On stage, in a ballroom packed with nearly 100 attendees, stands a series of mics.The crowd hushes as a girl makes her way up to the stage. Tension seems to crackle through the air as she takes several moments to steel her nerves. When she finally speaks, what flows out is pure fire.
Thus began one of the many slam poems performed at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), hosted this year by Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., from March 25 to 28. Established in 2001 by the Association of College Unions International, the formerly small event, with fewer than a dozen teams, has grown into one of the premier collegiate poetry slams in the nation.
However, CUPSI 2015 was different from previous years for one reason: this was the first year a team from the University of Maryland competed.
The UMD Slam Team consists of five members: senior mechanical engineering Abisola Kusimo, sophomore undecided Kosi Dunn, sophomore communication and English double major Sadie Echols, sophomore government and politics major Nate Hitchings and senior geographical information systems and English double major Jason Nkwain.
Though the five of them did not become involved in poetry in the same way, their shared love of the art is what landed them on this inaugural team.
“We weren’t as close coming into CUPSI as we are going to be leaving out of it,” Kusimo said.
Reclining against the backboards of their beds at the hotel, the Slam Team spoke with one another with the ease only obtained after a group has spent several hours together. By this time they’d been in Richmond for almost three days, yet they still had as much energy as if they’d just arrived.
The road to CUPSI was not an easy one for them.
The UMD Slam Team has only existed since January, much less time than many of the other competing teams.
Along with help from their coach Drew Law, a famous battle rapper from the DMV, the team completed the majority of their preparation for CUPSI in a month-and-a-half.
“What we tried to do was find a space where our ideas could just float easy,” Nkwain said. “When you’re comfortable, your writing is at it’s best. It’s not forced, it’s not marginalized or anything like that.”
So write, they did.
The UMD team became one of 68 teams to make it to this year’s CUPSI. Some groups even went as far as crowdfunding to make it to the event.
“The diversity here is … very strong,” Nkwain said. “There’s queer, there’s straight, there’s some people from so many different cultures, races, genders – name whatever you want to name, and they are here. They’re all poets and they’re using poetry to tell their own stories in their own way.”
From abortion to sexual assault to anti-technophobia to racism to the strangeness of Chief Keef lyrics, the poets of CUPSI were only limited by what their imagination could devise.
Kusimo summed up best what it means to perform a slam:
“It’s like when the little kid who is stumbling over all the words in church … and everybody just kind of claps like, ‘Aw that was so cute, what a great attempt, you did a great job!’ Slam does not do that for you. If you suck, we’ll let you know that you suck. We are tasking you to tell a story – a good one – in a very short amount of time. Get our attention, make us feel it, make us feel relevant or related to what you have to say.”
First-time competition performer Echols has waited a long time for CUPSI. Echols said she fell in love with slam poetry in 5th grade when a famous slam poet did a seminar on the art form.
The Association of College Union International divided CUPSI into three different parts. The first part was the preliminary round, which every team participated in. The teams received two scores on a scale of one to four and the 20 teams with the highest score made it to the semifinals. The semifinals were split into four bouts with 10 teams going at the same time every two hours.
New York University went home with the title, marking the school’s third win at CUPSI.
Dunn, who first began preparing the team in its early stages, said the best part of CUPSI was “falling back in love with poetry.”
In addition to the main competition, CUPSI hosted workshops for poets and participants to hone their craft.
When Echols first came to UMD, so many people attended the Terpoets readings that there was no room to sit. Now, the room is rarely full. Members of the Slam Team said they wants to see poetry at UMD flourish as it did at CUPSI.
“We really need to take Terpoets and transform it into something where people want to come, where people mark their calendar like, ‘I’ve got to go to Terpoets to see this awesome shit,’” Echols said.
With CUPSI behind them, the UMD Slam Team has set their eyes on a new goal: improving the poetry community at this university.
Nkwain said, “If we could bring that out and just show that University of Maryland can stand with these amazing writers, then we definitely have a shot. Next year, it could be us going to the finals. It all starts with us.”
Rosie Brown is a sophomore prospective journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.