The College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) finals ended in a draw at the UIC Forum after poets and community members held a silent protest during Poetry Slam founder Marc Kelly Smith’s opening performance. Smith’s performance was cut short when members of the CUPSI community formed a human wall with their backs to the stage, holding their arms in an X across their chests. Chicago is renowned for being the birthplace of Slam Poetry and home to Louder Than A Bomb, the world’s largest youth poetry festival. Marc Smith invented the Poetry Slam to get poetry out of the academy and integrated into the lives of every day people. The competitive format has allowed spoken word poetry to flourish and reach new audiences the world over. At first glance, it seems fitting that he would perform at CUPSI finals in 2017. Suffice it to say: it was not a good fit.
There is a saying in youth poetry slam that rests at the core of every good coaches’ pedagogy. “The point is not the points! The point is the poetry!” The same is true for CUPSI; the competition is only a means to push performers to deliver their best work. The event opened with “The Best of the Rest” showcase to provide platforms for outstanding performers whose scores didn’t land them in the finals. Individual poets (Jonathan Mendoza of the Berklee College of Music and Emily Dial of Stanford University) graced the stage with teams from Brown University and Barnard College in what proved to be an awe-inspiring kick-off to the event. This work was unflinching and brave. It enticed me to believe that history perhaps wasn’t only written by the victors, that maybe history was written by the survivors. The same can be said for the ensemble poems that came after from Tufts University, Brown University, University of Birmingham, and Barnard College. By the end of the first showcase, I found myself fantasizing about what the rest of the night would entail.
By the time Marc Smith took the stage, the feeling in the UIC Forum was lit. Smith’s first poem went over tenuously. It was a narrative poem about the time he drove a drunk, self-righteous poet home after a poetry slam. During his next few pieces, the energy in the room shifted dramatically. The rest of his set consisted of three poems: Speaksters, Old White Guy Whitey, and Detention Center. Marc Smith has posted all three pieces in the poems section of his website under the heading “The poems that got me silenced at the National College Slam.”
Speaksters opens up with this stanza, setting up a critique which would be carried out through the rest of the poem.
“All rise and bow and kneel/ Another Spokesman of Mass Appeal/ Has hopped atop the concert stage/ To open up his Holy Rage”
A few stanzas in, the audience started to collectively stir, with some people standing up to leave the performance hall altogether. The promise of critique was delivered in the following lines.
“Hey, how is it that you got time/To be in the spotlight spinnin’/ Groove after groove of poor me/ When most folks I know/ Who ain’t got time for what they need
“Drag their dumb souls along daily/ In drab little circles of no time getting’ nowhere/ Not one minute/ For capital A Art”
Poetry Slam History
It’s prudent for us to pause for a moment to take inventory of the cultural history and context to understand what happened next. Poetry Slam is a context in which political poems are highly valued and are often met with the highest scores. You may go to a poetry slam and out of 10 poems, hear 5 poems about Black death, 4 poems about rape, and only one poem that makes you laugh. Within Poetry Slam circles, various manifestations of this debate have surfaced over the years. Are poets only writing about trauma to score points, and if so, does that take something away from the craft? When we start asking that question, we begin to lose sight of the fact that the poets’ stories are true and their trauma is real. When we consider the larger context in which these poems are being written, we must acknowledge how rarely the experiences of our most vulnerable populations are treated with dignity. The isms and traumas endured by people identifying as women, POC, LGBTQ+, or differently abled, are so relentless that it has become necessary for communities to create spaces in which to heal, so that we may go back into the world to endure the inevitable with the strength required to thrive while experiencing systemic oppression. The Poetry Slam community (not on all days, but on good days) has evolved to become one such space. The poems give voice to stories that would otherwise not be told. Upon hearing that hypothetical fourth rape poem in the hypothetical slam I posed above, I would hope the epiphany is not that we have too many rape poems, but that we have too many rapists. The number of Slam poems penned about racism, sexism and the like pale in comparison to the seemingly infinite occurrences that inspire them.
There is nothing to suggest that the excerpts I have included from Marc Smith’s poem were intended to specifically target the voices in the room, and nobody outside of himself can claim to know when he penned the piece or who he had in mind at the time. Even still, art does not exist in a vacuum and neither does White privilege. It is not my purpose in writing this article to review Smith’s performance, merely to give adequate context of the events I witnessed unfold. I encourage anyone reading this article to also read Smith’s poems as referenced above, and continue the dialog as they deem fit.
Meanwhile, back on the stage at CUPSI, Smith was not even half way through Speaksters when a steady stream of audience members started filing out of the room in silent protest. By the time Smith finished the last stanza of Old White Guy Whitey which ended,
“Old white guy whitey/ A sugar cube in someone’s joke/Responsible for a mountain of dark deeds/ Different, I guess, from all the other colors”
Almost a third of the seats were vacant, with a steady flow of audience members leaving the auditorium to join the people congregating outside. Smith had not missed a beat, and at this point he had yet to acknowledge the uncomfortably blatant exodus of the audience members. By the time he got to his third piece, poets started filing into the room to form a line in front of the stage with their backs to Smith, holding their arms to form X’s across their chests. At this point, Smith stopped his performance and addressed the audience directly, “Oh this is great, are you done yet?” To which the protesters responded vocally, ending the silent protest. Frustrated, Smith walked off the stage.
In an organized and astoundingly swift fashion, the event was temporarily shut down while the finals teams and ACUI staff discussed how best to proceed backstage. Outside of the back room, in a moment of DJ genius, Chance The Rapper’s “You Don’t Want No Problems” started blaring from the speakers. The crowd of hundreds who had been previously agitated and uncertain just moments before instantaneously erupted into song. The dance party that ensued would continue for 4 songs before representatives from the impromptu backstage committee would reclaim the mic and usher in a verdict.
Justice Gaines, co-coach of the team from Brown University, replaced Chicago Slamworks’ JW Basilo as the host of the event. The finalist teams from Penn State, Montclair State, NYU, and Temple University decided to share the title, declaring that no poems would be scored on stage that night. The following awards were presented to standout teams and individuals, selected by the coaches themselves.
Spirit of the Slam
Best Writing By a Team
Pushing the Art Forward
JonJon – Tufts University
Nayo Alexandria-Jones – Temple University
George Abraham – Swarthmore College
“Bulletproof” – Barnard College
“Zumbi” – JonJon, Tufts University
“Confessions on Gratitude” – Jonathan Mendoza, Berklee College of Music
Best Persona Piece
“Zumbi” – JonJon, Tufts University
The Gutbuster Funny Poem
“Ankh Nigga” – Oberlin College
Best Love Poem
“Healing” – Nayo Alexandria-Jones, Temple University
Chrysanthemum Tran, Brown University
Kim Pho, ACUI
Paul Tran, Barnard College
HEAD TO HEAD HAIKU WINNER
Daniel Garcia, University of North Texas
NERD SLAM WINNER
Jared Green, Brooklyn College