Over the weekend, while some of us were getting absolutely nothing done, some NYU students were slamming at the national championship for collegiate slam poets in Los Angeles. And winning.
Essentially, slam poetry is a performance of spoken word poetry at a competitive poetry event— the slam. Poets get on stage, show their stuff, and are judged by members of the audience. Incredibly, the members of NYU’s team, SLAMnyu, just started slamming together last year.
The 12th Annual College Poets Slam Invitational, or CUPSI, was held at the University of La Verne, and slam poets from the across the country to fight it out for several days. Our team, SLAMnyu, emerged victorious, sweating and poet-y and very, very happy. Along with slammers Kate Guenther, Aziza Barnes, Safia Elhillo, Joseph Amodei, Connor Sampson, and coaches Brian Dillon and Steph Holmbo, our very own NYU Local staffer Eric Silver was one of those battling bards, who was kind enough to fight through the jet lag to answer a few of our questions.
How does it feel to be a mega-champion of slamming?
It feels good. Really really good. Like recognition for all the hard work the team has put in this year.
How long were you there for? What was the process?
We were there from Wednesday to Sunday. Preliminary slams of four teams doing four poems on Wednesday and Thursday, five teams doing four poems teach for semi-final on friday, and finals on saturday (four by four again), leave on Sunday.
How many other schools were competing?
There were 46 schools competing. That’s like the most in CUPSI history.
What was the general size of the audience?
They were decent, but only because all of the other poets go to the bouts. If half the teams aren’t competing, what else are they gonna do? Hang out and not listen to more poems? Semis and finals are also pretty big because everyone is watching. As for a general audience, there were a sizable amount of random audience go-ers. University of La Verne (where the tournament was held) is a very small school; it’s only a doctoral school in a suburb of LA. As long as someone’s there, I really can’t complain. We’re just doing poems to whoever will listen.
What were your general feelings going into the competition? As a poet/individual? As a team? How confident were you guys feeling?
We were just hyped that we were going to California. When does anyone get to skip class to go across the country to do what they love? Also, NYU kind of paid for everything. We finally figured out the club system, so we got money for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and food. We were happy. We definitely had faith in ourselves, in terms of the poems. We’ve been editing and workshopping and rehearsing this stuff for so long now. But you never know how a slam is going to shake down, no matter how much you work at it. And there are so many amazing and talented teams out there, especially Macalester College, Stanford, Berkley, CUNY-Hostos, Wesleyan, and Oneonta.
Haha, Wilmer Valderrama wishes he did poetry. Derrick Brown was the host of finals, yeah. The guy’s a legend; he’s the owner and founder of Write Bloody publishing
, this indie publishing company that produces the work of a lot of renouned slammers. I have a bunch of Write Bloody books on my shelf now. Derrick’s also ridiculous, like to the point of sheer silliness. He’s a great host, and he entertained the huge finals crowd.
What is the scoring system? What were the judges looking for? Who were the judges?
Judges are five randomly selected people from the audience. For each poem, each judge scores it from 0 to 10, with one decimal point. Drop the high score, drop the low score, add the middle three, and that is the score of the poem. Each team does four poems in a round robin style match, and then the total scores of each poet from each team determines a winner.
You never really know what the judges are looking for. They can feel different ways about poetry, and expect different thing from performance poetry. Judges can like emotionally-wrought pieces, or aggressive political pieces. Really, its a crapshoot, but you gotta just put yourself on the stage with poems that you love and care strongly about.
What were some of the poems you guys performed?
Well, there was our four-person group poem called “Chocolate Fix,” which was about the sexualization of black women. Joe and Connor start off as these ridiculous (and extremely offensive) guys talking about “fucking a black girl,” and it becomes a passion examination of black women’s sexuality once Safia and Aziza, two black girls, step in and speak.
Another extremely powerful poem was Joe’s poem “An Open Letter to Occupy Wall Street from the Ghosts of Revolutions Past.” Taking on the voice of previous revolutionaries, he shows that also there is a “weight of the 1%,” Occupy Wall Street is not a revolution, especially as compared to history’s previous revolutions. My favorite line: “You are not a revolution if you are too busy tweeting about economic inequality from your smartphone to realize that you’re tweeting about economic inequality from your smartphone.”
Any little mishaps?
Funny story: every single poet got kicked out of the host hotel. All of the teams had booked into a DoubleTree in the area of the university, and we were all so excited for it. The hotel was ridiculously nice: free cookies in the lobby whenever you wanted, gorgeous pool area, balconies and verandas, right across the street from a Trader Joe’s. Of course, in any college tournament, college students will be loud.
Apparently, there were a lot of noise complaints and some people got money refunded, I think, and one rumored complaint from an extremely important person at the hotel in regards to someone swearing at him at 3AM. Anyway, the general manager was pissed, and all poets were expelled from the premises. All of the teams had to find another hotel fast, and a lot of us went to a Howard Johnson a few miles away. It was a step down.The carpet looked like it was from your great-grandma’s parlor room, and I don’t think our fridge worked. Still, we had a place to sleep, which is always important, but I still dream about the DoubleTree cookies. Le sigh.
Is there a trophy? A medal? A huge check? Are your names being carved on anything important?
We do have a trophy. It’s this really anatomically-correct microphone. Five team members got trophies. I think we’re gonna sign one of them and put it in the trophy case on Kimmel’s seventh floor. #legacy.
Also, here’s a picture of the trophy.
How happ/relieved/tired/jet lagged are you?
I’M SO TIRED BLUGHHHH WHY AM I AWAKE AT 2:40AM?
Because you really love SLAMnyu and NYU Local, and you’re really good at both?
Congratulations to SLAMnyu’s Connor Sampson, Safia Elhilo, Aziza Barnes, Joe Amodei, Eric Silver and Kate Guenther, as well as their coaches, Brian Dillon and Steph Holmbo. Make sure to check out some videos
of previous performances. They’ll be performing at a final show to close out the year, most likely on May 5th. Check out their Facebook page