Last Saturday night, 4 members of OASiS competed in a poetry slam for a spot on Swarthmore’s 2016 CUPSI team. The event was hosted by Vision, Artist Director for the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and also Swarthmore CUPSI coach and judged by several visiting past CUPSI poets. The night began with an open mic, including poems performed by Bryn Mawr’s CUPSI team. All four OASiS members who performed, as well as one who is currently studying abroad in Budapest and who auditioned via YouTube video, will go on to compete at the 2016 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational in Austin, Texas.
George Abraham ‘17, a veteran member of the team who performed Saturday night, pointed out that many on campus may not actually clearly understand what OASiS is. “People have a misconception that OASiS and CUPSI are the same thing,” he said. “OASiS stands for ‘Our Art Spoken in Soul’. It’s Swarthmore’s spoken art collective. This includes things like spoken word poetry, theater, stand up, singing, any kind of art with a voice.” CUPSI is an annual poetry competition, which OASiS happens to send students to.
According to Abraham, the OASiS meetings are actually writing focused. “You come in, there are prompts on the board, there’s music playing. We read the prompts, we write on the prompts, then at the end we share, optionally,” he said.
Abraham also made it clear that no one should be discouraged from joining OASiS by a disinterest in slam poetry. He said, “We are definitely trying to build up our repertoire because the majority of the people in OASiS are poets.”
To many members of OASiS, the group seemed to be significantly more than a place to write creatively in a group. Abraham talked about why OASiS appeals to him, personally. “First, I do OASiS because art is healing. My art is my way of dealing with the outside world. Second, I believe spoken art is a good platform with activism. As a Palestinian-American, with so many people trying to erase Palestinian existence, just getting up to the microphone and telling my story is a political statement. A lot of slam poets use slam poetry as a method of artistic activism.” He continued, “Third, it’s just nice. I meet colleagues in my major, I meet peers in my major, I meet my family and friends in OASiS.”
Tiauna Lewis ‘19, who has just qualified for the CUPSI team for the first time, shared similar sentiments. “I joined OASIS because spoken word has been an integral part of my life for the past five years. It gave me community and purpose when I could not find it elsewhere.”
In poetry competitions such as CUPSI, poets perform slam poems before a panel of judges and are assigned a numerical score for their artistic performance. This scoring method may seem unusual for an art form, especially a literary one. Abraham explained that within the community, scores are usually considered fairly arbitrary and not the most important part of slam poetry. “In the words of a friend poet of mine ‘the more you do slam poetry, the less you care about competition’. If you’re super competitive about scores, you’re either doing it for the wrong reason or new to the game”.
Lewis expressed a similar opinion, emphasizing the arbitrary nature of the scoring. “It’s all arbitrary and there is no escaping that. People get into slam mostly knowing their poems will be assigned numbers by random people so it has become a main facet of slam itself. I don’t always agree with the judges of course, but that’s a part of it too. In the end, the point is not the points. The point is the poetry.”
Abraham also proposed the theory that slam poetry as a competition has the effect of increased interest and involvement in the art. “Slam is a bit of a hoax. It’s an excuse to get poets across the country in a room together. Unfortunately, in America, we don’t really care about anything unless it’s a competition. If you said, ‘It’s a national poetry conference’ no one would come. If you say it’s a competition, suddenly everyone’s interested,” he said. “There’s been such an upsurge in poetry being an art form that’s accepted by youth, being an art form that’s accepted by the general public because we attach a competition to it. It’s more about the art form and about the community than about any sort of competition.”
In addition to Abraham and Lewis, Vanessa Meng ‘19, Cat Velez-Perry ‘17 and Nader Helmy ‘17 also auditioned.