Allowing yourself to live within the poetry you are experiencing

IMG_1069In total, 68 Universities sent a team this year to compete in Richmond, Virginia, including as far away as Ryerson University in Toronto, making this year the first international CUPSI event. It’s the largest of its kind, and the talent shows. These are the best of the best. We are privileged to be among their ranks.

Slam poetry is a strange art form. In a lot of ways, it’s profoundly masochistic. There is an element of literary self-flagellation involved in performing a piece that can be so intensely personal. As poets, there is a fine line to walk between performative re-enactment of trauma for competition scores and the actual, more transformative work of vocal testimony before an audience. CUPSI, by virtue of being a competitive format, forces us to examine this distinction with every piece we bring to the stage.

To that end, there is something magic that happens when poets congregate. There is a palpable energy in the air, a buzzing feeling. This energy sometimes becomes tension, sometimes becomes creativity. Going to Richmond for this event was more than just for poetry, or for scores. In a way, it was for all of us to make connection. Not just with other poets, but with the words themselves. It’s easy to get lost in the competition at large slam events like CUPSI. Allowing yourself to live within the poetry you are experiencing, instead of comparing yourself and your work to those around you, brings about a deeper sense of self-fulfillment.

During our time at the event, we connected with the work. Not just the work of others, but our work- our words. We gave our all in performance, and we began to form networks with other teams in the region and beyond. CUPSI is a powerful event. It’s something that can’t quite be replicated in other forms, as the true wonder of the gathering is in the multitude of different persons and backgrounds that take part. With your help, and with the help of all the backers, donations, and silent supporters, we’ve been able to take part in this opportunity. The entire team is grateful for those who have supported us through this journey, and we will carry those words and support with us through the following months, and years.

-Dante Douglas


On Recollection: CUPSI Day 2

IMG_1148I wasn’t nervous, per se… my chest was tight, yes, like grasping hands clenched desperate around my sternum, but I didn’t need to regulate my breathing (in through the nose and out through the mouth, like they always suggest in books and first aid manuals). The drums sang in the crowd and we danced with them, I laughing and bouncing and perching in my seat as I waited for the performance to begin. Anticipation sat lightly on our shoulders, running goosebump hands down our arms and turning rich laughter sharp. Down in the hollow VCU and American University were trading drumbeat rhythms, forming a dance circle of moving bopping jiving bodies, and I wanted to join but I felt silly and insecure so I stayed in my seat, constrained by idiotic propriety and the pressure to perform.

Before the slam began, our advisor, Corbett Upton, changed our performance order; instead of going third I was now second, performing after the other Sarah and finishing off the second round. This was fine by me- “Lifeguard” (the poem I would perform) is the kind of thing that needs space surrounding it; you can’t just follow it up immediately with another poem, slapdash and rollercoaster. It’s too harsh for that.

The sacrificial poet went up and did a piece about racism- or sexism? I don’t really remember. She conjured beautiful lonely buildings, crumbling from corrosion until they collapsed into dusty nothings, and somehow it was the perfect metaphor for her message. I remember being impressed with her vocabulary, and I was pleased when the audience gave her their wild approval, because that meant they’d also like Sarah’s style. She writes in whimsical, verbal acrobatics, clever and quick and unexpectedly funny. The audience loved her, and after that the night was a stuttering swirl of intense reaction and frozen emotion, solitary figures wreathed in weighty recognition and support. We drew from each other such depths of feeling that by the end both audience and performer were exhausted.

I am laughing at myself; in writing this I’ve somehow reawakened the nerves of that night, and even though I know how it all ends I can’t help feeling tense as I write our way towards my performance. I suppose that is a hallmark of the strength of my experience; even in recollection the memory cannot help but touch me deeply.

The poem before mine was one of love and affection and tender hope, laced with humor and fear and lighthearted nostalgia. It was sweet and pure, the perfect bright contrast to my grisly offering. They called my name, and I rose thoughtless and stepped down to the stage. The room was arranged in steep concentric semicircles around a main stage, smallish and concrete and bare but for the microphones, and when I reached it I found myself in the bottom of a well, surrounded on all sides by attentive faces. They say you should establish your right to the stage as soon as you step out onto it, so I took my time adjusting the microphones, making sure that everything was perfectly adjusted to my specifications. I stepped back a few paces to let myself settle, like dust and stones on the bottom of a riverbed, and closed my eyes. I breathed carefully, intentionally, squared my feet under me and stood my ground against the hundreds of eyes cast upon me. I raised my face to the audience, to let them know I was not afraid of them, and delivered my gaze: Clear, calm, level headed. Detached. I walked to the microphone and began to speak.

