Local poet Sam Cook, the host of last Friday’s MacSlams Grand Slam, described the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) as “the Super Bowl for the most improbable sport in the world.”
That sport is slam poetry—competitive spoken word that blends theatre and verse, while random audience members act as judges. CUPSI decides its collegiate national champion, and Macalester has been a consistent contender in recent years. The competition includes teams from as many as 50 schools across the country, from state flagship universities to small liberal arts colleges. Macalester won in 2011, leading the top four of Washington University, NYU and University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
Last Friday’s event decided which five poets would represent Macalester at this year’s CUPSI, which will be held at Barnard College in New York City from April 6 to April 9. Ten poets who had placed in previous Macalester slams competed in three rounds, with the final round only showcasing the top seven poets. Abbie Shain ’14, Niko Martell ’13, Anna Binkovitz ’14, Rachel Rostad ’15 and Renee Schminkey ’16 were chosen to compete at this year’s CUPSI.
Building a community
Though the Grand Slam is a competition, the winners see MacSlams as a community.
“We call it a slamily,” Shain said.
“Rather than competing, which we were doing, we were just putting on a show together,” Binkovitz said.
Besides picking this year’s CUPSI team, the event served as a showcase for MacSlams, which brought in a lot of talent with this years’ class of first years. Of the five other poets who competed in the Grand Slam—Kat Fleckenstein ’14, Aiden Morzenti ’16, Cassidy Foust ’15, Sophia Haile ’14 and Jeffrey Lyman ’16—two are first years.
Shminkey is the only first year selected for the CUPSI team. “It’s pretty frickin’ awesome. I didn’t do slam poetry before this year,” she said. “Everybody’s been super supportive and it’s been really cool.”
When asked about why the team has so much young talent, Martell cited “mentorship and the strong sense of community.”
“I think every year we’ve sent a team we’ve had someone from every grade level,” he said. “The difference is we have so manytalented and gifted and passionate people who are younger. We have a strong pool coming up and that’s really exciting.”
“Macalester’s a really good spot”
The slam was performed for a packed house in 10K, and most of the standing-room-only crowd stayed for the duration of the two-hour event. Between the second and final rounds, National Poetry Slam champion Ken Arkind performed a set.
[quote style=”boxed”]It’s kind of like being a little bit famous.[/quote]
Ken Arkind, a slight man with a large red beard, filled the space with bombastic poems on subjects from the role of race in the poetry world to Los Angeles. He runs Minor Disturbance, a youth poetry workshop in Denver, and is a nationally touring poet.
He spoke highly of the poetry scene at the college.
“It’s amazing here because it’s become a draw for the school, the way it should be,” Arkind said. “Macalester’s a really good spot.”
Arkind also praised slam as an art more generally. Referencing the number of people the Grand Slam brought together, he connected slam poetry to ancient forms of community building.
“Poetry is a communal art form, and [the slam] is reminding us of that,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that they’re practicing the oldest art form in the world: just sitting in rooms telling stories to each other.”
The art of slamming
These stories, which form the core of the performances, are often emotionally intense, with poems at the slam dealing with personal themes such as family conflict and national tragedies such as the Newton massacre. Slam poets work to convey their emotions to the audience as deeply and completely as possible within their three-minute timeframe.
Each of the poets on the CUPSI team has their own style of preparing and performing. Rostad uses her background in theatre to inhabit the feeling of each of her pieces.
“Some people are more naturally performative and others aren’t,” she said. “I’ve always found it really easy to show emotions that I don’t necessarily feel.”
Martell reflects on the personal importance of many of his poems before performing. “I usually take a few seconds to just meditate on the mic”, Martell said, “and remind myself why I wrote this piece and why it’s important and why I think it ought to be shared.”
Shain takes inspiration from the December slam’s featured poet, Lauren Zuniga. Zuniga encouraged Shain and other poets, saying that the poem they perform at a slam is the poem a member of the audience needs to hear that night.
“In times when I feel like I can’t muster up the energy,” Shain said, “I think in terms of that.”
Schminkey spoke similarly and connects poetry to the music she writes and performs. “I love jazz, because it’s so emotional,” she said. “I like to do poetry the way I play my music. And there’s always somebody out there, like Abbie [Shain] said, that needs to hear exactly what you have to say. And that’s cool.”
She wasn’t the only one who used music for inspiration.
“I listen to a lot of Doomtree before slams,” Binkovitz said. “because I have the biggest fangirl crush on Dessa. And then I try to have one salient thing that I think about right when I’m getting on stage about each poem before I do it. Like I’ll think of the one person, or the one moment [the poem is inspired by] to try to get myself in the right headspace to do the poem.”
Shain, Martell, Binkovitz and Rostad have all previously attended CUPSI. MacSlams has made it to the finals every year since their founding in 2009, placing in the top three the last three competitions. In 2011, they were champions. Martell won best individual poem that year for his poem “Wingdings.”
The team’s past success gives them a lot to live up to, and the poets will spend 10 to 20 hours a week preparing for the competition. They also have a bit of a reputation to uphold.
“People know who you are,” Rostad said. “[They say] ’Oh you’re with Macalester.’ It’s kind of like being a little bit famous.”
Despite the success, winning isn’t the only thing they have to look forward to at CUPSI. All the poets keep in touch with people they’ve met at CUPSI, bonding over their common passion for slam.
“It could be a picnic convention or a teacup enthusiast meet-up, but it happens to be slam poetry,” Shain said.
“It’s kind of like summer camp,” Rostad added, “only it’s three days.”
And the connections aren’t solely platonic. “I think I would be remiss to not include the romantic element to CUPSI,” Shain said. “Two Macslams graduates have met significant others at CUPSI. So that’s a thing that happens.”
Whether it’s for winning, friendships or romance, all the poets are united in their excitement for CUPSI.
“I think it’s just going to be incredible,” Martell said, “and I cannot wait.”