Ke'ili Deal performs at the Kinetic Poetics Project.
Ke’ili Deal performs at the Kinetic Poetics Project.
The crowd looks and listens on as poets express their inner feelings through words.
The crowd looks and listens on as poets express their inner feelings through words.
Photos by Daniela Ruiz.
Steven Domingo delivers a spoken-word performance. Photos by Daniela Ruiz

University prose is a craft riddled with guidelines, requirements and stylings of the “associated” variety. Those who master the rhetoric of academia do well to lecture, but poetry resides in materials that are often intangible to us.

Twice a month within the wooden frame of Cowell Fireside Lounge, a spoken scenery is rhythmically cultivated. Planted in the decade-old creative soil of UCSC’s Kinetic Poetics Project (KPP), the verse of the people springs from a grassroots organization — and it’s about as honest as the day is long.

“There are a lot of insecurities that we all have,” said Tariq El-gabalawy, a fourth-year linguistics major and one of KPP’s head organizers. “No one gets over them by bottling them up and burying them in the backyard. You have to talk about them and experience things with people. Poetry is an opportunity to do that.”

KPP is a student-run volunteer organization dedicated to sustaining the spoken word community by regularly holding poetry slams, workshops and an annual festival, all of which take place on campus. The slams feature local poets who often join the project’s volunteers in facilitating bi-monthly workshops for students to hone their lyrical word-smithing.

During the weekend of Feb. 4–6, KPP will be holding their 10th annual Kinetic Poetics Spoken Word Festival in the Porter/Kresge Dining Hall. Featured will be three Bay Area poet pros Sam Sax, Katelyn Lucas and UCSC alum David Perez, as well as performances from the Rainbow Theater and a student art gallery.

The two highest-scoring poets from every Kinetic Poetics slam qualify to compete in UCSC’s annual festival, thought to be the largest collegiate poetry festival in the nation.

“It’s so much different when you see it firsthand and you see someone acting out this piece of their life,” said Jacqueline Grohs, a second-year literature major and active poet in the KPP community. “[Poetry] is an alternate form of communication, a communal learning process. You’re not being lectured at — you feel like you’re a part of [someone’s] poem and a part of [someone’s] life.”

KPP slams, El-Gabalawy says, promote a sense of community across cultural boundaries by providing a creative means of self-expression, as well as a floor to discuss what would otherwise be taboo subjects in a university setting. From slam to slam, participants may wax poetic about misery and love one moment, only to strike the audience with unadulterated verses against gun violence and rape in the next — it is the volunteers, he said, that compose the rhythm.

“You have the hustle of the whole school week, and sometimes you just need to unwind and realize that life is more than these textbooks you’re looking at,” Grobs added. “When I come to this space, I feel like I can completely release everything that’s bothering me at the time, because I realize that life is so much bigger than me … it’s like tunnel vision — it’s overwhelming, but it’s beautiful.”

Next weekend’s festival will serve as the final competition this year to determine the top five KPP poets to advance on to the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), a national poetry competition involving upwards of 45 schools from across the nation. This year’s invitational will be held April 3–6 at Barnard College in New York, N.Y.

“[CUPSI] is a huge opportunity for students,” El-Gabalawy said. “There are so many big-name poets that came out of CUPSI and gained reputability … Santa Cruz has a reputation at CUPSI. They say we bring ‘the darkness’ because we typically talk about very serious issues that other teams don’t like to talk about.”

Jacqueline and Tariq are among KPP’s dedicated organizers that have made it possible for the organization to thrive for a decade as one of the most active slam communities in the nation — and the only one that put their CUPSI team together with a three-day festival.

“The competition is part of it, but mostly not why people come out here,” said Jaynik Bhukhan, fourth-year psychology and sociology double major and student poet with KPP. “The bigger picture would be to provide a space for people to be themselves, express themselves, verify and legitimize their experiences as people and provide alternative explanations to the dominant narrative.”

Apart from the slams every other Wednesday, KPP’s writing and performance-based workshops are an invaluable resource for a university organization. Because they are held either by organizers like Tariq or local poets with teaching experience, interested poets are welcome to plug in and speak out outside of classroom formalities.

“In a lot of ways, KPP is an outlet for people,” El-Gabalawy said. “It’s known on campus that you can come to this space and talk about whatever the fuck you want for three minutes, you know?”

The workshops are considered vital to the organization and the university at large, as they promote alternative dialogues to the dominant paradigms in academia and the American frame of mind.

“As much as university campuses like to rep themselves as forward-thinking or offering alternative perspectives, the UC is still very much part of the dominant culture,” El-Gabalawy said. “People feel excluded and silenced by the institution that they’re receiving their education from, and they use KPP as an outlet to express and learn about those things that they otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to.”