You’ve never seen me do “Lifeguard,” so it will be difficult for you to imagine my performance. It began quiet and emotionless, cold in a cruel, disinterested way that dropped so sharply after the previous poem that someone said, “Well shit,” after my introduction, surprised by the heartlessness I threw upon them. I continued. From emotionless I moved to proud, then impatient, then desperate and greedy and manic. I seduced the audience with my pain, stole their problems to forget my own. I was angry, and broken, and lost and ruined and fierce, and even though I faltered halfway through, it became vulnerability and added another layer of depth to my performance. The audience followed me the whole way— together we visited the depths of self-destruction, and came to the terrifying place of hope where it is only possible to lose things because you care so deeply about them. I was magnificent, mesmerising, terrible. I wish you could have seen me.

Afterward I stumbled back to my seat in daze, emotionally and physically exhausted. My nerves hummed raw voltage and my fingers twitched, and my legs almost gave way before I reached my chair. I hardly heard the numbers, so focused was I on breathing, separating myself from the performance, learning how to be myself again. I did well, I think; I remember being proud and pleased, happy that I had nothing left to give when I stepped out of the spotlight. Afterward a man said my performance reminded him of a friend who lost himself so utterly in his music that he played until his fingers bled, and only after the song was finished did he realise what he’d done. We finished last but we held our own, and I was ecstatic and electrically satisfied with what we’d done. That night I couldn’t sleep; the audience and the amphitheatre jumped before my eyes every time they closed, and I couldn’t help reliving the experience. Even in bed I was standing, trapped at the bottom of a fishbowl with no way to escape but by speaking, and no way to speak but by living. It was painful, astonishing, heartrendingly exquisite.

I have never been so alive.

-Sarah Menard


Deepening Understanding of an Art Form through Collaboration

webmail.uoregon.eduAs I prepared for the first preliminary bout in which the University of Oregon Slam Poetry Team would participate at the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational/International (CUPSI), I got my first taste of the slam poetry’s convergent nature. Many factors conspire to influence a slam poet’s performance of any given poem: the poet’s state of mind, the other poems slammed in the competition, the audience’s levels of interaction and energy. As a result, I used a number of different tactics to soothe my nerves, both with my teammates and by myself. On the first day, I walked around the Virginia Commonwealth University campus with my teammate Sarah Menard, reciting our poems to each other in a conversational tone. We regularly interrupted each other with humorous interjections, as if we were actually addressing each other. As a result, I achieved a new cadence in a poem I wrote in November 2014, and had committed to memory and performed on multiple occasions. I delivered it more organically, rawly, and with a renewed sympathy and kinship for the speaker. After performing it at our bout that evening, my teammates assured me it was the best incarnation of the poem they had witnessed from me.

The next day, in preparation for our second preliminary bout, I tried to return to my second poem’s core themes in order to attain the same level of performance. This involved meditating by myself, and watching YouTube videos of spoken word artist Buddy Wakefield, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and philosopher Alan Watts, alike. These exercises served the same function as my recitations with Sarah M.: I rediscovered my poetry, its possibility and urgency. The diverse array of tools I used to reach this end reflected the emotional and psychological complexity of slam. After all, the art evokes such strong emotions that trigger warnings precede almost any slam or open mic, and many audience members need to step out of the room on occasion when triggered by a poem. It also involves a strategy based on “reading the room,” knowing whether a quieter, more intimate delivery will draw in the audience, or if a larger, louder performance will stimulate an energetic audience. Or a poet might be faced with the decision to follow a competitor’s piece with a thematically similar poem performed better, or introduce a tonal shift and use the contrast as an advantage.

Reflecting on slam’s dynamic, intersectional nature, it made perfect sense to attend a conference with 67 other teams from across the United States and Canada. In one of the panels I attended, the panelists stressed slam relies on a plurality of perspectives. The individual and regional idiosyncrasies of each poem I saw slammed fascinated me; I found myself constantly energized and inspired, scribbling notes and favorite lines in my always-out notepad. The UO Slam Poetry Team connected with Southern Oregon University and Whitman College, and together we raised the idea of creating a Pacific Northwest Slam for us to further interface. Furthermore, poets from schools across the country posted links to their Tumblrs and other online forums for their poetry on the CUPSI Facebook page, opening more doors to collaboration and cross-pollination. Beyond connecting with fellow poets, one workshop suggested a variety of directions a team could take its collaborative efforts: artists from other disciplines, such as graphic designers and actors, as well as organizations outside of the arts, such as cultural and mental health awareness forums. I look forward to implementing these collaborative efforts at the University of Oregon, and growing my own poetic skills as I continue to rediscover poetry. Slam invites plurality, and I feel better equipped than ever to contribute to its microcosm, especially after a compliment paid to me by a poet from an unknown team who watched our first bout: “Your poem was very unique. I really appreciated it because I don’t get to see anything like that at CUPSI.”

