Slam poetry team wins national competition

By Noah Westreich

The Macalester poetry slam team won first place last week at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational in Ann Arbor, Mich. This was the second year that Macalester has sent a team to CUPSI. Last year they came in third place.The team also returned to Macalester with four caption awards: Best Poem went to Niko Martell ’13 for “Wingdings,” Best Comedic Poem went to Spencer Retelle ’11 for “The Barista’s Love Song,” Best Love Poem went to Neil Hilborn ’11 for “OCD,” and the team received the award for Best Team Writing. Held at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, CUPSI drew 38 teams from colleges around the country, including the University of Minnesota and Hamline. MacSlams was founded by Dylan Garity ’12 in Spring 2009, and is coached by Sierra DeMulder, a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion. The team features Hilborn, Retelle, Martell, Garity, and Abbie Shain ’14. Hours of workshopping and rehearsal, in addition to performances, brought the team close together as they shared personal experiences through the spoken word. “My teammates are some of my closest friends,” said Hilborn. “I trust them more than almost anyone else in my life.” Although national competitions tend to be thought of as high-stakes pressure cookers, CUPSI was described as “universally accepting and friendly.” All who attend the competition share the desire to listen to each other’s craft. “Anytime you get hundreds of artists together you get an incredibly unique sense of place and space that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Martell. “Everyone came to the slam to share their life, stories, and words and there is something especially beautiful about that.” Slam poetry, or rhythmic spoken word, is a form of self-expression championed for its ability to communicate the poet’s experiences to the audience. Macalester Slam poets performed personal narratives as well as persona pieces, which take on the perspective of someone other than the self. Shain, who accompanied the team to Ann Arbor as an alternate and a primary supporter, says that her sole prerequisite for the poetry slam team was her “deep appreciation for the art and knowledge of the larger world of slam.” Garity, an English major, performed a persona piece about a man who for 23 years was misdiagnosed as being in a coma, when in fact he was conscious but completely paralyzed. The poem tells this story from the man’s perspective as being a miracle, instead of a human being, for the doctors and nurses. Retelle did theater in high school, but when he came to Macalester he decided to pursue track. For him, performing comes from the desire to have “everyone who has ever said no to me wish that they had said yes.” His poetry is more comedic, and inducing laughter proved to be his strong suit upon winning Best Comedic Poem for “The Barista’s Love Song,” about his job as a barista where he falls in love with customers after they order their drinks to-go. “Saying No,” a group piece performed by Hilborn and Retelle, talks about sexual abuse against males. The poem revolves around the taboo of a male refusing sex for fear of “losing his masculinity.” Hilborn’s poem “OCD” won Best Love Poem. The poem is told from the perspective of a boy with OCD who falls in love with a girl and overcomes his tics and obsessions, only to have his heart broken. Martell, who has been doing spoken word since his junior year of high school, won Best Poem for “Wingdings.” The poem is about understanding the intricacies of people through Wingdings, a computer font comprised of symbols. Anyone who has been to a poetry slam knows that a successful performance is one that features high levels of emotion and passion. “Before I perform, I actually try to calm myself down,” Hilborn said. “I perform poems the best when I am centered and relaxed. When I am too hyper or energetic, I tend to scare audiences.” In preparation for a comedic poem, Retelle shared that all he has to do is imagine himself tripping on his way up to the stage. “After everyone has seen you fall, they want to laugh with you.” Retelle also cites breathing techniques and recalling the experiences that he wrote about as ways to get in the right mindset for performing. “One of the most crucial things for me is being able to be excited about sharing the piece I’m about to do and believing that it has meaning,” Martell said about preparation for a slam. “That sort of enthusiasm is what carries me through a piece.” Hilborn and Retelle are graduating in May, so Macalester Slam will be looking for new poets to join their organization. “The spoken word community is one of the most genuinely welcoming and helpful groups of people I’ve ever been around,” Garity said. “Ask for help, and you’ll get it.