re reaching for something that’s universal.”

Through his project working with incarcerated youth, Perez has performed in a variety of settings, from middle class suburbs, to townships, to prisons. The connections with his different audiences have been particularly significant to Perez. “I’ve literally moved people to tears and that is a humbling experience,” he said. “To know that you can create something that is clearly addressing some wounds and different emotional states. You’re moving people. To do that all across the world is one of the greatest privileges I’ve ever had.”

While neither Randall nor Perez is a stranger to slam poetry competition — both have competed in College Unions’ Poetry Slam Invitational — an online slam still poses a different set of challenges. “It’s strange — it’s a really strange feeling,” Randall said. “It’s weird to put your work out there and maybe a thousand people are looking at it and you can’t see their faces.”

Perez agreed, expressing that “the anonymity of it” is an adjustment. “I’m really all about the live aspect of this. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m so attracted to it.” Perez’ love of old-school live slam poetry has even earned him the nickname “The Vintage Poet” over the course of his travels.

Despite reservations on the lack of a live audience, both Randall and Perez are enthusiastic and excited about the prospect of competing at the National Poetry Slam. “If we go, I’m going to see all the people that I know through YouTube,” Randall said. “It will help us get connected to more and more people which is the point of all this.”

That vital connection, from poet to audience, and from poet to poet, is essential in the slam community, and essential to Perez and Randall. “I would never have done poetry if I had never seen Jav,” said Randall. “I’m excited about the opportunity to be a part of history with one of the best dudes I know.”

To vote for Javier Perez and Julian Randall, go to the page this upcoming week and “like” their submissions between April 15 and April 18. “I hope people check it out,” said Perez, “even if they don’t vote, just to get into the art in one way or another. It’s a beautiful world.”


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