As 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!