Spoken word combines social justice and activism, poetry and performance. It is an art that, at its best, exposes the performer’s vulnerability as a way to connect people. In 2010, Occidental’s Spoken Word Club brought this art form to campus, and now, members are competing on a national stage.
This past week, Occidental’s spoken word team—comprised of members Daphne Auza* (senior), Margaux Ziss (first-year), Maggie Mather (sophomore) and coach Henry Dickmeyer* (senior)—packed their bags and their journals for the 15th College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The first two days of CUPSI consist of preliminary bouts, which are “mini” slams in which four teams compete. A team member performs an original poem in each of the four rounds. The top-scoring teams go on to compete in the qualifying slams Friday and Saturday. Five judges, who are randomly selected from the audience, rank each poem on a 0-10 scale, with 10 as the highest score. The highest and lowest scores are dropped and the remaining three are averaged together to create the team score for the round. Occidental’s team made it past the preliminary bouts and placed fourth out of four teams in both of their qualifying rounds. Four of the six schools that the team competed against went on to the semi-finals.
“Both of our bouts were really powerful, really emotional and it was really rewarding knowing that so much thought was put into those two hours,” Dickmeyer said. “We all worked amazingly hard. It was nice to see that pay off through the love and support of the audience.”
This year’s CUPSI event was the largest in the invitational’s history, with 68 teams from universities across the country gathering to share their work and compete for the title. Although the invitational does crown a winner, according to the Association of College Unions International, it is also meant to create an inclusive space for students to express themselves.
“There’s a really specific energy to it compared to every other slam that I’ve personally been to,” Auza said. “There are a lot of people here who really center their work around art and social justice and it’s been really amazing to hear everybody’s work.”
The road to CUPSI began Nov. 19, when the Spoken Word Club hosted a qualifying slam in which students competed to earn a spot on the team. The chosen team prepared for the event by meeting twice a week and creating a Kickstarter campaign to cover the team’s costs. On March 23, they hosted a final send-off slam in Morrison Lounge to showcase their CUPSI poems for their peers.
At the send-off slam, Dickmeyer performed his poem “A Love Letter from Climate Change,” which personified global warming and climate change deniers as two parties in a failing romance. Mather followed, exploring the problematic way in which the general public ignored the AIDS epidemic in her piece “The Glass Blower.”
“When we do have events it’s really an experience that people aren’t going to get anywhere else,” Mather said. “It’s a really honest space. It’s baring your soul to people, which isn’t something that’s acceptable in normal conversation usually so I think that’s part of the draw that people enjoy.”
The audience, sitting around the perimeter of the room, snapped loudly and shifted forward in their seats for Auza’s “Diaspora,” a piece dedicated to the Filipino diaspora. In February, Auza was crowned one of the winners of Apollo Night for her performance of the poem.
“I thought the repetition of the line ‘Diaspora is the study of…’ was very impactful,” audience member Sarah Schiele (sophomore) said. “And I saw it performed at both Apollo Night and the send-off slam. The way the audience reacted both times, at Apollo Night specifically, was especially moving.”
Mather’s and Dickmeyer’s co-written poem “The Language of Survivors,” a condemnation of Occidental’s sexual assault policies, also received an enthusiastic response from the audience.
“Occidental’s policy toward sexual assault is something I feel very strongly about and [Dickmeyer] felt very strongly about,” Mather said. “Just writing that poem with him and performing it and practicing it for the past month has been such an exhausting experience emotionally but it’s also brought me much closer with him and brought the team much closer.”
With warm encouragement from her teammates and the audience members, Ziss performed her poem, “Paradise,” that explores her bisexual identity. And although team member Griffin Wynne* (sophomore) was unable to attend CUPSI, the team performed her poem about Tinder as a group at the invitational.
Although Occidental’s poets did not make it past the qualifying rounds, the team said that attending CUPSI is enriching every year both for themselves and for the college’s spoken word community as a whole.
“Sure, we send a team, sure, we send poems, but I think another really valuable aspect of being there is that it’s actually a conference,” Dickmeyer said. “It’s a time where you can talk to other coaches and teammates and get to know what their spoken word scene is like. It’s important to be exposed to different spoken word communities across the country so you can improve your own.”
*Daphne Auza, Henry Dickmeyer and Griffin Wynne are staff members of the Occidental Weekly.