The UO Slam Poetry Team will continue to evolve and interact with the genre!

-Sarah Hovet

Notes from Day 3 at CUPSI

My teammates and I spent the afternoon spent watching a haiku slam, a competitive but lighthearted match in which poets deliver dozens of 17-syllable pieces head-to-head. After hearing so much talented writing and concise, powerful language, my fellow poets and I were inspired. My teammates and I joined students from UC Davis’ team and headed to the University Library to talk about our poetry over a cup of coffee, and, as we always do, turn some of what we were experiencing into words on a page. Inspiration at a high, I walked out of the café an hour and half later with the bones of a new poem in my notebook.

The UO Poetry Slam team came to CUPSI with very different poetry to offer the national community. A fellow competitor stopped us in the hallway after a match and said, “I never see poems like this at CUPSI. It’s clear from all of your poems how strong you all are as writers.”

The beauty of a place like CUPSI is that it’s international (now representing teams from Canada andIMG_1092 soon to be reaching out to other continents). Poetry was represented at CUPSI from every pocket of the country. Our university’s team poetry tends to be more personal narrative style, which differed a lot from much of the poetry of our competitors’ from the South and the East Coast, whose poetry was more political and advocated for social activism. Without the chance to experience each other’s distinct styles, people grow complacent and fail to see alternatives as viable. As with many societal issues that stem from difference of opinion, what we hold valuable and what we use our poetry to talk about in our homes is different from what other Americans do — and it’s important for us to be exposed to this. The chance to recognize what our peers elsewhere value and how they express themselves is invaluable and inspires new ways we can think about our work.

National competitions like CUPSI are in many ways the apex of the art form – this IS where slam poetry is being created, showcased, and defined. Many of the coaches, several of whom are professional slam poets in their own rights who have helped shape and pioneer the art, have said here at CUPSI that we as poets are responsible for the space we create. There’s no age limit. There’s no governing board that is regulating our content or our approaches to slam poetry. WE are the culture and community who represents the art, and we must hold ourselves accountable for consciously creating the kind of work we want to foster.

Dialogue like this reaches beyond our campus in Eugene. And the Pacific Northwest. Even the West Coast. Dialogue about the art form happens on a more global scale, and it is crucial that UO was represented at this


-Hannah Golden

Greetings from Richmond!

CUPSI15logowdateThank you for donating to the English Undergraduate Organization to help send the UO Poetry Slam Team to the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. Over the course of the competition, you will receive a link to a student’s blog post about the competition so you will be able to see the impact of your donation. This is a unique opportunity for our students to engage with a lively academic and artistic community and to share their own poetry and experiences, and we look forward to sharing it all with you.

This year’s CUPSI is the largest in the event’s 14-year history! 68 teams will compete for a chance at the national title at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. The UO Poetry Slam has sent four competing poets to the event: Dante Douglas, Hannah Golden, Sarah Hovet, and Sarah Menard.

The UO Poetry Slam Team will begin the competition with two rounds of preliminary bouts. We are competing against the best of the best in both rounds! In Bout 1, Oregon will face Lewis & Clark and Washington University (both teams that placed first in each of their preliminary bouts last year), and UC Davis. In Bout 2, Oregon faces Princeton and the host school, Virginia Commonwealth University (the second and third place winners of last year’s tournament), and American University. We are excited to participate in this event for the first time in Oregon’s history and to meet so many other exciting poets from across the nation and Canada.

In addition to the competition, we’re looking forward to exploring Richmond. In fact, our hotel is built on Edgar Allan Poe’s childhood home and is rumored to be haunted!

In preparation for this event, the UO Poetry Slam Team put in countless hours over the Winter term workshopping, rehearsing, and performing. On its way to building a community and team with the goal of competing at CUPSI, the UO Poetry Slam has been featured in The Daily Emerald and members have performed at the end-of-year English Department meeting, the Eugene Poetry Slam, the National Poetry Slam, TEDx, and many campus events, and even in some of your classrooms. Already, two different poets have placed first in the Eugene Poetry Slam and the Portland Poetry Slam this term on the way to CUPSI.

But, the Team prioritizes community building and poetry even above competition. As team captain Hannah Golden said in a recent interview for The Daily Emerald, “We’re not just a team; we’re also a community and a club. We really want to invite other people to come and participate. If you’ve never written a word of poetry in your life, you’re an ideal candidate. If you’ve written poetry for five years, you’re also an ideal candidate.”

Thank you, again, for donating to the UO Poetry Slam to make this trip more affordable for these students. Personally, I am so proud of all that these student-poets have accomplished and sacrificed to attend this national competition. I look forward to all that CUPSI has in store for the Team and to the inspiration and energy they will bring back to Oregon!20150308_195626