The crowd was silent. They were waiting for the introduction of the 2014 Emerson College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational team. As soon as they got it, the Cabaret filled with sounds of applause and hoopla, and suddenly, freshman Maggie Dunleavy took the stage. Sensing the confusion over where the other four members were, she jokingly shouted, “Yeah that’s right, it’s just me. Because I’m the whole damn team!”
Throughout Monday night, during which the CUPSI team performed the pieces they would be taking to the invitation in Denver, Colo. this weekend, the teammates audibly encouraged each other. After performing, each member would endearingly introduce the next teammate. They joked about each other’s height after having to adjust the mic stand every time they switched. The whole group erupted with support when junior Sierra Lister prefaced a poem about cancer with the announcement that she, as of the day before, was now free of the disease.
“I think our group dynamic is really strong because we’re all such diverse writers and performers,” sophomore Kieran Collier said.
The five members that make up the CUPSI team were chosen after participating in various slams throughout the fall semester. Twelve poets participated in the qualifier before winter break, at which the five members were chosen to attend the CUPSI 2014. The group left yesterday for the event, which will take place until March 15 at the University of Colorado–Boulder. Typically about 1,200 people participate in the conference, according to the organization.
According to Collier, the members will attend workshops on performing, writing, and organizing slams, they’ll hear well-known poets perform, and they might even take part in impromptu ciphers in which people rap or read, jumping in at any time. They will also compete for the title of CUPSI Champion, which involves making it through two rounds to get to the finals, he said.
Collier said that each member will bring at least three individual poems, along with his or her own personalized style and underlying drive behind attending the conference.
Dunleavy, a freshman theater studies major, said that she felt energized by the Emerson Poetry Project community when she joined. She said that she edited one piece from high school, and wrote two pieces while in the club. These three poems got her onto the team.
“By some stroke of luck, I got the fifth spot on the team for CUPSI, which was so awesome, I didn’t expect it at all,” she said. “It’s been a really cool experience because I feel like I’ve been learning a lot from people who are way better than me, and I’ve gotten to really shape my work and make it much better.”
Before leaving for the invitational, Dunleavy said that she was excited for the overwhelming scope of it all.
“As someone who’s relatively new to the medium,” she said, “I just want to be able to soak it all in and be a witness to the brave and emerging voices of a generation that is really often belittled as being self-absorbed and unintelligent.”
After forming strong bonds with poets from around the country at last year’s CUPSI at Barnard College, Collier said that he is looking forward reuniting with friends that he only gets to see once a year.
“It’s about meeting people I look up to, but also people who are my peers, and a lot of the time those two fields blend together,” the writing, literature, and publishing major said.
Collier, who describes his poetic style as energetic, narrative, and nostalgic, said that he qualified this year to compete with three poems, one about male privilege, one describing stargazing with his father, and one was a love poem about a bedroom. An individual poem that he is most excited about bringing to CUPSI, he said, has to do with means of personal expression. The poem is titled, “Poem Over Four Chords.”
“I used to want to pursue music as a career, but I couldn’t sing at all,” he said. “If you hear a song or a poem that you love, you try to make something better and you’re constantly taking in influence from all these other works.”
A freshman, Mendoza said that he got his start with poetry because he found the medium could combine his love for storytelling, and his desire to bring about positive change. After taking a poetry workshop this summer, he said he wrote a poem about gun violence that became the impetus for his involvement with the Emerson Poetry Project.
“I got a lot of positive feedback on it, and I felt very good about writing something I was passionate about and being able to present it firsthand to a live audience,” the visual and media arts major said.
Mendoza said that while his style was initially “slammy” and heavy, relying on performance, he has been working on keeping his political edge while employing a more poetic tone.
“I’ve sort of toned that down a little bit and have tried to be a bit more subtle with how I get my message across,” he said, “and to be more metaphoric and use other storytelling techniques to not have a message that sort of slaps the audience in the face.”
When defining her style, the junior writing, literature and publishing major offers the phrase, “post-humorous.”
“It’s supposed to be comic-tragic sensibility—that’s what I try to go for,” Trujillo said. “I try to make a joke out of being miserable.”
In her poem “The Pit,” which she performed on Monday night, Trujillo uses her job at an archeological dig site for children and an experience that takes place there to as a metaphor for letting yourself be rediscovered by love, again and again. She said she is most excited to perform this poem at CUPSI.
“It’s just a really fun piece,” she said. “It really clears a room, and people usually think it’s funny. And I just like talking about dinosaurs.”
This junior writing, literature and publishing major said she has been writing poetry for a long time, but it wasn’t until she joined Emerson Poetry Project that she began incorporating performance elements into her work.
“I think it’s good because I sort of stand out,” Lister said. “I think that it should sound great on the page, and also be a performable piece. Those are the most accessible poems, in my book.”
In the middle of the performance on Monday, Trujillo joked that they would stop with the sad poems and pick up the mood. But when Lister retook the stage, she retorted that Trujillo must have forgotten that Lister was on the team, referencing her tendency to address serious themes such as cancer, death, and innocence.
Looking ahead to the conference, Lister said she is interested in hearing from representatives of the poetry scene that hail from entirely different parts of the country.
“I know what the Boston slam scene sounds like, because we know people from Harvard and Northeastern and even UConn, but we don’t really hear a lot of people away from the Northeast,” she said. “It’ll be cool to hear a diversity of voices, and to just soak it all up.”