The Slam Spoken. Word.

Posted 4/19/2010 by Kate Kelly in Labels: , , , , , ,

When I think of poets, I imagine a prophetic William Blake, an eccentric Allen Ginsberg, an aloof Ezra Pound…not Miles Walser. Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota this curly headed wide-eyed kid took the stage this past week at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) hosted at Emerson College in Boston. The event stands as the national poetry slam competition for undergraduate students. This year CUPSI featured almost 40 teams from across the country, all spitting poetics in hopes of being crowned the CUPSI champions at the end of the week.

Miles Walser walked away this past weekend as perhaps the ultimate champion, earning the title of CUPSI’s Best Male Poet and leading his team into finals. Walser’s poetry fosters a new poetic voice of our generation, meditating on heartache, love and struggles of being a transgendered male living in the Midwest. Every time Walser took the stage, ears opened across the auditorium as he touched each person with his poetics, engaging and raw yet carefully controlled.

Allow us to back up for a momen though…Slam Poetry? Spam Poultry? What is this slam poetry business anyway?

So glad you asked, Grandma. Back in 1984, when I was just a twinkle in my parents’ eyes, a Chicago construction worker named Marc Smith decided that poetry needed to be reinvented, revamped, revised—making it accessible to the everyday person. Slam Poetry was born. Slam events began popping up around the United States in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s.

How do slams work?

Slams consist of everyday people judging art, essentially. The events are held typically at coffee shops, small performance spaces and even basements. The judges are chosen randomly from the crowd, the less literate in poetry the better some say. After each poet comes up to the mike the judges award him/her with a score from 0-10. At the end of the slam, the scores are tabulated and one lucky poet gets to walk away a lucky winner of…well, typically nothing, but the pride in knowing that their poetry was appreciated.

Now that Grandma is all up to speed on slam poetry, let’s get back to CUPSI! As a member of the Davidson College’s slam poetry group Freewor. This was our first ever appearance at the competition or at any competitive slam really. We arrived in Boston on Wednesday April 7, fired up and ready to spit. Walking into the opening ceremony of the competition, we were overwhelmed, looking at the faces of poets that we’d only seen on youtube. Big name slam poetry schools like UPenn and UC Berkely politely shook hands with us like giants. This was the NCAA tournament of poetry and, well, Davidson College knows how to handle the NCAA tournament.

After the first two bouts of prelims, our scores allowed us to advance into the semi-finals. We were ranked within the top eight in the country with our Duke of Diction, Papa of Poetics, our fearless leader, Clint Smith standing as our all-star. Smith was the Stephen Curry to our squad, allowing us to advance into the semi-finals.

I’ll admit, seeing our named listed in the top ten felt exhilarating and horrifying. We were the smallest school represented in the competition. We had just beat-out the UC Berkley and UPenn giants of our meeting two days prior. We were the underdog! The Cinderella Story of Poetry! And we only had two and a half poems prepared for semi-finals…we needed four.

After an all nighter of writing, rhyming and memorizing, we dragged ourselves out of our Holiday Inn hotel room and headed to our performance venue on Emerson’s campus. The atmosphere before a slam is about half as competitive as one would imagine and about ten times more nerve racking. Every school there was quick to introduce themselves, make small talk, and offer support. I found myself being so overwhelmed at times by the amount of support and positive energy that I began to question how genuine it all was. Most of these kids had been competing against one another on a national level since they were fifteen years old. Not only were we the underdog but we were also the strange and small town new kid on the block.

Being the new-guy didn’t translate so well in semi-finals. We were overwhelmed by the venue and the other teams’ poetry. This was the first night that we heard Miles Walser perform. He went up after I had already stumbled through my poem (a moment that I’m sure will somehow surface on YouTube just to haunt me) and I just let all of my anxiety go after he began to speak. Walser shared with us the fear, anxiety and self-disgust experienced through unrequited love. His poem brought to light the struggle that many transgendered people face: finding someone who is comfortable being public about being with you. His message, however, went so much future than just speaking to the GLBT community. He hit home, because let’s me honest, everyone has felt not good enough to be with the one they love. Everyone could understand this because everyone could understand love.

This was the basic message of CUPSI for me, using poetry to translate our loves, passions, and disappointment as artist. Poetry slams are more than just an opportunity to showcase your awesomely articulated alliteration. Slams are a venue to showcase the voices of today, the dialogue of social justice and the issues that distinguish us generationally.

NOTE: If you want more after reading this article and watching the attached videos, check out CUPSI finals and semi-finals featured on YoutTube. Also, I did a little stalking and found Miles Walser’s blog for those of you who are interested:

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